Sky Blue and Black
And the soul of the friend begins,
There's a need to be separate
And a need to be one,
And a struggle neither wins.
Where you gave me the world I was in
And a place to make a stand,
I could never see how you doubted me
When I'd let go of your hand.
Yeah, and I was much younger then,
And I must have thought that I would know
If things were going to end.
-from "Sky Blue and Black" by Jackson Browne
When Brenna opened her eyes she had no idea where she was. The room was one she had never seen before. It was small, but cozy rather than cramped, and the bed she was lying in had a cheery blue quilt. White lace curtains adorned the windows, and a rocking chair sat before the fireplace. A young man was sitting in the chair, whittling something with a huge knife.
"Buck?" she murmured through a mouth that felt like it was coated with wool.
He jumped up from the chair as though he had just been shot. "Brenna! You're awake. Jimmy was in here all night, but he just stepped out for a minute, and he asked me to--"
"Whoa, Buck, slow down. I'm too tired to absorb so much so quickly. What happened?" She moved to sit up, but he was faster.
"No you don't," he said, pressing down gently against her good shoulder. "It looks like you were shot. Nothing bad, just a flesh wound, but you lost a lot of blood. We were all kinda hopin' you could fill us in on the details."
She grimaced but said nothing, instead concentrating on the wound in her arm. It hurt like the blazes, that much was for certain. "Dandelion... comfrey... mugwort," she said softly, gently probing the wound with the other hand. "Where's my stuff? The saddlebags?"
"Over here," he said, gesturing to one corner of the room. "What do you need?"
"In the big bag there are some packets... they're all labeled. Get dandelion, comfrey, mugwort and the willow bark. Make the first three into a paste, and then make the willow into tea."
He found the ingredients she requested and set to work. "So what do these do?" he wanted to know.
"Ahh... the dandelion will keep the wound from going bad, the comfrey will help heal it, the mugwort will numb it some, and the tea will help with the pain. If my brain hadn't been so frizzled last night, I would've been able to tell you about the nettle powder. Anytime someone's bleeding, throw a little nettle powder on it and the flow will stop."
"You learned much with the Lakota," he said softly, carefully applying the herbal mixture to her wound.
"I did. They were generous with their knowledge." She watched him work, the concentration and care in his dark eyes, and where his hands touched her skin she felt the heat of him, a spiritual and physical warmth that transferred itself into her. Suddenly uncomfortable, she grabbed the bandage from him. "I can handle it from here. Thanks."
He stepped back, wondering if he'd hurt her. He was no healer, after all... but still... it seemed that his presence made her ill at ease. He remembered last night, how frightened they'd all been when she'd suddenly shown up again, bleeding and incoherent. Most of all he remembered the look in Jimmy's eyes, something he'd never seen before, something deeper and stronger than fear. "I should go get Jimmy," he said, realizing how much his friend cared for this girl; it was like a punch in the guts, and he didn't really understand why.
Just then the door opened and Jimmy entered as though summoned by Buck's words. "Ellie, you're awake. Why didn't you come get me, Buck?"
"It's all right, Jamey, he was about to. I set him to work." She pulled herself up into a sitting position, and a sudden wave of dizziness hit her. "Ugh... one would think I'd never been shot before. I feel like hell."
"Yeah, well, you sure did a good job of scarin' us all half to death. What happened out there?"
Buck handed her the willow bark tea and she stared down into it as though the pale liquid held all the secrets of the universe. "I... it's a long story, Jimmy. Look, as soon as I'm feeling better I'll be on my way, and none of you'll be the worse for it." She took a sip and grimaced at the bitter taste.
Startled by her use of his name and her refusal to answer, he shared a concerned glance with the half-Kiowa. "I'll leave you two alone," the latter said, returning his knife to its holster and moving to the door.
"No, Buck, wait. Go get the others and come back here. This concerns all of you," she said abruptly, as though coming to a decision that she hadn't enjoyed making and was afraid she was going to change her mind at any moment. He nodded and left quickly.
"Lou and Cody are out on rides," Jimmy said after a moment.
"Good. They're two less people who'll be dragged into this mess." Silence reigned until Buck returned with the other riders, Teaspoon, and Emma.
"How're you feelin'?" the latter asked, approaching the younger woman with a kind smile.
