Topic #8: Picture Prompt #2
|As the Wheel Falls
||View from a Snowy Peak
|Wildflowers and Cherry Blossoms
||Patching the Roof
||Shelter From the Cold
|Coming Around Full Circle
||To Find Where I Belong
|Edge of Town
||In Need of Help
The creaking became louder first, followed by a groaning sound they hadn't heard before. Then, suddenly, there was a loud SNAP! as the wheel gave out and fell away, sending the wagon lurching in a wild list to one side.
Lou gasped as the wagon tilted, struggling to stay in the seat. But the movement was too sudden, and at seven months pregnant her balance wasn't what it had been before, and she found herself sliding off. She scrambled for a handhold, anything that would keep her from falling, but her fingers closed around nothingness. The baby . . .
Buck caught her just as she fell, holding her tight against his horse as he made sure they were out of the way of the careening wagon. He saw Jeremiah ride up on the other side and grab the reins, pulling the now frightened horses to a stop.
Kid rode up just as Buck lowered Lou to the ground. He jumped off of Katy and rushed to his wife. "Lou, are you all right? And the baby?"
Lou took a moment to catch her breath, then she placed her hands over her abdomen. The baby had apparently been awakened by all the fuss and was kicking mightily. "We're fine, Kid." She turned to where Buck was examining the broken wheel. "Thank you, Buck."
Buck looked up and smiled. "I'm just glad you're all right, Lou."
"Better than that wheel," she replied.
"How bad is it?" Kid asked, not sure he really wanted to hear the answer.
"Two of the spokes are cracked nearly clean through," Buck answered as he stood up. Actually, he wasn't sure how they had even stayed attached. "And the hub is splintered on the back."
"That doesn't sound very good," Theresa remarked. She'd been riding on the other side with her brother, but they both joined the others now.
"It's not," Kid acknowledged angrily, slapping his hat against his leg. "It's not good at all."
"We passed by that town not far back," Jeremiah pointed out. "Maybe someone there can fix it."
Kid nodded. "Guess we'll have to find out," he said. They'd started out alone from Rock Creek as soon as the winter weather loosened its grip on the land. They were, therefore, well ahead of the first parties setting out from St. Joseph or Independence. With three of them experienced at navigating the wilderness, they were also staying somewhat south of the main trail. This gave them the advantage of not having to hold to anyone else's schedule. Unfortunately, it also left them at the mercy of unpredictable things like broken wheels. With other wagons around, they could have at least counted on some help getting the wheel to town. They'd have to hope now that someone in the town could assist them.
Buck had turned his attention to the surrounding landscape. A copse of trees stood just to the north of them, gathered near the bank of the river they had forded just a little bit earlier. The waterway meandered through the area, cutting a crystal swath across the plains. All around, the prairie grass grew tall and strong, leading him to an idea. "Kid, how set are you on getting all the way to Oregon?"
Kid shrugged. "It's the end of the trail, I guess. Why?"
Buck bent down and pulled up some of the grass, noting the rich black earth underneath. He picked up a handful of the dirt and stood up. "With the river running through here, and this good soil, you might not find a better place for farming and grazing."
Lou took a good look around. "It is pretty here," she admitted.
Kid paused to think. From the time they'd started talking about this trip, Oregon had been the goal. They wanted land to farm, and maybe a place to raise some cattle and horses. He looked at his wife, whose pregnancy was sapping even more of her energy than the hard trip itself. Theresa and Jeremiah gamely helped out each day, but he knew they were exhausted too. Buck tried not to let on, but Kid knew his friend was well beyond tired. And, of course, his own strength to go on was sorely tested each day too.
Finally he pointed at the broken wheel. "We're not going anywhere today anyway," he said. "Let's make camp, and we can talk about it tonight. Then tomorrow we can go into town and either see about getting the wheel fixed - or find the local land office."
The vote had been unanimous to stay where the wagon had broken and now, three months later, no one regretted the decision.
When Kid and Buck had visited the land office the next day, it turned out that the very land they were on was available. In short order two large fields were plowed and planted, the first crops growing.
Where once only prairie grass had stood, a house began to take shape. The land agent organized some of the townspeople and a few of the other farmers to help, and with many hands available to assist, the walls and roof took shape in no time. There was still finishing work to be done on the inside, but they had a solid shelter from the weather. A lean-to shelter was built next to the corral for the horses, with plans for a full barn once the harvest was in.
A little over a month after making the decision to stop, Lou and Kid's first child was born. Ellen Rose came into the world kicking and screaming, but it was a world full of love for her. Under the watchful eyes of doting parents, uncles and aunt, she began to grow in her new world.
As the final bit of initial construction, they built a long fence. It ran between the house and the corral, and extended down almost to the river. When they added cattle and more horses to graze in the adjoining meadow, the fence would at least discourage the animals from winding up in the yard.
Buck set the last post and waited while Kid filled in around the base with dirt. Then together they lashed the final crossbars in place.
Kid wiped the sweat from his face and looked back along the fence, toward the house. "It looks real good, Buck."
"Yeah, it does, Kid," Buck agreed. He picked up his shirt and started toward Kid, stepping around the broken wheel that had put them there in the first place. He started to pull on the shirt, noticing that it had taken on the scent of the wildflowers that dotted the land with their bright colors.
"Guess I should get rid of that," Kid noted, pointing at the wheel. "At least break it down."
Buck paused, taking another look around. Then he bent down and lifted the wheel onto its edge, maneuvering it until it leaned against the fence. "I don't know, Kid. That wheel led you here. Maybe it's better to just leave it."
Kid looked at the wheel against the new fence, and he had to admit it looked right in place among the tall grass and wildflowers. "Maybe you're right."
Buck finished buttoning his shirt and picked up the last of the tools. "You're going to do real good here, Kid," he said softly.
There was a finality in that statement that left Kid silent for a moment. "You're not staying, are you?" he finally asked.
Buck shook his head slowly. "I promised to help you and Lou get started," he answered. "I've done that. And you've got good neighbors to help you from here on."
"You know you're welcome to stay," Kid said. "We want you to stay."
Buck smiled. "I know, and I appreciate that," he replied. "There's a part of me that wants to stay. But in my heart, I know I'm not ready to settle down and be a farmer. It just isn't in my blood, at least not now."
Kid just nodded. He’d known this day would come - he just hadn’t expected it so soon. “Have you told Lou?”
Buck sighed and shook his head. “No, not yet,” he admitted.
They both knew that wasn’t going to be easy.
