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A Question of Color

By Melanie Pogue
Copyright 1999

Chapter One

"Oh, let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King

And recognize that there are ties between us

All men and women living on the earth

Ties of hope and love

Of sister and brotherhood

And we are bound together

In our desire to see the world become

A place in which our children can grow free and strong

We are bound together

By the task that stands before us

And the road that lies ahead

We are bound, and we are bound…"

-- James Taylor

Buck Cross and Ike McSwain sat on the bench outside the Marshal’s office. It was a cool autumn afternoon, but the sun was shining brightly and the two friends had been comfortably passing the time by watching the townspeople going about their business. Marshal Teaspoon Hunter could hear a lot of laughing from Buck and a good deal of comments being made in hushed tones. Although Teaspoon occasionally barked a comment through the open doorway, the two young men were tuning him out successfully.

The four o’clock stage rambled along the main thoroughfare of the town of Sweetwater, Nebraska Territory. The arrival of the stage was always an event for anyone with nothing better to do. And today was no different. Buck was only mildly interested in who or what that stagecoach carried. In his short life, he had learned to distrust strangers and neither did he deal well with changes. It had been Buck’s experience that stagecoaches tended to bring both of these things with them. He unconsciously took his knife from its normal resting place around his ankle and turned it over and over, watching it glint in the sunlight.

Ike McSwain, on the other hand, while he shared his best friend’s distrust of strangers, was still an avid people-watcher and an accurately snap judge of character. Years of living without the ability to speak had made him an astute observer. Ike liked it when he happened to be in town when a stage arrived. He never wanted to meet the people it brought, but he always liked to watch. He glanced curiously in the direction of the passengers who were now disembarking in front of the Sweetwater Hotel. His clear, blue-green eyes were wide open, interest and anticipation obviously written on every feature of his expressive face.

There was a stout middle-aged man, dressed well. He had a round, red face, wire-rimmed glasses and held a top hat in his right hand. His brown suit was not new, but it looked expensive, and Ike noticed the man had a pocket watch on a gold chain hanging from his vest. The second passenger was a pale, older woman sporting what Ike could only guess to be the latest fashions of the East. Her countenance as she looked about her at her new surroundings suggested she was not impressed with what Sweetwater had to offer. Ike snickered inwardly at these two. Like fish out of water, he thought as he wondered briefly what business would bring people like this to the "uncivilized" territories.

When Ike spied the dark, plainly dressed woman – the last passenger – step out of the coach and look around, his eyes were riveted to her. Ike quickly judged her to be a few years older than him and not too rich based on her hatless head and worn clothing. She was dark-complexioned but her skin had a smooth, creamy tone that Ike could see even from his vantagepoint on the porch. Her nearly black hair was pulled tightly into a bun at the nape of her neck. She wore a simple, gray, patterned dress and a white shawl was draped about her shoulders. She was slim, yet shapely.

Ike reached to tap Buck’s arm without taking his gaze off the young woman. He missed on the first swipe, but made contact with Buck’s bicep on his second attempt. When Buck looked at Ike, Ike indicated with his chin the direction in which he wanted Buck’s attention. Buck followed Ike’s gaze and looked shocked at what he discovered. Buck looked at his friend, to the woman, and back to his friend again to make certain Ike was eyeing her in particular.

"She’s black," Buck commented blankly. Ike broke his stare to give his friend an exasperated look. "Yes, I can see that!" he gestured abruptly.

Buck was able to eye the woman suspiciously before she slipped into the front doorway of the Sweetwater Hotel. He forgot about Ike for a moment as his eyes darted across the street – stopping for a split second in succession on the stage, the other two passengers, the driver, and the passersby. Everything seemed…normal…and confusion crept over his mind. Buck watched the doorway of the Hotel half-expectantly, but the woman never reappeared. Didn’t anyone care that a young and seemingly alone black woman had just waltzed into town? Why did he get dirty looks when he was only half an Indian? Buck fingered thoughtfully the amulet that hung about his neck. I guess people see what they want to see, he mused bitterly. What Buck couldn’t figure out was why folks would be willing to make this woman a Mexican – or Mediterranean even – when they never made those allowances for him. The differences were so obvious to Buck, it frustrated him. He would never understand people, he concluded resolutely. Never.

Ike knocked Buck out of his contemplation by hitting his shoulder. "You’re ignoring me," Ike signed. He studied Buck with a furrowed brow. What had changed Buck’s attitude? Just minutes before he’d been trying to make Ike laugh and now Buck was barely making eye contact with him. "Oh… sorry," Buck replied distractedly. "She was a looker, huh?" Ike ventured, his eyes wandering in the direction of the now departing stagecoach.

