If you ever need holding,
Call my name;
I'll be there.
If you ever need holding,
No holding back,
I'll see you through,
Sky blue and black.
-from "Sky Blue and Black" by Jackson Browne
It had been decided that Jimmy and Brenna should go on to Emma's ahead of the others, so now they found themselves riding in a deep, comfortable silence. The sun had set, and the sky was the dark, glowing blue that often comes just before night settles itself in for good. The Evening Star hung bright in the sky, and Brenna watched it as they rode, wondering how best to bring up a subject that was sure to send Jimmy's temper soaring.
"So I guess you're famous now," he said suddenly, startling her out of her thoughts.
"What? Oh, that...yeah, I guess I am. Strange, isn't it? Being famous, I mean. Sometimes being a legend can be quite a burden," she said, her voice gently probing as she steered Luna around a snoozing lizard. The creature nearly got its tail stepped on when, in a panic, it bolted upright and skittered across the road, Diana chasing after the poor thing in ecstatic joy. "Diana, back," she said, not raising her voice, and the wolf returned to her side instantly.
Jimmy watched the two animals in amusement before turning his attention back to Brenna. He let out a long sigh, knowing exactly what she was getting at. "You've read the book, I take it."
She shrugged, not looking over at him. "I recognized your picture on the cover, and I wondered why in the hell you were calling yourself 'Wild Bill Hickok.' It wasn't long before I figured out that the writer had a rather wild imagination."
"How do you know it's not true?" he challenged, using that voice that told her was testing her. It was Jimmy's way of keeping everyone at bay: when someone started getting to him, he threw up the ol' "I'm-too-pissed-off-at-the-world-to-c
She moved her horse in front of his, horizontal across the road, in order to block his progress. "Look at me, Jamey."
"What?" he said in confusion as he sharply reined in his own horse to avoid hitting her.
"I said look at me. Really look at me, like the way you used to. I knew it was a bunch of lies because I know you. Twenty kills in eighteen years indeed! The judge taught you to use that lovely Navy Colt you carry, but you don't use it for him, and you don't use it to kill for the hell of it. No matter what you think of yourself, James, you're no killer, and don't let anyone convince you otherwise." With that, she tugged on the reins and sent Luna trotting down the road again.
Before long, Jimmy's golden horse was back alongside her silver one. "If I had wanted to be a hired gun, I would've stayed with him," he said softly.
"I know that. What made you decide to leave?"
"It wasn't long after you did. He...he had Brad and I face off. I couldn't shoot, but Brad did...luckily the judge had taken out all our bullets. I guess I realized that if I stayed, one of us was gonna have to kill the other. I didn't want that to happen, so I left."
"I'm glad you did. The thought of you still there, with that lunatic, it scared me. I wish you'd've just come with me."
"Yeah, I guess I probably shoulda. I might not've ended up killin' Brad if I had."
"What!? When did you kill Brad!?!" she cried. She hadn't been as close to Brad as she was to Jimmy, but she still considered him a good friend, and the news of his death was a shock.
He frowned deeply, the memory still fresh and painful. "The judge was on trial, and Clara had sent me the evidence that proved he was guilty. Brad found out I had it, and he called me out. I shot him." He said it slowly, but matter of factly, and she could sense how much it hurt.
"Oh," she finally breathed. "I'm sorry, Jamey."
"Me too." There was another silence, one of respect this time, until he said, "I took his Colt. I'd like to give it to you."
She looked over at him, surprised anew. "No, James, it should be yours," she insisted quickly.
"If he was gonna give the second one to someone, it shoulda been you, Ellie, and you know it. You're twice the shot Brad was. If it had been you and me in that standoff, I'd be the one dead now."
"Don't say that! Look, Jamey, you and I both know you should be the one to carry that gun. I have the one you gave me, and it's plenty good enough for me. Besides, why would I want anything from that nasty old man anyway? I hated him," she said with a vehemence that surprised him, though he supposed it shouldn't have.
"All right, point taken. I'll keep it safe, just in case you change your mind." She said nothing, and he decided to change the subject. "So, what's all this 'Brenna' stuff? I thought you went by 'Llewellyn.'"
Thankful for his tact, she smiled. "I used to, but I figured it would be more likely to throw Fa off my trail if suddenly no one knew who Llewellyn Mackenzie was. It's not much, I know, but I couldn't bear to come up with a completely different name. Besides, everyone always pronounces it wrong: Lou Ellen. Bluh." She wrinkled up her nose in disgust.
He didn't tell her that Cody had done just that until corrected. "Is he lookin' for ya? Your father, I mean."
"I don't know, but I don't want to take any chances. You know how my Fa can be."
He nodded, having heard the stories before, and gestured up ahead. "Well, looks like we're here. That's Emma's house over there, and that's the bunkhouse, and there's the barn," he said, gesturing to each small structure in turn. They rode into the yard and dismounted, and a young man came running from the barn to take their horses.
"Hey, Ike, I'd like you to meet an old friend of mine. Ellie, this is Ike McSwain, one of the other riders. Ike, Brenna Mackenzie. Ike don't talk besides Indian sign, but he can hear."