He held Ellen Rose tightly to him, not even minding as her little fingers closed around his earring and pulled. She cooed and gurgled happily, secure in his arms, and for a moment his resolve wavered - again. There was no denying it would be nice to stay and watch her grow up. But Buck knew that staying would, to a larger degree, be denying his need to move on, to find what his life was meant to be. In the end he used a toy to distract the little girl, and she reached for it, letting go of his earring.
He put the baby down and turned, finding Theresa right in front of him. “I’m going to miss you so much,” she said, her voice quivering. It was hard to believe that she had been a little afraid of Buck just a few months ago when she and her brother had arrived in Rock Creek.
Buck held his arms out, taking the girl into his embrace. “I’ll miss you too,” he whispered. Then he loosened his hold just a bit and reached a hand down to tip her eyes up to meet his. He had to smile at the budding beauty he saw. “You are going to break some hearts in a few years, Theresa McCloud.”
She smiled, wiping away the tears. “Well, I’ll expect you to be there to dance at my wedding, Buck Cross.”
“I’ll be there,” he said, letting her go. Then he turned to face her brother. “Jeremiah,” he said, holding out his hand. “You’re becoming a fine young man.”
Jeremiah put his hand out, completing the handshake. Then he looked away, scuffing his feet. “Thanks for teaching me all that stuff, hunting and tracking and everything.”
“You’re welcome,” Buck replied. Given the anger the boy had carried at first, he could guess how hard that admission had been - just as he knew how big a change had come over the boy. No, young man, he corrected himself.
Kid stepped up next. “We wouldn’t have been able to do all this without you,” he said. “I wish there was a way I could repay you.”
“Just be happy here, Kid,” Buck said. “Make this everything you and Lou wanted.”
“We will,” Kid answered. “You just remember you’re welcome here anytime.” He held out his hand, then pulled his friend into an embrace. “I hate that you’re going. I understand, but I’m going to miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too,” Buck responded. This was so hard. But he knew - he KNEW - he had to leave. It wasn’t time to stay, not yet.
He turned away from Kid, and she was there. This would be the hardest part.
“I’m not going to ask you again to stay,” Lou said softly. She’d already tried it, and it just hurt them both.
“Thank you,” Buck replied honestly. “I’ll miss you so much. It’s just not time for me to stay.”
Lou nodded, chewing on her bottom lip to try and stop it from quivering. Then she stepped forward and threw her arms around his neck. “Just don’t forget your way back,” she whispered.
He held her tight, the silence stretching for several minutes until he felt it was safe to use his voice. “I won’t forget,” he promised. “I’ll just look for the wheel. It brought you here, and I’ll find it again someday.”
“You’d better!” Lou stepped back, wiping her eyes.
He turned away then, while he still could. His horse was waiting and he mounted, settling into the saddle.
“I don’t want to say goodbye,” Lou said softly.
“The French say au revoir,” Theresa offered. “Until we meet again.”
“Until we meet again,” Buck repeated. Then before his resolve totally disintegrated, he pulled on the reins, turning his horse to ride along the fence toward the river.
He stopped at the end, looking at the wheel standing there. Considering the fine home that was being created here, it was easy to believe that some higher power had led the wheel to break at just the right time.
With a sigh, Buck urged his horse on again, rounding the end of the fence and turning to follow the river west. He could only hope he’d find his own “wheel” along the way somewhere, the sign that would tell him he was home.
The flowers around the old wagon wheel had no scent, Kid realized as he stood watching Ike work with yet another of the new horses the company had sent them. Not like the flowers he remembered back home in Virginia.
It was hard to believe it had been just two years ago about this time that he’d been at home, sitting on the veranda, inhaling the heady scent of the cherry blossoms. It was even harder to believe that two years ago, he’d thought himself to be deeply in love with Abigail Ridgely.
Just thinking about Abigail made Kid sigh. She was the daughter of the very upper crust, very high society Ridgelys, but for some reason she’d chosen Kid to be her boyfriend.
He could remember many nights, walking along the river walk, hand in hand with the girl, listening to her speak. Her voice reminded him of the silver bells that chimed on Christmas Eve. He would hang on her every word as tightly as he hung onto her hand.
Of course they were always escorted. It wouldn’t be proper for the two of them to be alone together at night. But Kid never really cared. The servant who followed them at a discrete distance never interfered, nor did he seem to mind if Kid stole a kiss at the end of the evening.
It would be much later that Kid discovered the entire truth. He’d found out the hard way that her reasons for being with him had little to do with her feelings for him-she had no feelings for him. He was merely a dupe, someone acceptable to her parents, someone she could pretend to be going out with when, in reality, she was spending time with another man.
Cherry blossoms had little appeal to him after that. The smell of them would turn his stomach. He had left Virginia to go West, determined never to feel the way he had felt towards Abigail ever again. Never, until he had met Lou.
Lou reminded him of the wildflowers that grew around the discarded wagon wheel. There was an honest openness about her that made Abigail seem even more a bad dream. He smiled at that thought.
“Honest openness” was hardly a phrase most people would have used in reference to Lou. Heck, most people still thought she was a boy. But even in her Pony Express rider persona, there was something about Lou that set her apart from any other girl Kid had ever known and most definitely head and shoulders above anything Abigail Ridgely would ever become.
Sometimes Lou’s independence and determination made Kid angry beyond belief. Oh, he admired her for it, he respected her will to do what she had to do, but her dogged stubbornness when he tried to do things for her made him want to strangle her at times.
He’d like to see Lou and Abigail if they ever met. Wildflowers and cherry blossoms. More like coal oil and matches. Smiling again, Kid reached down to pick some of the flowers. He didn’t care what the others did or said, he would give Lou a bouquet tonight. The first bouquet of Spring.
Hopefully she wouldn’t throw them at him.
“You really have to wonder who would want to build a house way up here,” Cody remarked.
He and fellow Pony Express rider, Buck Cross, had stopped to let their horses rest after climbing to the top of what Cody referred to as a “mighty big mountain.” They had been surprised to find the remnants of a homestead at the very top of the mountain. A rail fence ran alongside the trail for maybe a hundred yards broken only by the remains of a gated entrance.
A rutted path ran from the gate up into the trees. While their horses rested, the two men had decided to walk up the path just to see what was there. They had found a shell of a house, the burned out skeleton of what had at one time been someone’s home.
“I would,” Buck answered. “You have to admit it’s beautiful up here.”
“You’re miles away from your nearest neighbor, probably snowed in all winter,” Cody pointed out as he brushed the snow from his jacket, “and you probably don’t see another human being for months at a time.”
“That sounds just about perfect to me,” his companion mused.
“That’s because you’re not a people person,” Cody stated.
“I’m not a what?” Buck asked.
“A people person,” Cody repeated. “You like to be by yourself. Not like me. I gotta be around people. I’m a people person.”