"Better, thank you. I asked Buck to bring all of you here so that I could explain why I showed up on your doorstep last night with a bullet hole in me." She let out a long, deep sigh and looked up at the small group, her eyes suddenly bright with tears. "Have any of you ever heard of a man named Jeremiah Lapke?" They all shook their heads, and she continued after another sip of tea. "He's a gambler down in Texas, one of those guys who's made a livin' outta cheatin' people in poker."
Jimmy smiled ruefully: you always knew when Ellie was upset by the way she talked. When she got angry, every "g" disappeared and there was hint of Scottish brogue taken from her father. "What does he have to do with you? Did you beat him or somethin'? I never knew you played poker."
"I dona... but my brother does." She shook her head, and a tear left a shiny trail down her cheek. "I'mna sayin' that Frankie has a gamblin' problem or anythin', but he does like his cards. And he's so young, only sixteen! Jeremiah took one look at 'im and saw easy prey. You can imagine how angry he was when my rascal baby brother beat 'im at his own game."
"How did you meet this Jeremiah Lapke? I thought you hadn't had any contact with your family since you left home."
She took another sip of tea in an attempt to find calm. "I got a letter from Frankie not long ago. He thought I should know what had happened because I crossed paths with Jeremiah years ago, right after I left home. Before I met you, Jamey." Their eyes locked, and he found himself wondering why she hadn't mentioned this man before. "Anyway, Francis took off with Jeremiah's money, and since the only thing he had to go on was a last name, he came to the only other Mackenzie he knew -- me. This was two months ago, right before I left the Lakota for good."
"What happened?" Kid asked.
She shuddered at the memory. "He sent his son, Aiden, to find me. I was traveling with two boys from the village... they were so young, younger even than Frankie. We were asleep when Aiden found us, and in his childish petulance he killed the Lakota boys. I woke up just as he slit the second one's throat."
A stunned silence fell, and Emma squeezed her hand comfortingly. Brenna looked carefully at each face, noting the reactions: Emma, saddened by the deaths of those so young; Buck, outraged by a crime committed just for the hell of it; Ike, upset by her distress more than the tale she told; Jimmy, angrily anticipating what he thought was going to come next; the Kid, pale-faced and shaken; and Teaspoon, calm on the surface, but with flashing, angry eyes. Surely they would understand... surely they would see...
"He was standing there above Little Hawk, holding this knife red with blood, and he had this... smile on his face, this leer. It's like I became a different person when I saw what he had done. I took up my own knife and I killed him the way he had killed Little Hawk and Lone Bear." She bit her lower lip and continued more softly, "Then I went back to his camp and killed his two men. Apparently they had been collecting other debts owed Jeremiah, because they had quite a lot of money with them. I took it and offered it to the Lakota, but they refused, saying it was mine by right." She stopped talking then, almost abruptly, and finished the last of her tea, long since grown cold.
"So that's how you were able to afford the saddle," Jimmy said at last.
"Yes. Now you see why I couldn't tell you." He said nothing. "Anyway, last night after I left here, I ran into Jeremiah's brother, Jonas, on the road. Jeremiah isn't interested in his money anymore: he just wants me dead. I hit Jonas in the hand with my knife and ran, but he had a gun hidden away somewhere, and he shot me as I was riding away. I shouldn't have come back here, but I didn't know where else to go. I'm sorry... I never meant for this to happen."
"It's all right, Brenna, you did what you had to do," Emma said softly.
"No," she replied. "I didn't have to kill Aiden, and I most certainly didn't have to kill his men. By doing that I'm no better than he is... and yet... I don't think I would change anything if I had it to do over. They were killers, mindless thugs hired for their ruthlessness; Little Hawk and Lone Bear were children, good, kind boys. As much as it sickens me to admit it, I don't regret what I did."
"Do you have any idea where your brother is?" Kid asked after a moment.
"No, I don't... my only hope is that Jeremiah doesn't either. The thing that gets me about all of this is that Frank won that game fair and square; this all started because of one man's bruised pride."
"Pride can be a powerful thing, especially in men like this Jeremiah Lapke," Teaspoon said with a frown. "Now the question is what're we gonna do about all a this?"
"What do you mean? Listen, I'm not asking for help. Like I told Jamey, I'll be leaving as soon as I'm feeling better. It'll take Jonas a while to get word back to his brother that I'm here, but I need as much of a head start as I can get."