Buck searched Ike’s face for a clue to his friend’s seriousness. "She’s black," Buck dully said again. Ike was suddenly irritated by Buck’s moroseness and although he said nothing, his eyes told Buck he wasn’t pleased. Buck resheathed his blade and stood up. The young half-blood Kiowa was obviously bothered. His jaw was set squarely and his eyes glazed over with a determined slow-burning aggravation. He wasn’t going to sit there and get those "looks" from Ike and he sure as hell didn’t have to explain anything to anyone! Without even saying a word to Ike, Buck untied and mounted his horse, and headed out of town at a fast clip. Ike sighed audibly and rolled his eyes even though no one else was around to benefit from his dramatic reaction to Buck’s behavior.

Teaspoon heard the commotion and ambled out to the porch curiously. He watched, as Buck’s figure grew smaller in the distance. He glanced down at Ike. "Whadja do?" he asked his young rider with a smirk. Ike faked indignation, as he opened his eyes wide in disbelief, pointed to his chest, and raised his eyebrows to question Teaspoon back: "Me?!?" Teaspoon grinned. "Are ya goin’ after ‘im?" Ike pursed his lips and immediately shook his head ‘no’. The old marshal did not hesitate. "If he ain’t back by the mornin’ you are." Ike nodded curtly once and Teaspoon headed back to his desk.

Buck had, in fact, returned to the waystation shortly before midnight and had slipped into his bunk without talking to anyone. Throughout the evening, the other riders had asked about Buck’s whereabouts, but Ike just responded nonchalantly that he didn’t know and that he wasn’t concerned. This was at least half-true. He really didn’t know where Buck was at that time. He could make a good guess if his life depended on it, but Ike didn’t feel the need. Having grown up together, Ike knew when Buck actually needed his space and when he was hoping he’d be chased after. Now was not one of those times. And while he wasn’t that worried about Buck, there was always a part of his heart that suffered an uneasy ache when he didn’t know for sure that his best friend was safe and sound.

Ike had also left out the part where Buck had rode off in a huff over something he had done or said. Ike didn’t think the others really needed to know all the details. Neither had he figured out what had triggered Buck’s reaction earlier in the day. Ike preferred to mull it over some before he even thought of bringing it up to the others.

After supper, Ike had pretended to go to bed like everything was normal. Long after everyone else had fallen asleep, Ike McSwain lay motionless and quiet, listening for the sound of Buck’s horse to arrive. In his mind he held his own private debate over the decision to ride out to look for his friend. He had just re-convinced himself for the fiftieth time that it was the wrong choice to look for Buck, when he heard the faint sound of hooves at a slow trot, coming towards the waystation. Ike had known right away it was Buck’s horse – and that Buck was on it – and an immense relief settled over him. He was not completely at ease, as he still did not understand the reason Buck had stormed off in the first place. Ike sighed quietly and turned on his side – his back facing the door so that Buck would not know he had waited up.

The next morning, Ike had risen before Buck and rode into town before anyone could stop him. Ike didn’t have a run today and lord knows he’d done his share of picking up the slack when Jimmy or Cody shirked on their chores because they had something better to do. Well, Ike had thought to himself, now’s my turn. He had wanted to go into town to see if he could catch another glimpse of the dark woman from the stage yesterday afternoon. Ever since Buck had come back safely, she had monopolized his thoughts. He had both drifted off to sleep and woke up thinking about her.

Ike found himself riding into town without a clear plan. The morning had a stiff breeze to it. As Ike guided his horse down the main street, the wind caught his wide-brimmed hat and blew it off his head, the cord keeping it from blowing away pressing against his throat. Ike did nothing about it except adjust the cord so it rubbed his shirt collar and not his skin. He dismounted in front of Tompkins’ General Store, tied up his horse, put his left hand on his hip, and used his right hand to shield his eyes from the sun as he looked up and down the street. He wasn’t sure he knew what he was doing, so he climbed the steps in front of Tompkins’ store.

Before he realized it, Ike was inside the shop and just a few feet away was the dark woman from the stage! She had her back to the door – and Ike – and she was idly stroking this object and that as she waited her turn at the counter. Ike wheeled around abruptly and pretended to be very interested in the merchandise on the shelf directly in front of him. He supposed it was foolish, but he felt that if she saw him she would somehow know that he was looking for her. Ike collected himself and then realized for the first time that he was "looking" at reading primers for young children. He shook his head from side to side, fairly embarrassed, and hoped that no one had noticed. He reached for the hat on his back, righted it, and pulled it down low over his eyes.