Realizing Cody had to have read the term in one of his dime novels, Buck simply shook his head.
“You’re probably right,” he agreed. “I guess maybe it wouldn’t matter much to me if I had a nice place on a nice piece of land somewhere like this. If I got lonesome, I could always ride to town.”
“Buck, my boy, you don’t know what you’re missing,” Cody exclaimed. “Big cities, that’s where it’s at!”
“Where what’s at?” the other man asked.
“LIFE!” Cody cried. “There’s nothing like it.”
Buck shrugged and started back to the horses. “We need to get moving.”
As they rode away from the fence, Buck looked back over his shoulder. He noticed, for the first time, a wagon wheel leaned up against the railing. The view beyond that solitary wheel showed a land covered with several inches of snow.
Cody was talking again, but Buck had stopped listening as he frequently did. The Express job wasn’t going to last forever. The telegraph was already shutting down stations in the East. He had some money set aside having never been one to require a lot of material things.
By the time they reached the next town, Buck had made his decision. While Cody took care of the mail delivery and waited for responses, Buck found the land agent and asked about the burned out house at the top of the mountain.
“Place has been abandoned for years,” the agent told him. “It’s an open claim.”
“How much?” Buck asked.
“Deed will cost you ten dollars,” the other man said. “You got that kind of money, boy?”
Ten minutes and ten dollars later, Buck could call the view from the top of the peak his own.
“You don’t know what you’re missing, Buck” Cody reprimanded when he discovered his companion’s plans.
“Neither do you, Cody,” Buck said with a shrug. “Neither do you.”
Stepping out onto the porch, Teaspoon was careful to avoid the icy patch that always formed just to the left of the door. He really should have fixed that leak, he thought. It just never seemed important until the first time he slipped across the ice and landed on his backside each year. And then, of course, it was too slippery to get up on the roof to apply the patch. So he had always left it till spring, only to forget in the spring because of the other things that needed to be done.
Inhaling deeply Teaspoon reveled in the cool crispness of the air. He had always loved the first snowfall of the season. Of course there weren’t many things he didn’t love about being here in Sweetwater.
The little town had grown in the years he’d been away. It had grown even more since his return just five years ago. He could remember when it would take him and the boys half the morning just to get to town. Now the town, heck, it was becoming a city he realized, was coming to him. People were making him offers for some of his land so they could build new and bigger houses.
Stepping off the porch into the ankle deep snow, Teaspoon walked towards the barn. When Emma and Sam had moved to Laramie for Sam’s job as territorial marshal, they had debated selling the land, but had decided to leave things as they were as long as the Pony Express had needed the bunkhouse.
After the Express had shut down, Teaspoon had thought that the farm would be a good place to retire to and had made a deal with Emma and Sam. Looking back now, the man decided he hadn’t made a mistake. As marshal of Rock Creek, he’d dreamed of a time when he could just forget about the problems of so many other people and be by himself.
When the governor had decided that marshalling was a younger man’s job, Teaspoon hadn’t really argued with him. He was feeling his age and just wanted to go someplace where he wouldn’t have to worry about barroom brawls and Saturday night drunks.
As he approached the barn, Teaspoon noticed the wagon wheel leaning against the rail of the corral. He had left it there intentionally to remind himself that it needed to be fixed. Somehow he’d not gotten around to that task any faster than he had the porch roof.
He debated taking the wheel inside the barn with him, then decided it could wait until spring too. There was a spare wheel on the wagon and it wasn’t going to be getting a lot of use this winter anyway. He had enough supplies in stock that he wouldn’t have to take the wagon to town. Anything he might need, he could handle on horseback.
Besides, he allowed as how it looked kind of pretty, sitting there with its layer of snow.
The two horses in the barn nickered a welcome as he entered. He remembered a time, long past, when the barn had been full of horses. Now just his own personal mounts remained.
Teaspoon smiled at the memory of his “boys” working with the half broke mustangs the Express had bought. Good horses, for sure, and good men to work with them.
He decided he wasn’t going to get maudlin over the past. It was too beautiful a day for that. He turned the horses out into the snow-covered corral, watching as the pair kicked up their heels, displaying youthfulness that neither of them possessed.
Feeling a bit youthful himself, Teaspoon climbed over the corral railing rather than walking back through the barn. Coming to a decision, he stopped at the tool shed on the way back to the house. He might as well get that roof fixed. It was a long time till spring.
Present day California
Jacquie frowned when she picked the letter from the historical society out of her letter box. They were after her wagon wheel for their exhibition again. 'Can't they take a hint?' She mused as she made her way into the kitchen. She set the coffee to brew then took great satisfaction in tearing the letter into as many pieces as she could manage with her small hands. Her jaw was set and her wide brown eyes were scrunched into an expression that was resolute in its determination as she dumped the torn letter into the bin.
"Take that Cyril Turley! You're not getting your grubby paws on my wheel!" Jacquie shouted in the general direction of town and the home of the self-important historical society president.
Feeling much improved of temper, Jacquie left the coffee to brew in the kitchen and made a beeline for her bedroom. She picked up her most treasured possession from its pride of place on her bedside table. The journal was very old, but years of beloved handling had kept the soft hide cover, supple and free of cracks. Jacquie ran her fingers over the book's spine with great reverance. This was her heritage. Her first attempts at reading had been in this book. Her child's eyes attracted to the flowing handwritten script of her ancestress. Jacquie knew every word of her favourite entries by heart, but she still loved to actually read the words.
7 days to Wedding Day!
It's only a week away now. Rachel's fussing no end about every detail while I try to calm my nerves. I just about jump out of my skin every time someone speaks to me. Poor Noah got an elbow in the gut this morning when he startled me while I was mucking out. I can't help it though. Teaspoon says nerves always show themselves for big talkers right before a wedding and run for cover when the actual day arrives. He ought to know I guess. But I can't shake this feeling that I'm making a mistake. I was so sure when I said yes to Kid. Lord knows I adore the man, but there's something that keeps a nagging on me. I can't rightly hear what it's saying, but it's getting louder as the wedding's getting closer.
I ain't never been much into believing superstitions, but even I can see that maybe life is trying to tell me something. Kid bought me a piece of beautiful blue ribbon to tie my bouquet together, so I'd have the 'something blue'. It fell out from my bunk this morning and I trod on it before I saw it lying there. I'd stepped in the mud and my boot left a big brown splotch right across the middle of it. Rachel washed it but the colour ran and the beautiful blue ribbon is now a dull grey. It looks awful and I don't know how I'm going to tell Kid.
6 days to Wedding Day!
