Author's Notes, Disclaimers, etc.:
Hi. I don't own any characters pertaining to The Young Riders. Don't sue me. I do, however, own Brenna Mackenzie and her shiny, happy family (heh), so please don't use her without my permission - which I would most likely give considering how extremely flattered I would be. I'm a pushover.
In the sound of the waves and the cries of the seagulls circling the sand;
In the fragments of the songs carried down the wind from some radio;
In the murmuring of the city in the distance, ominous and low,
I hear the sound of the world where we played,
And the far too simple beauty of the promises we made.
-from "Sky Blue and Black" by Jackson Browne
"Cody, would you hurry up? Some of us have better things to do than hang around the store all day while you gawk at things you can't even afford," James Hickok said irritably to his friend and fellow rider, William Cody.
"I'm comin', Jimmy, I'm comin'! But would you just look at this saddle? Ain't it a beauty?" he said fondly, stroking the soft, supple leather with a wistful sigh.
Buck Cross and the Kid came up behind him to peer over his shoulder. "That's pretty nice, Cody. If you start savin' your money now, you might be able to afford it by the time you're eighty - especially the way you save money," the half-Kiowa said with a smile.
"Yeah, but by then you'll be too old to ride anyway, so you'd just have to give it to me," Kid replied, grinning broadly.
"Well, boys, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but ain't none of you gonna have this particular saddle," Tompkins, the storeowner, said with more than a little bit of smugness flavoring his voice.
"What? Look, Tompkins, Teaspoon all ready told you you couldn't refuse-"
"This has nothin' to do with that, Hickok, calm down. I just mean that that saddle's all ready been sold; in fact, she's right outside waitin' for me to bring it out. Sorry, boys."
"She?!" Cody demanded of the others, aghast, as Tompkins left the store, saddle in hand.
"Yep," he said over his shoulder, "she. Come see for yourself if you don't believe me."
The four of them were quick to take him up on the invitation, Jimmy somehow finding himself in the lead. As he stepped through the doorway and out onto the wooden sidewalk, he stopped dead, the others running into him from behind.
"What the hell are you doin', Jimmy? I gotta see the girl who bought that saddle!" Cody demanded, peering over his friend's shoulder.
Buck glanced from the expression on Jimmy's face to the girl Tompkins was talking to and back again. "You know her, Jimmy?" he asked, squinting into the sun as he tried to get a better look at the young woman.
"Her name's Llewellyn...Brenna Llewellyn Mackenzie. I knew her once, a long time ago," Jimmy answered softly, staring at her as though she were a vision, a long-sought phantom sent from his past at the expense of his present and his future.
She was dressed like a man in brown pants, cream colored shirt, long suede coat and dark brown hat, the latter of which was thrown off her head and onto her back despite the blinding, late-day sun that played with the hidden fires in her long brown hair. She was slender, but not skinny, and there was a supple grace in the way she moved, an easy, natural elegance that not even masculine clothing could disguise.
"Wow," Cody murmured, his obsession with the saddle momentarily forgotten, "she sure is pretty. Her name's Lou Ellen, you said?"
"No, not 'Lou Ellen,' like that...softer...'L'welen.' Anyway, we all just called her 'Ellie.'"
"We?" Kid asked, eyebrows raised.
"That's what I said, Kid. You got some sorta hearin' problem?" he replied testily, that soft wistfulness in his voice replaced suddenly with impatience.
"You boys plannin' on buyin' somethin', or are ya just gonna stand around blockin' my door all day?" Tompkins, having delivered the saddle to its new owner, demanded of them with a scowl.
"Nah, we're done. We just need to load up our stuff. Sorry about that, Tompkins," Kid interjected before Jimmy could say something completely rude and tactless. "Let's go, y'all."
Jimmy's eyes were trained solely on the girl even as he followed Kid to the wagon. "I wonder if she remembers me?" he asked a nearby rock.
"Why don't you go find out?" Buck replied in the stone's stead. "I'm sure she'll remember your name even if she's forgotten your face."
"Yeah, my name - 'Wild Bill Hickok,'" he said bitterly.
"That's not what I meant, Jimmy, and you know it."