Ike turned toward the main counter just as Tompkins was coming from his back storeroom. He carried a small package wrapped in brown paper. "Here you are, Mrs. Biddle," Tompkins said to the woman waiting at the counter. Aside from Ike and the woman from the stage, she was the only other customer in the place. The woman he called Mrs. Biddle thanked Tompkins politely and promptly exited the store.

"Hello, Ike," Tompkins called out to the young man. Tompkins had decided to postpone finding out what this strange, dark woman wanted in favor of acknowledging one of his regular, paying customers. Ike pushed his hat brim up out of his eyes in response. Although he felt the black woman turn her attention in his direction, Ike forced himself to look only at Tompkins. "The usual?" the storekeeper asked him and Ike nodded his head in agreement, but with an almost imperceptible shrug of his shoulders. He hadn’t really come into town to buy anything – or even to enter the store in the first place – but how could he get out of it now? Tompkins didn’t take kindly to browsers or window shoppers. Besides, Tompkins always made sure to keep Ike’s favorite writing paper and pencils in stock – which he was turning back to his storeroom for at that very moment. When the burly merchant turned his back, Ike reached inside his jacket pocket to make sure he had a little money on him with which to make this unexpected purchase.

As Ike pulled out a small drawstring bag and handled the metal pieces inside, he could feel the woman’s eyes on him once again. This time Ike did not resist the desire to look back at her. And he caught her. She was quick, but not quick enough. They had made brief eye contact before she cast her eyes downward at some trinket she was fingering. Ike thought he saw her cheeks blush slightly and this seemed somewhat remarkable to him. It had never occurred to him before now that black people could blush! Despite himself, he grinned at this discovery. Before he could really analyze it any further however, Tompkins returned with a small parcel and Ike placed his money on the counter. Ike tipped his hat to say "Thanks" and reluctantly headed for the exit. He regretted that Tompkins had been so quick to take care of him. He now had no good reason to be in the store! At least I got to see her again, Ike thought as he slowly dragged his feet towards the door.

"What can I do for ya miss? Are ya new in town?" Tompkins voice boomed, interrupting Ike’s mild case of self-pity. Ike’s ears perked up at the possibilities of her response.

"No…Well…That is, I’m only staying until the stage leaves this afternoon. I’m just passing through…" Her soft voice trailed off. Tompkins started to ask what she needed, but by that point Ike was already out the door.

He was hearing her voice repeating, "I’m just passing through" and "leaving this afternoon" and while he felt he didn’t have a valid reason to be disappointed, he was. As he approached his horse, he thought about the pure luck in this world – good and bad. He didn’t care that he didn’t even know her name, he still felt like she had no right to be leaving Sweetwater so soon. What was her name? Where was she going? Why was she alone? Did it matter? Ike was putting his package in his saddlebag, still lost in his thoughts when he heard boot heels on the porch behind him, accompanied by a small yelp of sorts.

Ike turned to determine the source, and realized quickly that it was her – and that she had just lost a slip of paper that was now blowing down the street in the strong wind channeling between the two rows of buildings. Without thinking, Ike sprang for the paper. He snatched it with relative ease and headed back towards his mystery lady. She stood expectantly on the edge of the porch as Ike approached her. He stole a quick glance at her nice figure, her flawless skin, and her delicate curls. He held out the disobedient piece of paper to her with a small grin playing on his lips.

She smiled shyly back. "You didn’t have to…it was just my shoppin’ list…I don’t even need it no more…" she was saying in a tone just barely above a whisper. She took the paper from Ike, not so accidentally letting her hand brush his. This woman allowed herself to look into his eyes. They were so very clear and intense it took all her concentration just to say, "Thank you." Ike dropped his chin and tipped his hat in response. Suddenly, Ike became aware that the woman’s gaze had fixed on something behind him. He turned his head slightly to see what it was.

What it was, was an Indian – mounted on a horse about a hundred yards from them. More specifically, it was a half-blood Kiowa Indian named Buck Cross. When Buck had woken and realized that Ike had rode into town, he thought he would try and meet up with him and apologize for riding off on him yesterday afternoon. But now Buck couldn’t believe his eyes as he approached the edge of town. He reigned his horse to a halt as he stared ahead of him. There was Ike – talking with that damned black woman! What on earth did he think he was doing?! Buck turned his horse around and headed back out onto the prairie at a gallop.

Ike had turned around just in time to see that Buck’s noticing him had caused him to run off for the second time in as many days. He glared darkly at his Kiowa comrade before returning his attention to the young woman beside him. He flashed her a quick smile as he moved to mount his horse. She looked curiously at him, but Ike only tipped his hat to her again as a form of good-bye. He kicked his horse a little harder than he would have liked, but he had to catch up with Buck and get to the bottom of this.