"You're not goin' anywhere, Ellie," Jimmy said firmly.
"Excuse me? Last time I checked this was a free country, and Kansas was a free territory within said country. I can leave anytime I want!"
"What Jimmy means is that we're willin' to help. We wouldn't feel right sendin' you back out against Lapke and his crew all alone," Kid spoke up.
"And you need to find Francis," Buck said quietly. "It would be safer for both of you if you stuck together."
"He could be anywhere!" she said mournfully.
"Well you're in luck: these boys go everywhere!" Teaspoon said, smiling as only he can.
"I shouldn't be gettin' y'all involved in this."
"We're all ready involved, Brenna," Emma said gently. "Don't you worry about it. We're close friends with the Marshall in town, and he'll see to it that this Jeremiah Lapke is found and taken care of."
"That's a very nice idea, Emma, but I'm afraid Jeremiah has connections that go much higher than one town Marshall. He has friends in the highest places -- that's part of what makes him so dangerous."
Jimmy smiled. "We're pretty dangerous ourselves, Ellie; I guess he wouldn't be countin' on that, would he?"
Jonas Lapke let out a bitter curse as the Doc poured whiskey across the wound in his hand. "Now don't talk back to me, boy. Your brother'd have my skin if you died from this little scratch."
"Little scratch! It went all the way through my hand, you old coot!" He pushed the man away roughly and grabbed the bottle from him. "Get away from me! I can handle this myself!"
"I see you found the girl," a voice said from the doorway. The old man jumped up and scrambled from the room, scared half to death by the sudden appearance of his employer.
"Yeah, I found her. The stupid bitch threw a knife through my hand!" Jonas told his brother angrily, taking a long swig of liquor.
"And that's an excuse for returning without her?" Jeremiah asked, entering the room and snatching the bottle of whiskey away from Jonas. He poured some into a cut crystal glass and sat down across from his brother. "Well? She's not here, is she? Hiding somewhere?"
Suddenly humbled by those piercing blue eyes, Jonas lowered his head. "No, Jeremiah, she got away... but I think I may've shot her."
"You think?" he said icily, pouring another glass for himself.
"It was dark, and my hand hurt!" he nearly whined.
Jeremiah let out a long-suffering sigh. "I told you not to return unless you had the girl with you, Jonas. Why are you here?"
He held up his hand, and Jeremiah peered through the hole with a mild expression. "She has very good aim, our little Miss Mackenzie. Too bad she didn't take it into her head to aim at your heart!" he hissed, standing up from the table and striding to the door. "Go back to Sweetwater, Jonas, and if you come back without Brenna Mackenzie -- alive -- I will see to it that you end up with more than just a hole in your hand. Do you understand me!"
Not doubting his brother's word for an instant, Jonas nodded quickly. "I understand, Jeremiah. I'll bring her back, I promise."
He laughed then, his good humor restored. "Good! I'm sure you will. Good night, Jonas -- I'll send the doctor back in to take a closer look at that hand."
"You seem to be feelin' better," Jimmy said to Brenna upon finding her in the barn the next morning. She was grooming Luna with her good hand, and the little silver mare was making hideous faces of ecstasy. If it was one thing the spoiled Arabian loved even more than food, it was being fussed over.
"Yeah, I'm fine," she replied. The arm that had been shot was bandaged and in a sling, much to her eternal frustration and annoyance. "I should be on my way sometime tomorrow or the next day."
"I thought we discussed this!" Jimmy replied, irritation making his voice sound gruffer than he intended.
"We did. I never said I'd reached the decision you wanted me to reach. Besides, I'd just feel better if I was out there lookin' for Frank myself." She didn't glance away from the shining hide of her horse through this entire little speech, and indeed hadn't looked at him once since he entered the barn.
"Damn it, Ellie, why you gotta be so stubborn all the time? We're just tryin' to look out for you 'cause we care! Why the hell won't you let nobody care about you?" he said, grabbing her good arm and turning her to face him, his frustration reaching the boiling point.