Before the other could reply to this, however, the query he'd posed to the rock was answered. "James?" a voice called. "Jamey Hickok, is that really you!?"
"Jamey? Did she just call you Jamey Hickok?" Cody asked with a laugh.
"Hey! She's the only one who can call me that without gettin' shot!" With that and a glare, he turned to face her. "Yeah, I'm James Hickok." For some stupid reason, he suddenly decided to pretend he didn't remember who she was. He didn't want her to know how seeing her again had affected him. He didn't want anyone to know.
"Jamey, it's me, Brenna - I mean, Ellie - Mackenzie. Do you remember?" She tossed her long brown braid over one shoulder and gestured for the small wolf sitting at her horse's feet to follow her as she approached them. "It's been a long time! I almost didn't recognize you!"
"Ellie...yeah, of course I remember you. It's been, what...over a year?"
"Almost three now. What are you doing here in Sweetwater?"
"I could ask you the same thing. It's a pretty small town. You're the last person I expected to run into after all this time." He wouldn't meet her eyes, instead staring at some insignificant spot on the ground and shuffling his feet nervously.
"Jamey, is something wrong? I thought you would be a little bit happier to see me after so long. We did part on good terms, didn't we?" she asked, brow creased in concern as she watched him.
He sighed and glanced up at her with a self-conscious grin. "I'm sorry, Ellie, it's just been so damn long that I've forgotten how to act around you. They don't let us outta our cages much."
"They?" she asked, amused.
"Yes, ma'am," Cody interrupted, seeing his opportunity and taking it with his usual relish, "what you're lookin' at here is the finest Russell, Majors and Waddell has to offer. We are the best Pony Express riders in the territory." He tipped his hat with what he considered his most charming grin, blue eyes sparkling brightly, and said, "I'm William F. Cody, ma'am - Billy, if ya like - at your service. Pleased to make your acquaintance."
She nearly laughed then, but carefully held it in check - she didn't want to insult the boy, after all. "Brenna Mackenzie, Mr. Cody. Nice to meet you. The Pony Express, you say? Why, Jamey, that's quite a surprise, especially considering your place of employment when I last saw you."
"Where was that, exactly?" Kid asked. "I think we're all curious about where you two know each other from."
She glanced first at Jimmy and then back at the Kid. With a shrug, she said, "It was a long time ago... water under the bridge and all that. Anyway...Jamey, are you not going to introduce me to the rest of your friends?" she asked, neatly changing the subject much to Jimmy's relief.
"Oh, yeah, of course. Cody was doin' such a fine job of it that I forgot," he said, the sarcastic edge to his voice not lost on the blond rider. "The other two are Buck Cross and the Kid." She offered each a nod and a smile as his name was called. "Like Cody said," Jimmy continued, "we work for the Pony Express. We live just outside of town, at Emma Shannon's place. I guess that don't mean nothin' to you, though, huh?"
"No, not much," she agreed with a grin. "I'm actually just passing through on my way north. I've been living with the Lakota since last I saw you, but I figured it was pretty much time to move on again."
"The Lakota?" Buck questioned intently. "You wouldn't be River Moon, would you?"
Her gray-green eyes narrowed slightly. "How do you know my name?"
He smiled, and she relaxed her guard in spite of herself. "Many know it. You travel with a silver horse and a blue-eyed wolf, and you carry twin knives with silver handles. You're the white daughter of the Lakota tribe, a famous healer...it's good to see that the Lakota weren't just spinning tales when they told of you."
"Oh," she said with a blush, "I didn't know they were telling of me. You're not Lakota." It wasn't a question, but neither was it an accusation. Simply an observation.
"No, I'm half Kiowa. My half brother is Red Bear."
"I know him. You're Running Buck?"
"It looks like I don't have the advantage after all. You can't believe anything Red Bear says about me," he said, only half joking.
She smiled serenely, and her voice was soft when she said, "He told me you're a great warrior with the courage of the bear, the ferocity of the mountain cat and the speed of your namesake. Should I not believe it?"
Buck went completely still, shocked by her words to the very core. "Did my brother also tell you that he has branded me a traitor to my people?" he asked at last.