I feel so guilty. Kid was so good about the ribbon. Well, he was until he found out that Jimmy bought me a new piece of blue ribbon. Jimmy was so cute the way he sort of got all embarrassed and shy about giving it to me. He actually blushed as he pushed the ribbon into my hand. Our eyes met for what must be the upteenth time this week and I found my heart doing that flop-flop thing it did when he kissed me that one time. He gets me so confused. I love Kid. I do. It's probably the nerves getting at me again, but when Jimmy's hand touched mine today, I had this urge to hang onto that hand of his and never let go. It can't all be cold feet can it?
Rachel had me try on my dress today to make sure the length is right with my shoes. I don't think I felt the way I'm supposed to. Rachel kept going on about how gorgeous the dress is and asked me how I think I'll feel when I'm walking down the aisle to Kid. My mind went blank. No, that's not true. It went black. I couldn't picture it at all. That scared me and I suddenly couldn't get the damn dress off of me quick enough. While I was pulling at it, the heel of my wedding shoe broke off. Buck would say it was a bad sign, and I'm beginning to think he'd be right.
4 days to Wedding Day!
My cold feet have take over my life. I'm snapping at everyone, especially Kid. He's so excited about our wedding and I'm feeling more and more guilty because I'm not. I'm having nightmares now. Real bad ones. I woke in the middle of the night screaming 'I can't do this' and I woke everyone. They all gathered around full of concern and kept asking me if I was okay. Everyone but Jimmy. He just stayed in his bunk. Although he refused to look at me, I get the feeling he's waiting for something, but I have no idea what it is. I also think he suspects what's going through my mind. I just thank God that Kid wasn't here to hear me and the others have promised not to tell him about the nightmares.
Wedding Day tomorrow!
Life is definitely trying to get my attention. When Kid rode in this morning, I took Katie to rub her down and feed her. She bit me. Over a year I've known that horse and taken care of her a hundred times or more, and one day before my wedding she bites me. On my ring finger. It's so swollen that Kid won't be able to put my wedding ring on it. Jimmy was watching. He was right there when it happened and he didn't lift a finger to help me. He didn't even offer to look at it. I could be wrong, but I don't think he trusted himself to touch me. I could be wrong, but I hope I'm not and that makes me feel even more guilty. Jimmy still gives me the impression that he's waiting for something but he's hardly said two to me in the last two days, so I don't feel I can ask him about it.
April 7, 1861
Yesterday was my wedding day. Jimmy collected me in the wagon to take me to the church. His eyes when he looked at me in my dress said everything. My stomach was in my shoes when I got into that wagon. I wasn't nervous anymore. Only full of dread at what was going to happen when I got to the church. I was looking for signs now. The flowerheads in my bouquet all fell off, I put my heel through my veil, I put a finger through my new stockings, but I still got into that wagon.
We never made it out of the yard.
The right wheel broke away from the axle and the wagon pitched to the side. I fell into Jimmy and we both rolled off the wagon onto the ground. I managed to disentangle myself from my veil and get my dress back into some sort of order, then I looked at Jimmy and started to laugh. He gave me that adorable, sheepish, rueful pout of his and mumbled something about checking wheels. My heart just leapt at the sight of him sitting there. That's when I knew I was never going to marry Kid that day, or any other day.
Fate had stopped trying to nudge me in the right direction and in a last ditch effort to make me see sense, it had literally thrown me off the road that led to Kid. I stopped laughing and before Jimmy could mount a protest of any kind, I just threw myself at him. I was intent on kissing him into submission and not letting him start to be all noble or guilty about Kid. I had a single moment of absolute rightness. I wanted Jimmy.
Well, I have him now. He's all mine! Yesterday was hard on Kid and I don't have any real hope that he'll forgive me. I'll be a lesser person without his friendship in my life. One day he may see that I did the right thing for all three of us, but that day will be a long time coming. For now, I have my hands full with Jimmy's guilt over what happened. He told me last night that he'd seen it coming when that blue ribbon faded, and he'd been waiting for me to catch on to what Fate was trying to tell me. It struck me then how very different life with Jimmy will be from the one I couldn't picture with Kid. He's going to let me make my mistakes. But I plan on thumping him senseless if he ever lets me get that close to ruining my life again!
Jacquie smiled as she closed the journal. She glanced out of her window to where that fateful wagon wheel rested in the place of honour it had held for over two centuries. "No way Cyril. Not in my lifetime!"
Kid walked along the path that led from behind the ranch house down toward the creek that ran along the back edge of the property. This was a daily ritual for him that once he finished his chores around the barn, he would head down to the creek to meet his wife. When Lou finished her chores in the house after dinner, she would take their eight month old daughter and head down the same path to the little clearing they had discovered just off the main route to the creek. She would lay down an old quilt and sit their child on it, along with the wooden blocks and rag doll that Grandpa Teaspoon and Grandma Rachel had given their 'granddaughter' for Christmas. Lou would then sit on an old fallen log and wait for her husband.
This was their special spot, a place to go and be away from everyone and everything. They had shared a lot of wonderful moments there in the short amount of time they had lived in the ranch house. This was even the location Lou had picked to reveal to Kid that he was going to become a daddy. That was a day Kid vowed he would never forget.
As Kid followed the path, he recalled what made he and Lou fall in love with that spot the moment they had seen it. It was at the widest point in the path, an old wooden fence bordered a patch of grass, separating it from the creek a few feet below. A small patch of trees stopped the fence from continuing on the right and beyond that was an enbankment overgrown with weeds and wildflowers.
Lou liked nothing better than to lean on the fence and watch the action of the creek as it tumbled over rocks on its journey to a new destination. Many a night she would walk home with her hands full of the wildflowers she made the Kid climb over the fence to pick. Since the trees only shaded part of the grassy area, she and Kid would usually venture there when the day was coming to a close.
Kid smiled in anticipation of seeing his family waiting for him. The baby would more than likely be crawling off the blanket on her way to inspect the old wagon wheel he had propped up against the fence. Kid believed that wheel belonged in that location because he felt it signified the relationship he shared with his wife. If he told anyone why he felt that way, they would probably think he was crazy, but he didn't care. As he walked, he reflected on what had made him come to that conclusion.
Shortly after he and Lou had gotten married, the Express ended and the young married couple found themselves without a place to live. It was luck them finding the small ranch on the outskirts of town. Being just what they wanted, they bought it and moved in right away.
Kid had always dreamed of having his own horse ranch and in order for that to occur, he would need a fully equipped barn to house the horses. He instantly set about cleaning and repairing the old structure that came with the property. And that's when he saw it.