Startled, she dropped the brush, and Diana promptly came over to investigate it. "Of course I let you care about me, Jamey! What choice do I have? They're your feelings... but what you don't seem to understand is carin' doesn't necessarily include puttin' yourself in danger for the one you care about. Because I care so much about you, I have to go. Because I care so much about my little brother, I have to go. Why can't you just understand that!" she demanded, her own temper flaring to match his. "Why can't you just have faith in me, James!"
"It ain't that I don't got faith in you, Ellie!" He turned away angrily, trying to regain control. "I got plenty of faith in you. I know you can take care of yourself," he said, calmer now, "but the idea of you gettin' hurt makes me feel all... sick inside. When you went away, all I did was worry that you were out there gettin' in trouble, and me so far away that I couldn't do nothin'."
She knelt down to retrieve the brush and the little wolf licked her face joyfully. Brenna sighed, scratched Diana behind her ears and moved up behind Jimmy, resting her chin on his shoulder, her arm around his waist. "I'm sorry, James... I didn't know you felt that way." She turned him around to face her and smiled softly. "But you gotta understand that that's how I feel about you, too. If I let you and your friends go against Jeremiah, I'll be puttin' you in a situation that could very easily get you killed. I don't want that responsibility."
"So what are you gonna do, Ellie? Keep runnin' from him your whole life? That's no answer and you know it!" He pulled her close and tucked her head beneath his chin. "You just gotta let me be there for you, Ellie, because you need me."
It was the exact wrong thing to say. She pulled away abruptly. "No, James, I don't need you. I don't need anyone. If I have to be on the run for the rest of my life, then so be it, but men like Jeremiah Lapke bore easily. Eventually he'll forget Frank, and he'll forget me, and we'll both be fine."
"You killed his son, El! He ain't gonna forget that." He reached for her again, desperate to make her see, but she dodged his grasp.
"What happened to you, Jamey? You used to understand me, you used to understand the importance of bein' able to stand on your own!"
"There's standin' on your own and there's bein' stupid. This is just stupid, Llewellyn! You ain't bein' generous, you're bein' selfish! Askin' for help ain't the same thing as bein' weak. Bein' here, workin' for the Pony Express, I've learned that it's all right to let someone help you. Jeremiah Lapke is a killer, but if he gets his hands on you, he'll probly do somethin' a helluva lot worse!"
"I'm not afraid of Jeremiah!" she cried, her eyes wild and dark. Upset by the tension in the air, Diana pressed herself up against Brenna's legs and whimpered pitifully.
"You're lyin' to yourself if you believe that! And if you ain't afraid for yourself, then be afraid for Frank. He's just a kid, Ellie, and if you don't find him he'll end up dead. Do you really wanna take the chance of tryin' to find him yourself?"
"That's enough! The subject is closed, James." She stormed out of the barn, Diana following worriedly behind.
"Wow," Kid said, emerging from a stall near the back.
"Go away, Kid," Jimmy said threateningly.
"Relax, Jimmy; you all right?" He approached warily, peeking up at his friend from beneath the brim of his hat.
"Yeah, I'm fine," he said, kicking at a rock and startling the normally docile Luna. He let out a long sigh and stroked her silver cheek to calm her. "She's just so damn stubborn. We're only tryin' to help her."
"I know that, you know that, but she just thinks you're holdin' her back. She's a tough girl, Jimmy, and she ain't gonna accept help easily. You can't just force her to do what you want; she's gonna do the exact opposite if you try."
"I just wish I didn't care so damn much," he said resentfully.
Kid grinned. "Yeah," he said, thinking of Lou, "I know exactly what you mean."
Angry that she had left Luna behind, Brenna ran as far as she could before her strength finally failed her. She collapsed beneath a weeping willow tree growing next to a small creek. Taking up a handful of pebbles from the bank, she began tossing them into the water. "Damn bull-headed fool!" she muttered furiously. Who did he think he was, ordering her around like she was his slave?
Suddenly she heard something behind her, a soft noise like a boot sliding against loose stones. She pulled one of the knives from her belt and continued tossing rocks. She felt the presence coming closer, and she jumped up and tackled him, holding the knife to his throat. "Buck!" she gasped. "Why didn't you say something? I could've killed you!"
He grabbed her wrist and gently lowered the blade away from his neck. "I, uh, didn't want to bother you. When I saw you here, I thought somethin' might be wrong, so I came over... but you were pretty mad, so I figured I should just let you be for a little bit."