It took a few minutes for Ike to catch up with Buck. While Ike was smaller than Buck, Buck came from a long line of Plains horsemen. Buck could hear the hooves of Ike’s horse pounding behind him. He was extremely conflicted inside, wanting both to scream at Ike and having no desire to talk to him at this moment. But he also knew well that with Ike’s persistence, he couldn’t really put this off much longer.

As Ike brought his horse alongside Buck’s, he attempted to grab at the reins in Buck’s hands. The Kiowa sighed inwardly and saved Ike the trouble by stopping his horse himself. All the frustration Ike had been trying to quell for a day now rose up within him and made its escape.

"What is wrong with you?!" he signed furiously, more of a demand than a question. Buck didn’t even know where to begin and he simply gave Ike a silent glare. Ike returned it, but soon gestured generically once again as if to say, "Well?" Buck let his shoulders drop in defeat. As he let go of the reins in his hands, he raised his face towards the sky and let his bottom jaw lower with his displeasure. When he was finished with his little display of annoyance, he turned to confront Ike.

"What do you think you’re doing?" Buck started. Ike looked at the ground, from left to right. He focussed on his saddlehorn, and then his horse’s ears, but he didn’t have an answer for a question he didn’t understand. Ike scrunched his shoulders up and kept them there as he opened his hands, palms up in front of him. For a minute Buck was bothered by Ike’s insistence on pretending not to know what was going on, but the Kiowa soon realized his friend’s confusion was genuine. This was a revelation that only made Buck feel worse. He couldn’t believe Ike could be so insensitive! This was so unlike him! He picked up the reins again and made to ride away once more, but Ike was too fast for him. Before Buck could even decide in which direction he would head, Ike had pulled the reins from him and placed his hand directly on Buck’s chest.

Ike’s touch caused Buck to relax, if momentarily. Ike ducked his head in an effort to make eye contact with Buck – and to Ike’s great relief, Buck gave in and met Ike’s eyes with his own. Ike sensed that progress could now be made, but he knew he would have to be patient. Buck was already not much of a talker, but on top of that he was certainly very Indian in the way he took his time before he decided to speak at all. Ike couldn’t help but raise his eyebrows in expectation however, and Buck noticed this.

"What are you doing with that black woman?" Buck almost spat. That momentary feeling of calmness evaporated immediately once he started to verbalize his fears. Ike noticed that Buck chose to include the qualifier ‘black’ even though he could have left that off and Ike would not have been confused as to which woman he was referring to. It’s not as if there are any other women in my life except Rachel and Lou, he thought almost bitterly. He gave Buck a tired look. "I’m not doing anything," he signed at last.

"But, I saw you with her," Buck protested. "You were talking outside Tompkins’ store just now. I just saw you!" Buck started to raise his voice. Ike kept his facial expression constant in an effort to mollify Buck’s reactions. Buck swallowed hard. In a cold, even tone he spoke once again. "Were you making plans?"

For a minute Ike contemplated saying ‘yes’ just to see what would happen. He was trying to get a grip on the roundabout flow of this discussion; trying to determine what the real issue was here. "What if we were?" he finally countered Buck’s question. Buck’s eyes clouded over as he said in a low voice, "Because I don’t think…I don’t think that would be… a very good idea." Ah, Ike thought, the hypothetical is getting us somewhere. "And why not?" Ike signed innocently.

"Well…She’s black!" Buck responded with distaste.

Ike really couldn’t believe Buck had just said that. "That’s the third time you’ve told me that part. What you’re not telling me is why that’s such a problem for you!" Ike signed quickly, with a hint of exasperation.

"Because…I, uh, because I wouldn’t want you to get together with her," Buck admitted quietly.

"Get together?! Get together?" Ike exploded as his brow creased in disbelief. "Buck, I don’t even know her name! She’s leaving Sweetwater this afternoon on the westbound stage! I heard her tell Tompkins. I’d say there will hardly be any ‘getting together’," Ike gestured pointedly.

Ike’s horse had been growing agitated beneath him, shaking its head from side to side. Already nervous from the sound of Buck’s tone of voice, it could sense Ike’s escalating tension. This caused Buck’s horse to start sidestepping as well and Ike decided to dismount rather than control his animal. "Get down," he said to Buck. It wasn’t a suggestion. Buck did.

The two men walked a few feet from their horses. Both mounts seemed greatly relieved and began lazily munching on stray prairie grass. Ike stopped short and turned to face his best friend. Looking into Buck’s eyes, he was struck by the anguish that he saw there. "Tell me," Ike gently pleaded. "What is it?"