Propped up against a back wall in one of the stalls was an old wagon wheel, well worn and damaged in spots. Kid had seen hundreds of wagon wheels in his time so he didn't know what made him look closely at this one; maybe it was the fact that it was on his property, in his barn, near his house, the only things of significance he'd ever owned in his life, except for his horse. Whatever the reason, it had caught his interest.
Kid studied the wheel carefully, marveling at the way it was made. This wheel, with spokes evenly spaced throughout it, appeared to be perfect but upon close inspection, it was clearly not without it's faults. It reminded him of life and in particular, his relationship with Lou. The wheel looked to be a perfect circle but, in fact, revealed hidden flaws, just like any couple would. The task was to overlook the flaws and reflect on what worked.
The spokes were what caught Kid's eye the most, the way they continued around the circle, not having a beginning or an end. It reminded him of the look of a wedding ring. It, too, symbolized coming around full circle: you never ended up where you started, you learned and grew then moved on to a new place in life. It showed that there was always a new beginning ahead, life didn't just stop because a bump came along in the path you were taking, you had to face it then continue on your way to whatever awaited you. And there was always something new and different to look forward to.
The spokes would get broken, in need of repair or replacement, but it would be taken care of and you would move on. Thus was the way with any relationship between two people; it was the joining of different parts to become one. There would be the usual ups and downs, the drifting from one place to another, not always sure of where you were going but managing to get there anyway, and how it might get slow, almost stopping when it came upon a rut in the road. It might take some maneuvering on both ends but eventually, you would find yourself back on the right course toward one another again.
Everything Kid had reflected on regarding that old wheel he had found, made him love Lou even more and be very grateful they had managed to get to where they were. He knew he couldn't dispose of the wheel so when he and Lou had discovered that clearing off the path, he brought it up there, placing it against the fence. This way, each time he looked at it, he could think back on what he and Lou had gotten past to become the happy couple they were. Also, to remember that if they went through a rough patch, to just hold on because it would smooth out before long.
Kid approached their special spot and his smile broadened upon seeing the loves of his life. Any problem was worth overcoming when this was the end result. He scooped up his daughter then sat down next to his wife, kissed her then held her hand, feeling the circle of love on her finger. He traced that ring with his finger and came around full circle as he never found an ending, just a continuation of their love for each other.
He sat on his horse as raw, bitter winds tore at his skin. It was nothing though, compared to the cold pit of pain that resided in his soul. The pain had taken up residence the day his brother and friend had died. Despite the remaining friends around him, he felt as if an essential flame has gone out that day, leaving him to walk meaninglessly through life. What was life, if Ike was forever gone?
When the Express ended, his friends had scattered to the four winds, making their own lives, while he wondered what there was left for him. Would the town accept him now that he was no longer needed to deliver their mail and packages? Could he find a purpose, settle down, have a comfortable little life? Teaspoon and Rachel had pleaded with him to stay, but in the end, he'd headed out. No destination in mind, he'd gone wherever his horse had led him, stayed until he decided it was time to move on.
He'd visited his brother, but the winter was harsh on the land and the government was trying to force them onto a reservation. He was still the outsider, the one who had gone off to live with the White Man, and despite his brother's claims that he was welcome he felt he didn't belong and packed up his provisions and belongings and moved on. That had been nearly a month ago. And now, as he sat in the bitter January winds, he longed for warmth. Warmth for his body, but most of all, for his soul.
Cresting a hill, Buck saw a town on the horizon and decided it was as good a place as any to stop for the night. A warm bed, warm food, and maybe for tonight he could find respite from the dreams and voices. It wasn't until he was stopped in front of the hotel that he realized his wanderings had brought him back to a place he hadn't been in months. Hamm's Bluff.
Turning in his saddle, he swung his head around and scanned the town. Then, for the first time in weeks, a smile crept across his face. The Silver Wind Hotel was still open. The question remained as to whether Justine's family still owned it, and what kind of reception he would receive. He didn't know, but he was willing to find out.
Sitting alone in the dining room, Buck pushed the empty plate away and sighed silently. Just as his first time here, the food was delicious. An appetite born of cold and hunger had been sated by the wonderful dishes prepared by the kitchen staff. The dining room, as the rest of the hotel, was welcoming and inviting, as if he was staying with friends instead of complete strangers. And so far, everyone he had met was a stranger. They welcomed him, set up his room, delivered his meals, but he knew no one. The one person he knew, the one person he hoped to see, he hadn't spotted yet. He hoped it meant that the family hadn't left.
Then, just as he was ready to leave and head up to his room, the kitchen doors swung open and he saw her. Standing there, he stared, aware that he was probably drawing strange looks but not caring. She was a familiar face, and after months of solitary wandering, he found him longing for just a chance to talk to someone.
As if she could feel the weight of his stare, she straightened and turned from the waiter she was talking to. A moment passed between them, and recognition shone in her eyes. With a welcoming smile, she crossed the dining room and stopped at his table. "Buck. It's really good to see you again."
"Thanks," he smiled. "I wasn't sure if your family was still here, anymore. I haven't been here in a while, but it's nice to see a familiar face."
"Were you leaving?" she asked, looking at his empty plate.
"Headed upstairs to my room. I've been out on the trail for a few days."
"And you must be tired, of course," she smiled kindly. "I hope you enjoyed your meal."
"It was delicious," he told her. "Best I've had in weeks."
"Are you staying for a while, or heading out in the morning?"
"No real plans to go anywhere," he shrugged. "I just go wherever, whenever."
Her eyes darkened briefly, as her brow creased. Then with a little shake of her head a warm and enticing smile spread across her face. "I hope you'll decide to stick around for a few days. Maybe we could meet for breakfast tomorrow, same time as before?"
"I'd like that," he said genuinely. "Well, I'm going to turn in for the night. I'll see you in the morning."
He turned and headed for the stairs, feeling a small measure of peace and comfort. The cold that seemed to have taken permanent lodging in his bones was eased, and within minutes of climbing into his bed he fell into a deep and dreamless slumber.
The next three days a blizzard from the north blew, causing the residents and visitors in Hamm's Bluff to stay bundled up indoors. For Buck and Justine, it was a time spent talking of their lives and getting to know each other again. Buck apologized for not having been back since the time he met her. He told her about Ike, how they met as misfit, unwanted children at an orphanage and grew to become brothers in every sense but blood. When he spoke of his death and how it left him feeling lost and alone, he felt some of the cloud that had settled over him begin to lift.
It was the first time he'd voiced those feelings aloud. In doing so, he found they didn't have as much power over him. Ike would always be a piece of his life he felt was missing, a friend taken too soon, but he also felt peaceful. The memories would linger he was sure, but for thefirst time since Ike's death he felt that he just might make it back to shore and survive.