She smiled brightly. "It's nice to meet you, Ike. I'm fluent in Indian sign, so I don't think we'll have much trouble communicating."
He grinned back, but before he could reply, Diana was all over him, blue eyes bright and twinkling, her own smile stretching from ear to gray, pointy ear. Ike petted her, scratching behind her ears and along her back, and she stared up at him adoringly, tail twirling.
Brenna watched all this with amusement, eyebrows raised. "Well, Ike, you just gained a huge vote of confidence in my book: if Diana loves you that much all ready, then you can't be all bad," she said with a laugh.
"Hey, Jimmy!" a voice called from the porch of the bunkhouse. "Where's everyone else with the wagon?" The small figure jumped down and ran across the yard, stopping short at the sight of Brenna. "Who's that?"
"Relax, Lou, she's a friend of mine. Brenna, this is Lou McCloud. Lou, I'd like you to meet Brenna Mackenzie. She's stayin' for supper."
"Hi, Lou. The others sent us ahead, but they should be along soon," she said, wondering why this girl was taking such great pains to disguise herself as a boy. She supposed, on closer thought, that the company they all worked for wouldn't allow women to ride for them. Stupid. She and Luna were as good a team as any other she'd ever seen; Lou, despite her small stature, was probably just as good as any man.
"I'll just go tell Emma that we're havin' company," she said, her voice not losing that slightly defensive, suspicious tone.
Brenna watched her walk away with a slight frown. "Why do I get the feeling that she doesn't like me very much?" she asked with a glance over her shoulder at the two boys.
They shared an alarmed glance, and Jimmy said, "She? She who?"
"Why, Lou, of course." She glanced between the two and laughed. "Oh! Right. I just kinda figured it out. Don't worry; I won't mention it to her." They still wore incredibly shocked impressions, and something new and alarming suddenly occurred to her. "You did know, didn't you? I didn't just blow Lou's-"
"No, we knew," Jimmy interrupted quickly. "You just caught us off guard is all. Most people don't know she's a girl...hell, we didn't know for a couple a months. Just don't say anything around Teaspoon. He doesn't know, and Lou might get fired if he found out."
"Oh, naturally not. My lips are sealed," she said cheerily. "Just one more thing. Um...who's Teaspoon?"
"Hey," he defended hotly, "that wasn't my fault! Brad's the one who built the raft!"
"Yeah, but you're the one who decided it was sturdy enough to jump up and down on!" she shot back teasingly.
"Rafts aren't made for jumping, Jimmy," Buck said earnestly, the mischievous twinkle in his eyes the only indication that he was joking.
"That's what I said, but he wouldn't listen!"
"The ever-stubborn James Hickok," Emma said fondly, "painfully afflicted with more pride than sense." All but the brooding subject of the jibe laughed, and before long even Jimmy joined in, albeit half-heartedly.
"Well, I think we've all had enough fun at Jamey's expense for one evening. I should be goin'," Brenna said, standing up with a stretch. "Thank you for a lovely supper, Emma."
"It's late, Brenna," Teaspoon drawled, "you probly shouldn't be settin' out now. Wait till mornin' at least."
"Mr. Spoon's right. You can stay with me if you like," Emma offered.
"This ain't the safest place to be ridin' at night, especially alone," Kid agreed, earning himself a rather uncharitable glare from Lou.
She glanced around at the group of concerned faces with a frown. "Oh no, I couldn't impose on your hospitality any further. Thank you for the offer, but we've got a lot of ground to cover and not much time to do it in."
"It's no imposition, but if you're sure..." Emma said, allowing her voice to trail off in an unspoken question.
"I am. But thank you again. Gentlemen, Emma, it was nice to meet all of you. Hopefully we'll see each other again."
"Iyuskinyan wancinyankelo, Wapka Wi," Buck said, delighting her with his use of the Lakota language.
She smiled softly. "Pilamaya. Wakantanka nici un, Tahca."
He grinned a little sheepishly. "Well, we've just covered all I know of Lakota."
"Hey, don't feel bad," Cody told him, "you left me in the dust at 'i-u-skin.'"
They all laughed. "Good night, everyone," Brenna said. With that and a wave, she retrieved her weapons, coat and hat and ducked out the door.
Jimmy frowned after her, worrying that she was using her stubborn independence as a shield for something deeper. "I'll just go see her off," he said, jumping up from the table and following her across the yard and into the barn.
"You aren't gonna start in on me about leaving, are you?" she asked, leading Luna out of the stall Ike had put her in earlier.
"Nah, you're too damn stubborn to listen to me anyway," he replied, fetching the new saddle for her. "That's pretty nice. Cody was damn broken-hearted when he found out you'd already bought it."
"Yeah," she said absently, replacing the lead rope with a bridle and carefully avoiding his gaze.
Sensing something he couldn't quite name, Jimmy decided to press the issue. "It was too expensive anyway. Buck was teasin' him, sayin' he wouldn't be able to afford it until he was eighty."
"Uh huh." She knew what he was getting at, but there was no way in hell she was going to tell him where she'd gotten the money. It wasn't his business anyway.