Buck was suddenly very aware of himself. His eyes hurried back and forth in the direction of the now-tiny buildings representing Sweetwater, while he rubbed the top of his right hand repeatedly with his left. When he finally spoke, he avoided looking at Ike, and his voice revealed his feelings of betrayal.

"How could you be interested in her, after everything I’ve been through?" he accused his companion. Ike remained still, in order to encourage Buck to continue with his thoughts. "All my life I have struggled to fit in. I have one foot in the white world, and one foot in the Kiowa one. But both worlds reject me, they remind me that I am not really one of them. You already know that’s why I had to leave the Kiowa. It was like I was completely alone sometimes even though I had family members all around me. The older I got, the harder it was for them to see me as Kiowa. When we ran into trouble with the white man, I always got those ‘looks’ like I was responsible. People didn’t trust me anymore! I hadn’t changed, but all of the sudden I was more white than Kiowa…

My whole life people have tried to force me to pick one side over the other – to choose which part of me I will deny – but that’s not a choice I can make! Plain and simple! Sometimes I want to, but I know I could never choose. I’m a half-breed, and I don’t have another option." Buck’s voice trembled and got caught in his throat. "I want an option, Ike, everyday I want one half of me to disappear. Everyday brings me another reason to wish away one side or the other. But I can’t have that, no matter how much I want it, and it’s not fair!"

He finally looked at the person who had become his blood brother all those years ago. "I thought you understood, Ike. I thought you understood what it was like for me. You’ve seen it, you’ve watched it happen to me, time after time – how whites don’t trust me, and my Indian brothers think I’m not good enough.

There have even been times when you’ve told me you wish you could change things for me and I’ve said the same thing to you. And you know if I could, I’d get you your hair and your voice back. Do you still feel that way, Ike? Would you still make me a world where I can exist as I am – two halves?"

"Of course," Ike answered immediately, almost hurt that Buck would doubt his level of devotion to him.

"Well, you can’t," Buck snapped coldly. "The only thing you can do is keep it from happening to someone else, stop it before it ever starts."

"Someone else?" Ike queried, starting to grow impatient.

"Your children!" Buck cried, exasperated that Ike was making him spell everything out.

A strange mixture of shock, disbelief, and slight bemusement spread over Ike’s face. Shaking his head from side to side, he walked a few steps away from Buck. Buck could hear him half-snicker, half-snort in something like disgust. However, Ike quickly turned back to Buck with a patronizing look. "My children?" Ike signed clearly. "Don’t you think you’re taking this a little far? Just because I said she was pretty doesn’t mean I’ve got plans for marriage. Or children…"

"But –" Buck tried to interrupt, but Ike was determined to say his piece. Ike held a hand up, asking Buck to hear him out.

"I am not saying it hasn’t been hard for you," Ike continued. "I’m not trying to take that away. But listen to yourself! Buck, I have no idea who this woman is! I’ll never see her again and there’s certainly no chance of me having children with her. I want you to put it all out of your mind, okay?"

Ike had to smile in spite of himself. He had never much considered what his own children might be like, but it had never entered his imagination that they would be anything but white. Ike wanted to think that he would, at all costs, prevent inflicting Buck’s experiences on his own children – but something tugging on his conscience made him wonder just what he would do if he really was in love. But that was all beside the point at the moment. Here was Buck flying off the handle, accusing Ike of being insensitive to the life of the half-breed, when he didn’t even know the girl’s name. Ike raised his eyebrows at Buck.

Buck seemed reluctant to admit that he had jumped to one too many conclusions about the nature of Ike’s relationship to the black woman. It was not a trivial concern to him; it was a very real way of life. He would never forgive the selfishness of his parentage, an act of lust with no regard for the children of such a union. He knew Ike could never understand exactly what it was like to feel your soul daily being ripped in two. He knew Ike never felt divided loyalties to two completely different groups of people. But he also knew that Ike would do anything for him.

Buck sighed. He didn’t want to fight. Finally, he returned a weak grin to his best friend. Although Buck knew he was a natural-born pessimist, he felt he had the right to be, considering all he had been through! But Buck knew that deep down, Ike was right about this woman from the stagecoach. There really was nothing going on for him to worry about. "Okay," he answered Ike at last.

"Okay then," Ike signed as he approached Buck to face him. "Let’s go home. We have chores to do," Ike clapped Buck on the back.

The two unlikely companions mounted their horses and headed towards the station, somehow closer still for their differences. A question of color left unanswered, a question of color not even needing to be asked.



© Melanie J. Pogue January 31, 2000

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