By the time the blizzard had blew itself out, he wasn't lost in the past. Justine told him about the family they'd left behind when they moved from Canada, and how her parents were thinking of taking a trip back in the spring to visit them. She said that she was looking for someone to help manage the hotel while they were away, and if he was interested in sticking around, he was welcome to the job. He had to admit, the offer was very enticing.
The thought of sticking around in one place long enough to warrant unpacking his bags, of making new friends and remembering to cherish the old, of finding a spot to welcome him was definitely appealing. Of course, the fact that it was accompanied by a beautiful brunette was certainly helping the cause. He had several months to figure it out, but from where he stood, he had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
He stood looking at the lone wagon wheel and wondered what story it would tell if he had the time to listen. It looked so peaceful leaning against the fence post - just resting and taking in the magnificent view, much as he was. Still, he wondered, how did it wind up here, in the snow, all alone? Why was it left standing so it looked strong, dependable, worth something? If it was still good, why was it left behind? Had its owner meant to abandon it? If so, was it’s placement a message to whoever found it? There was so much about these people he didn’t understand. He shrugged and turned to his companion, “Ready to go?” he asked as he mounted his horse and turned his back on the wheel.
To Find Where I Belong
Author’s Note: This is a sequel to the Quick Fic story “As the Wheel Falls” written for the “summer” wheel picture prompt.
He gave his horse her lead, letting the sure-footed animal find the way across the rocky foothills. It was winter, and most people wouldn't have even considered journeying out in the weather. He was sure it was even more foolish to be traveling in this area when he had no firm destination in mind, but he'd known it was time to move on.
They topped the hill, which nearly qualified as a mountain itself, and he stopped, dismounting to give the horse a little rest after the strenuous climb. But even as he looked around he saw more dark clouds moving in. They couldn't tarry too long here on this exposed summit.
Buck grabbed his canteen and shook it hard, breaking up the ice that had started to form inside. He took a drink as he looked around again, trying to get a better idea of where he was.
And then he saw it.
From this height and distance it was a barely visible sliver of silver across the snowy plains below. But he knew that river - and maybe he finally knew why something had drawn him this way.
Lou had to laugh as she brought another bowl of popped corn into the room. They were supposed to be stringing the fluffy white puffs to decorate the Christmas tree, but her daughters, four year old Ellen Rose and two year old Faith, seemed to have other ideas. There was popcorn strewn all around the children. The stray cat the girls had found a few months back cavorted with them as they laughed and threw the puffs at each other. Theresa was hanging the strands they had managed to complete, while Clarissa, Kid's cousin, tried vainly to keep some semblance of order with the girls.
Lou set the bowl down and grabbed Faith, tipping the little girl upside down among squeals of laughter. "How much popcorn have you eaten, little lady?" But Faith just giggled more and squirmed until Lou finally lowered her into Clarissa's arms.
"I'm sure they've managed to get some of it onto the strings," Clarissa pointed out.
Lou laughed and sat down on the floor next to the other woman. "It's so good to hear them laugh. I won't even care if they don't eat much dinner." She watched for a moment longer, then turned to Clarissa. "How are you doing?" Clarissa had been displaced from her Virginia home by the war, and had then lost her husband and young son to some senseless, random fighting after the war was over. When she had first arrived to stay with them for a while, she had been so sad and withdrawn. Gradually though the new surroundings had worked some magic and Clarissa had blossomed again, becoming a very good friend. In fact, Lou had already started mulling some possible matchmaking options for the spring. But first they had to make it through the holidays, her first without her own family.
"I'm doing fine," Clarissa answered. "The girls really keep my mind off of . . . other things."
"They do love you," Lou answered. "We all do."
Clarissa smiled. "Thank you. You've just been so kind, taking me in, making me part of your family."
Lou's reply was cut off when the front door opened, bringing in a swirl of bitterly cold air - as well as her husband and brother. The girls ran to the door, laughing as Kid shook snow off his jacket onto them. "Daddy, you're cold!" Ellen squealed.
Kid laughed and scooped her up. "Yes, I am," he agreed. "I need a big hug to warm up." Ellen obliged by wrapping her arms tightly around his neck.
"Something sure smells good," Jeremiah observed as he hung up his jacket. He looked over at his sister and grinned. "Clarissa must be cooking."
Lou just glared at her brother, who wasn't nearly as funny as he seemed to think. "If you expect any Christmas Eve dinner, you'd better be careful," she warned.
Jeremiah's grin just grew broader, and he didn't answer. Instead, he picked Faith up and spun her around as he headed for the fire to warm up.
Kid had put Ellen down and hung up his own jacket. He started toward the fire, but stopped short as he saw the little Nativity figures Lou had waiting near the tree. "Oh, I forgot to bring in the straw you wanted to set up the crèche. I'll go get it now."
Clarissa got up and pushed Kid gently back toward the fire. "You need to warm up," she said. "I'll go get the straw."
Buck stayed close to the riverbank as he made his way east. As he recognized more and more landmarks he asked the horse for a little more speed, hoping to make his destination before dark.
The sun was low in the western sky when he saw what he was looking for. The fence reached almost to the river, then led away to where a cozy white house stood well back from the water. Smoke rose from the chimney in small puffs, and the windows glowed with light and warmth from within; he could only hope it was still Lou and Kid living there. He hadn't had a letter from Lou for a while. Of course, it had been quite a while since he'd written to tell them where he was.
He reached the end of the fence and stopped, smiling at the memories. The old wagon wheel was still there - it didn't look like it had been moved at all in the over four years he'd been gone. It was snow-covered now, but still a reminder of what had brought them to this place. And he had promised Lou he'd find it, and them, again someday.
Buck started forward again, following the fence. He could see the barn now too, something new since he'd been here. He resisted the urge to race up to the house - that might not be the safest approach, especially on the chance that he no longer knew the owners.
He was almost at the house when he saw someone come out of the barn. Her head was bent against the wind, her skirt swirling in the gusts. The figure seemed a little too tall to be Lou, so he hoped it might be Theresa, but just then the wind whipped her hair around - dark brown hair, not Theresa's blond locks.
Maybe they had moved on.
Well, there was only one way to find out. He started forward again, very slowly, debating whether it would scare the woman more if he called out to her.
Clarissa struggled against the wind, which seemed determined to blow her back to the barn. But she should be almost back to the house . . .
She stopped short, suddenly aware she was no longer alone. There was a man on horseback almost between her and the house. For a moment the panic returned - this was the way it had started when her husband and son were killed.
"Ma'am." Buck tipped his hat in her direction, carefully keeping his other hand free and in plain view. She looked frightened. "I don't mean you any harm. I was hoping to find that this place was still owned by some friends of mine."