"You were spying on me?" she hissed. "Why would you do such a thing?"
"Hey, calm down... I was about to leave when you tried to kill me."
She shook her head wryly and sat up, returning the weapon to its place at her side. "Sorry about that, but how was I to know you weren't Jonas Lapke?"
He flashed her an intriguing little half-smile and brushed his clothes off as he sat up next to her. "It's good to be prepared," he agreed. "I'm just glad I'm not Jonas."
"Yeah, me too," she replied, tucking a lock of hair that had fallen loose back behind her ear. "Hurt the hell outta my arm if it makes you feel any better," she offered with a grin.
"Maybe a little." There was a pause as he tried to decide how to broach the subject. "So... what's on your mind?" he asked at last, idly tossing pebbles into the rushing stream as she had been doing moments ago.
With a frown she undid her hair and began to rebraid it. "It's that stupid James Butler Hickok," she said after a moment. "He thinks that his word is law. He wants me to stay because he thinks I can't take care of myself, and he's under the delusion that if just tells me to do somethin', I'll not only do it, but I'll thank him for taking the time out of his busy schedule to notice me. He's such a... such a..."
"'Bull-headed fool?'" he quoted with a grin.
"Exactly!" she cried, tying off the end of the braid with a leather thong. Diana was busy chasing each small stone as it flew into the creek, but at her mistress' outburst, she returned and showered them with water as she shook out her fur. "Diana! No! Oh, bad wolf!" she exclaimed, jumping away from the spray.
Buck laughed and leaned back out of range. "Now that makes me feel better!"
"Get him, Diana," she said with a wicked grin. The little wolf let out a delighted yowl and tackled him to the ground, licking his face ecstatically. Brenna giggled as Buck tried to fend off the soaked animal. "All right, all right, back, mni sung'manitu tanka," she said at last, taking pity on him. With a wolfy grin, she gave Buck one last lick across the cheek before taking off after a butterfly.
Buck was still sprawled out on his back when Brenna sat down next to him, laughing. "That was refreshing. What did you call her?" he said at last, sitting up and retrieving his hat.
"'Water wolf;' it's a variation on what the Lakota called her."
"Where'd you find her anyway?" he asked, watching the wolf frolic in the creek.
"Not long after I left home I found her in a cave. Her mother and littermates were dead, but she was still alive, starving and whimpering louder than anything I'd ever heard. She was the runt of the litter, but I took care of her, fed her and all that, and now she's my baby."
"I've never seen a wolf with blue eyes."
"Yeah, I know. An old Cherokee shaman told me she'd been blessed by Father Sky - that's why she survived despite her small size, and why she has eyes like the sky at noon. So I named her Diana, after the goddess of the moon and nature in Roman mythology."
"What are you running from, Brenna?" he asked after a long, quiet moment. "I don't just mean Jeremiah Lapke. Why'd you leave home? What's got you so spooked that you can't stay in one place more than a few months?"
His question startled her, and she stood quickly, shrugging, and then wincing in pain. "It's kind of a boring story, nothing real interesting. What about you, Buck? What brings you to the Pony Express? I can tell you and Ike are really close; what brought you together?"
So that's the way it was going to be. All right, Buck could play that game. "I'm a half-breed," he said bluntly. "My mother was raped by a white man, and I was raised by her Kiowa family. When I got older, I left the tribe to learn about my white heritage, and I met Ike. We were both outcasts, him because he can't talk, me because I'm a half-breed. Here with the Pony Express, though, that don't matter so much. We're all outcasts."
She knelt down in front of him, touched by the pain hidden within his blunt, forceful words. "I'm a half-breed, too," she said quietly. At his skeptical look, she said, "No, really! My father is Scottish and my mother is Spanish. When my Spanish grandfather found out my mother married my father, he disowned her. He was furious, and said he'd never have anything to do with her or her half-breed whelps." She laughed. "Those were his exact words! Well, in Spanish, but the sentiment was the same."
"Wow, I can’t believe he would treat his own daughter like that. How did your parents meet?"
She smiled and moved to sit beside him. "It's really a romantic story. My father was the second son of a Scottish nobleman. The Mackenzie family is an extremely old, distinguished one in Scotland, but when my father was a boy the English took everything my grandfather had. Of course, as second son my father would've been slated to join the priesthood or something anyway, but once the family lost everything, he decided to seek his fortune on the Continent."