"Llewellyn, what're you really doin' in Sweetwater?"
"What?" she asked, surprised by the sudden question.
"There's somethin' goin' on with you. If you've read that book, you knew I lived here. Do ya really think I believe that this is just coincidence?" He moved closer to her, and the intense look in his dark eyes made her fall back.
"There's nothing, Jamey. I just thought...I just hadn't seen you in so long, and Sweetwater was on the way, so I decided to stop in and say hey." There was something desperate in her voice, something small and frightened that he had never heard before. What the hell was going on with her? Why wouldn't she just tell him?
"I think you should stay here for a few days, Ellie. How long've you been on the road?"
She shrugged, turning back to the horse. "A month. Two. I don't know. Why does it matter? I'm a big girl. It's not like I've never traveled before."
"That ain't the point. Besides...one supper don't make up for three years. I'd like to spend a little more time with you before you run off to wherever it is you're headed so damn fast."
"Don't you have mail to deliver? Chores to do? How much time are you gonna have to spend with me? How much time are you gonna want to spend?" This last was barely audible, and he wasn't even sure if he'd heard her correctly.
"Why wouldn't I want to?" he asked, confused.
She shook her head quickly and grabbed the saddle from him. "Never mind. Look, I gotta get outta here. My life is so..." she trailed off with a sigh. "Jamey, please, you just have to trust me. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss." She tightened the girth and mounted quickly, but he grabbed the reins.
"That's bullshit, Llewellyn. How many times have we gotten each other outta trouble? How many times have you been there for me? Whatever this is, I can help you. Tell me what you're runnin' from, and I'll fight it for you. Why don't you trust me?"
"That isn't it! I've always trusted you, Jamey, but this goes beyond trust. I wouldn't be confiding in you, I would be burdening you. Now let me go!" She jerked the reins from his hand and galloped from the barn as fast as her horse could carry her, the little wolf running hard to keep up.
Jimmy stood there, coughing from the dust and wondering what demons she was running from. The judge was dead. The Lakota had been protecting her for the past two years. What could've happened that was so horrible it sent a woman like Llewellyn Mackenzie running in fear? He shook his head wonderingly and returned to the bunkhouse with a heavy heart.
Mindful of Diana's efforts to keep up with the speedy Arabian, Brenna slowed to a more reasonable pace. Jimmy wouldn't chase her, she was certain of that much - it just wasn't his style. He would wait her out. She would either leave town and that would be that, or she would break down and talk to him. In her mind, there was no choice: the sooner she was out of Sweetwater, the better it would be for everyone. She should never have accepted his invitation to supper, but she had so longed to talk to him, to tell him everything and to accept the protection she knew he would offer.
That had become impossible once she realized how many people he was close to, how many he held dear. Telling him would put too many people at risk, and that wasn't something she was prepared to do. Jimmy had found himself a new home, had made a new life, and Brenna wasn't about to come in and take that away from him. He seemed happier than she had ever seen him, and for that she was grateful. This was just something she was going to have to handle on her own.
"Well, well, lookee what we have here," a voice said from the darkness, spooking the horse and startling the wolf, who let out a long, low growl. A man stepped out onto the road, and Brenna reined Luna to a sudden stop. He was tall, close to six feet, and impeccably dressed, with a strong, handsome face, but eyes that sent chills down even the strongest spine. He smiled the smile of predator and said, "If it isn't the lovely Miss Mackenzie. How are you, my dear? No need to answer that. I can tell from your expression that you aren't happy to see me. That really is quite a shame, because I know my brother will be most pleased to see you."
Her eyes widened in fear, and she moved a hand to one of the knives on her belt. "Look, Jonas, I don't want any trouble. Just let me pass."
"Let you pass? Now you know I can't do that. Whatever would Jeremiah say? He would be terribly disappointed if I returned alone," he said, his tone deep with false concern.
Her lips twisted wryly. "Now why in the world would your brother have any interest in seeing me? We certainly didn't part on very good terms."
His smile was gone as though it had never been, and his voice became soft and dangerous. "Oh, but that's just it, little miss. You killed his son, and I'm afraid that's something he just can't forgive."
He stepped toward her, gun drawn, and she let the knife fly. An instant later the blade was embedded in his palm and he was screaming in pain. Brenna dismounted and stalked over to him, coat swinging, and kicked his gun into the bushes along the road. "You go back and tell your brother that his son deserved to die, and that I would do the same thing again given the chance." She pulled her weapon from his hand, cleaned the blood from the blade, and mounted again. "I'm not afraid of you, Jonas, and I'm most certainly not afraid of Jeremiah."
With that, woman, horse and wolf were gone, leaving a bloody, cursing and very angry Jonas Lapke in their wake. Using his good hand, he retrieved the extra pistol from inside his coat and shot blindly down the road, in too much pain to aim carefully, and prayed that at least one of the bullets would make contact.
Brenna Mackenzie stood there, bleeding from the shoulder and looking pale as a ghost, a wan smile on her face. "Well," she said weakly, "it looks like I'll be stayin' a little while longer after all." She started to enter the room, but her strength was at an end, and he reached out to catch her as she fainted.