"And who might that be?"
"They were going by the name McCloud. Louise and Kid."
Clarissa forced herself to breathe again. The man did know the right names . . . "And you say you know them?"
"I helped them build this house. My name is Buck Cross."
Her eyes went wide and she finally smiled. "Oh, I've heard so much about you!"
He smiled back, relieved that the tension seemed to be broken. "Anything good?"
She laughed. "Pretty much all of it." She moved a few steps closer and added, "Kid still complains about the time you and Ike fed Katy the hot peppers."
Buck grinned. Actually, the peppers had been meant for Kid - it hadn't been his and Ike's fault that Kid spilled the stew in the barn and Katy got to it. Kid would have deserved it, but he'd felt sorry for Katy. "Maybe I'll tell you the whole story sometime," he said. He had a feeling Kid might have left a few things out. "Miss . . .?"
"Clarissa. Clarissa Wallace. Kid is my cousin."
He dismounted slowly, twisting his back to ease the ache from being in the saddle so long. Then he walked forward, his hand out. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am."
She took his hand, then gasped. "Oh, where are my manners? You must be half frozen. Come inside - they'll be so happy to see you!" She led the way toward the kitchen door.
Lou was basting the turkey when she heard the door open and she called out over her shoulder, "I'm glad you're back! We were afraid you'd been blown away in that wind."
"No, but I did find something I think you'll be interested to see," Clarissa answered.
Lou closed the oven door and turned around. Her eyes went wide with surprise, and then she dropped the pan of butter in her hand as she threw herself into Buck's arms. "Oh, my!"
Kid heard the crash and the cry and went to the kitchen door. "Lou, is there . . ." He stopped short as he saw his wife being held in another man's arms. A very familiar looking man though . . . "Buck!"
Buck let go of Lou and turned to face Kid, only to find himself quickly bound in another embrace. "Hey, Kid."
"Damn, it's good to see you!" Kid said as he stepped back. "Where have you been?"
"That's a long story," Buck replied.
"Well, you'll be here plenty long enough to tell it," Lou declared. "You just take off your coat and I'll get some coffee."
It was a festive Christmas Eve. There were presents under the tree, and the adults took great delight in watching Ellen and Faith open their new toys and books. Knowing he'd be arriving around the holiday, Buck had brought some gifts too - engraved pocket knives for Kid and Jeremiah, silk scarves for Lou and Theresa, and an assortment of small toys and trinkets for the children.
He held one of the trinkets back though, and when there was a quiet moment he handed it to Clarissa. "I didn't know you'd be here," he said, "so this isn't very personal. But I'd like you to have it." In fact, for some reason, it was very important to him that she would get a gift.
She took the comb, rubbing her finger lightly over the inlaid pearl in the handle. "No, it's beautiful," she whispered. And she couldn't explain why she was so moved that this man, who'd been nothing more than stories only a few hours ago, would give her a gift.
They talked long into the night, catching up. Faith got over her initial shyness and decided that Uncle Buck gave good hugs; she fell asleep in his arms. Clarissa was seated next to him on the divan, and Ellen curled up between them, her head on Clarissa's lap.
Buck heard all about the hard work that had led to the successful farm that existed today. In turn, he talked about his wanderings and various jobs - herding cattle on several ranches, working for a mining company and the railroad, even a turn at prospecting on his own claim.
"Didn't strike it rich, huh?" Kid asked.
"Actually, I did all right," Buck answered. In fact, he had a tidy little sum waiting in a Denver bank. "It just wasn't what I wanted." He looked down at the little angels sleeping in his arms and by his side and he sighed softly. Then his eyes met Clarissa's - and suddenly the room seemed very warm.
They had a lot of opportunity to talk over the next few days as the wind continued to howl in from the north. Only the essential work got done outside.
Finally, on New Year's day, the weather broke. The winds switched to come from the south, bringing a light snowfall in the morning, but mild temperatures by afternoon. The children jumped at the opportunity to play outdoors, and the adults all went with them, tired of being cooped up.
Buck and Clarissa stood off to one side, watching as Faith and Ellen ran in circles around the snowman they'd helped the girls make. Finally, feeling the courage he'd been trying to build up over the last few days slipping away, Buck asked, "Would you like to go for a walk?"
Clarissa looked up and smiled - about time he asked! "I'd love to."
Kid watched them walk away along the fence. He headed toward the porch where he knew Lou was watching too. He reached for his wife's hand just as he saw Clarissa put her hand out. Buck wrapped it in his own as they kept walking.
"What do you think?" Kid asked as he leaned his head against Lou's shoulder.
She smiled and leaned back against him. "I think I don't have to worry about finding a beau for Clarissa this spring." Of course, the other woman was Kid's relative, so she asked, "What do you think?"
He grinned and wrapped his arms around her. "I think Buck's already family, so why not make it official?"
Oblivious to the conversation about them, Buck and Clarissa walked to the end of the fence, stopping near the wagon wheel. "I've heard the story, about how this wheel decided where Kid and Louise would build their home," she said.
Buck nodded, brushing some snow off the wheel. "It was a good choice," he said. His fingers remained resting lightly on the rim.
"Maybe it was meant to be your sign of where to stay too," she suggested quietly. Then she blushed, hoping he didn't consider that too forward!
Buck looked back at the house, at the wheel, and finally at Clarissa. He hadn't felt like he could stay four years ago, but right now he couldn't imagine being anywhere else. Maybe he'd needed the time traveling to figure that out. He smiled as he answered, "I think you might be right."
Authors Note: This story is technically a sequel to “Something Wonderful”. However, it can be read as a standalone… you don’t necessarily need to read the first story to understand this one. Thanks to Lori for originally coming up with the idea to write a “QuickFic” series.
Buck directed the wagon to the front of the ranchhouse, his brow furrowed and his mind distracted by errant thoughts. It was only when the horses came to a stop that he realized he’d reached his destination. He glanced at his hands, gripping the reins tightly enough to be drained of blood, then raised his head to quickly scan the porch and surrounding land. He shook his head in consternation. If Elizabeth had been nearby, she’d have seen the worried look on his face, no matter how fast he tried to hide it. She’d have known that something was wrong.. He shook his head again, determined to plaster a convincing smile on his face before he faced his wife. He would not burden her with his troubles.
He pulled himself from the buckboard, and his good intentions abruptly faded when his gaze fell on the corral. The verdant grassland should be teeming with horses. His horses. Buck’s shoulders slumped as his eyes raked over the few remaining members of his once thriving herd. He’d had to put down the last of the stallions only last week. The disease that had attacked his horses had run rampant and once it had spread, it was like a prairie wildfire. There was no stopping it.