"This sounds like something from one of those books Lou hides under her mattress," Buck interrupted with a teasing grin.
Brenna laughed. "I could write it down one day and make tons of money. But hush, if you want to hear. Anyway, he found himself in Spain, working for an extremely wealthy merchant - my other grandfather, as it turned out.
"Eventually, of course, he saw my mother, and fell instantly in love with her. She's very beautiful, my mother. She thought my father was beneath her, which is silly, since her father was a merchant and his father was a nobleman, but he was, after all, Scottish, and the Spanish have a very low opinion of the Scots. He won her over, though, but they knew her father would never approve, so they ran off to America and eloped!"
He whistled. "That's quite a tale."
"Mmmm," she agreed softly, her eyes far away. "Yes, which is why...I couldn't understand my father's attitude much of the time. He was constantly telling us tales of the English, and how they held the Scots under their heels and they took everything my grandfather had and on and on and on, and yet..."
"And yet...?" Buck prompted, sensing he was getting to the meat of the issue.
"And yet my father kept slaves," she said at last, turning her gaze to his. "I didn't understand! I still don't! How could he justify it? How could he be such a hypocrite? Isn't that what he said the English did to the Scots? So why is it all right for him to do it? We fought constantly, huge wars, really, and finally I did something...unforgivable in his mind." He waited her out, letting her collect her thoughts, and at last she continued. "We had a slave, a beautiful young woman whom I had befriended, and she fell in love with one of our field hands. Fa knew that could be trouble, so he sold the field hand to someone several counties over. She was pregnant with his child, Buck, and she would probably never see him again! I was...horrified."
"What did you do?" he asked.
"At first I helped them see each other, arranged meetings between them. But I knew that was only temporary, and just too dangerous. They could get caught at any time. Finally, I helped them escape. Her baby had been born at that time, and the penalty for stealing three slaves could be as severe as death - that's what they would've considered it, stealing," she said bitterly, "but I didn't care. They were a family, and I had to help them.
"They got caught. I don't know what happened. One of the legs of the escape route just didn't work properly and they got caught. The owner tortured - that's really the only word for it - the man until he admitted I was the one who had helped them escape. Because I was the young daughter of a prominent landowner, my father was the one punished with a severe fine. He sold the woman and her baby out of state. I ran away the next day."
"So that's why you keep running," he said quietly, reaching out to brush a stray lock of hair off her forehead, a tender, intimate gesture that surprised her and brought a tinge of color to her cheeks.
"Yeah, essentially," she managed, collecting herself. "I don't know what he'd do if he found me. All I know is I can't go home yet. I guess it's cowardly to run, but for now...I don't feel like I have a choice. My father was so incredibly angry with me. I'd not only done something very illegal, but I'd also undermined his pride by making it look like he couldn't control his own daughter. I'd made him look like a fool before the men of three counties."
He nodded quietly, turning the subject of Brenna Mackenzie and James Hickok over and over in his brain. "He only did it because he cares. He's not like your father," he said after a moment.
"What?" she asked, completely confused.
"Jimmy. He just doesn't want you to get hurt, and he doesn't know how to talk to you about it."
"So he orders me around," she agreed with a frown. "Yeah, I know... it just riles me. He knows how I am, yet he still treats me like I'm intimidated by him or something." She rolled her eyes and tossed a stick for Diana. "I'm not staying. Why can't he just understand that?"
"Because he's changed since you last knew him. A year ago, he'd be helpin' you pack, but now he realizes how important it is to have people you can count on. We've all changed that way, I guess."
"It's not that I don't understand where he's comin' from, it's just that I don't want to put y'all in danger that way. It isn't fair of me to ask complete strangers to do something like this."
"You're not askin', Brenna; we're volunteering. You need help and we're offerin' it."
"But that's just it! I don't need help."
He smiled and ran a hand through his hair. "You really believe that?"
She let out a long sigh and stared down at her hands as she fiddled with a willow vine. "No, I guess not... so you think I should stay?"
"It's an idea," he said with an idle shrug.
"Why do I feel like I'm bein' manipulated?" she asked good-naturedly.
He grinned. "Is it workin'?"
She shook her head wonderingly. "Yeah," she said at last, "I guess it is."