She shrugged. "You have two peoples, the way I see it, and eventually you had to choose one. Red Bear is just sore that you didn't choose the path he set for you." She grinned suddenly, and the tension was broken. "Besides, my Fa considers me a traitor, too, for leaving home the way I did. No one can hope to live up to his family's expectations for him, now can he?"
"That's the truth," Kid remarked, turning away from the conversation to continue loading the wagon.
"I seem to be keeping you from your work, gentlemen. I should be going. Jamey, it was good to see you again, and Buck, it was nice to finally put a face to the name. Kid, Billy, good to meet you as well."
She turned to go, but Jimmy called her back. "Almost three years and you're leavin' so quick? Why don't you come have supper with us? Emma won't mind."
"Yeah, and I'd like to try out that new saddle you got there!" Cody said with an envious glance that encompassed the beautiful silver mare as well as the saddle on her back.
Brenna glanced down at her little wolf and then up at the boys. "I don't know..." she said hesitantly. "We have a lot of ground to cover, and I don't want to be an imposition."
"Come on, Brenna, Emma's a great cook," Kid urged, "and you'd be doing us a favor; maybe we could talk about something other than Cody for once!"
She laughed. "Well, when you put it that way! Sure, I guess supper would be all right. A few hours couldn't hurt, could it? Here, I'll help you load up," she offered, grabbing a small bag of oats and approaching the wagon.
"You don't need to do that, Ellie, we've got it under control," Jimmy said quickly, taking the bag as though it might burn her if he didn't hurry.
"Jamey-" she began, concerned at his continued nervousness.
"Come on, I'll help you with Luna," he said, hurrying away from the others and toward the horse. What the hell was wrong with him? Why couldn't he just relax and let things be as they had always been before? They'd been friends once, the best of friends, so why could he barely even look at her now without feeling like his tongue had been tied into one big, stupid, worthless knot?
"What-?" She shook her head, frowning deeply, as she watched him walk away. "Does he think I can't handle my own horse?"
"I wouldn't worry about it," Buck said from just over her shoulder. "He's pretty moody, you know."
"Yeah, but...well, anyway. I guess I should just talk to him, huh?" She glanced back at him with a grin, and was surprised by the look in his dark, soulful brown eyes. Feeling sudden heat flood her cheeks, she looked away quickly. "I guess, um... I guess I'll just go do that now," she said softly, following Jimmy without looking back at Buck again.
Her hand on his arm startled him, and he nearly jumped out of his skin. "Damn it, Ellie, you shouldn't sneak up on a man like that."
"Maybe you could tell me what the hell's wrong with you," she said with a deep frown, the hurt, accusing look in her smoky green eyes cutting him to the quick.
"What're you talkin' about? Why would you think somethin' was wrong?" he asked, looking away and making a big production of tightening Luna's saddle girth.
"Ohhh, maybe because we haven't seen each other in almost three years, yet you won't even look me in the eye. Did I do something, Jamey? Are you mad at me for leaving like I did? You know I had to. I thought you understood!" she said desperately.
He sighed and at last turned to face her full-on. "I understood, Ellie; he hit you. You couldn't stay there. I ain't mad at you for leavin'. You never did like it there in the first place."
"No, I didn't...I hated living with the judge, with all his rules and orders. It was like living under a dictator. But as much I disliked it, you made it bearable, Jamey, you kept me sane." She moved a step closer, and he could see the accusation turning to sadness. "I'm not sorry I left the judge, but I am sorry I left you. You were my friend, James, and I'd like to think you still are. Please tell me what's wrong. If you want me to leave-"
"No, that's not it," he interrupted. "I'm glad you're here, it's just that...damn, you've changed so much! Last time I saw you, you were a kid. Now you're all grown up."
She laughed, greatly relieved. "Well of course I am! I was sixteen then; now I'm almost nineteen. We've both changed a lot since then. I guess we'll just have to get to know each other all over again."
The sight of her smile and the sound of her laugh made him feel better than he had in a long, long time, and he found himself returning both. "Yeah, I guess you're right. I'm sorry, El. Friends?" He offered his hand, and she shook it with a bright grin.
"Always," she agreed.