Now the bills were piling up. Today, both the mercantile and the feed supply store had threatened to withhold any more credit. And he had no idea where the money to pay them was going to come from.
His livelihood was being consumed by that prairie fire.
Buck ran a hand through his hair, turning his back on the nearly empty corral before hefting a large sack of sugar onto his shoulder. He took a deep breath and focused on “happy thoughts” before heading toward the front door.
He’d taken only a few steps before the sound of Elizabeth’s voice drifted from the backyard. Elizabeth’s very loud, very strident, very angry voice.. Dropping the bag of sugar carefully on the steps, Buck reversed direction and began striding purposefully along the side of the long ranchhouse, his hand resting casually on the butt of his gun.
“…but I don’t expect you to understand that, Mr. Bellingham, since you seem to have only a rudimentary understanding of the English language!” Elizabeth was asserting loudly as he rounded the corner into the backyard. “As for your offer,” Elizabeth spat the word like a curse, “I can assure you that neither this property nor this stock are for sale.. And if it were, you can be secure in the knowledge that we would not sell to an overstuffed, overeducated, pompous windbag such as yourself!”
Buck arched a brow and lifted his hand from his gun. It was obvious that Elizabeth had the situation well in hand. He leaned against the wall and crossed his arms at his chest before asking placidly, “Is there a problem?”
“Mister…” Bellingham’s voice quivered slightly, and Buck had to force back a grin. It was plain to see that the city slicker had never had to deal with a tart-tongued blonde banshee before. Luckily, Buck mused, the pleasures far outweighed the disadvantages.
Bellingham cleared his throat and tried again. “Mister Cross, I’m glad to see you,” he said, this time the words coming out clear and strong. The man tucked his hands into his vest, the posture coming off as an affectation he used frequently. He seemed to puff up at the sound of his own voice. Buck could imagine that voice enthralling a courtroom back east. Fortunately, Sweetwater was not “back east“ and an orator‘s voice had little value here. “I was merely telling your lovely wife…”
Elizabeth let out a decidedly unfeminine and most unlovely snort. Buck risked a glance in her direction, but her eyes were fixed heatedly on the dandy who’d seen fit to disrupt her day.
“Um… yes…” Bellingham struggled to get back on track, “I was telling your wife that I’d be willing to make an offer on your land--”
“And I was telling this officious little toad that on the day we sell to him, pigs will dance a waltz on Main Street,” Elizabeth interrupted hotly.
Buck put a hand to his mouth to stifle his own snort at Bellingham’s shocked expression.. He moved forward, resting a hand on the man’s shoulder. The contact seemed to jolt the man out of his stupor.
“It appears, Mr. Bellingham, that you have your answer,” Buck said matter-of-factly, giving Bellingham a little push toward the front of the house. With a final look of horror in Elizabeth’s direction, Bellingham took the cue and made his leave. Only when he was certain that the man was out of hearing distance did Buck turn back to his wife.
“Don’t!” Elizabeth’s sharp tone and upraised palm stopped both his voice and his forward momentum. He searched her face, finding only barely suppressed fury. Fury at him. “Take care of something in the stables, and don’t come in the house!”
Buck took a faltering step. “There’s supplies for the kitchen--”
“Hang the supplies! I mean it, Buck, stay outside!” With a final glare, Elizabeth drew up her skirts and stalked into the house. Buck winced as the screen door slammed in her wake, and wondered what he‘d done to stir up Hurricane Elizabeth. From the way she sounded, he’d be sleeping on the sofa tonight. And he wanted to know what he’d done to warrant that kind of punishment! But Buck was no fool -- he’d wait till the storm had passed.. It always did.
* * * * *
By the time thirty minutes had passed, Buck had straightened the tack room, reorganized the tools, and re-labelled fifteen packages of feed. Finally he merely slumped onto one of the sacks of grain and stared into space. Try as he might, he couldn’t figure out a plan of attack that would enlighten him as to the source of his wife’s anger without unsheathing her stinger in his direction. He was considering options -- a straightforward attack or a diversion? -- when the rustle of skirts caused him to raise his head. Elizabeth stood framed in the open doorway, and as usual the sight of her bathed in diffused sunlight made his blood race and his heartbeat quicken.
“Buck? Come on. We’re going on a picnic.”
Buck found that his mouth had dropped open, and he closed it with a snap. If she had noticed, Elizabeth gave no sign. She merely turned and walked back the way she’d come, certain that he would follow.
Buck relinquished the reins of the still-loaded wagon to Elizabeth, content to watch her as she directed the horses to her apparently planned destination. She occasionally stole glances behind them, ensuring that the picnic basket placed precariously amongst the sacks and packages in the rear of the wagon was secure. Buck cleared his throat, a precursor to actually asking what brought upon this sudden change of heart. A sharp glance from Elizabeth made him change his mind. Instead, Buck folded his hands on his stomach and turned his attention to the scenery. He was perfectly willing to wait for Elizabeth to make the first move. In fact, since Buck had no idea what he was going to say anyway, he actually preferred it.
The wagon turned onto a little used road on their property -- the road that led to the shack that had been the land’s former homestead. When he’d bought the land and begun creating his ranch, the tiny leaning building had reminded Buck of the former bunkhouse. And he’d lived in it during the first few months when the new house was being built.
Getting down from the wagon, Buck saw that the little shack had not weathered the previous winter well. The slant of the roof was more pronounced than he remembered, and the small chinks in its neglected walls had expanded to mammoth proportions. He felt a twinge of guilt, remembering the building as it had been the previous fall, when he’d brought his new bride to see it. Elizabeth had been thrilled at the prospect of another house on the property. She’d been filled with plans to convert it to a playhouse… already preparing for the day when they’d be blessed with children.
Now she was with child… and Buck would be afraid to let a titmouse into that house, never mind a rambunctious toddler.
Buck turned to see Elizabeth already spreading a blanket out on the rocky land near the fence… the only part of the fence that hadn’t already tumbled over in a rotted heap of lumber. Determined to shake off his melancholy mood and get to the heart of whatever was troubling her, Buck crossed the ground to drop to his knees at her side.
“Do you remember this place?”
Elizabeth’s voice was mild, but Buck still found himself averting her eyes. He scooped up a small handful of sandy soil, letting it drift through his fingers before answering.
“There’s still time, Elizabeth,” he said at last. “I have months to do the repairs. We’ll have our playhouse.” Buck winced inwardly, both pleased that he managed to keep his voice steady and ashamed that he was making promises that he didn‘t know he could keep. In a month, he reflected, he might not even own the land.
“Not that,” Elizabeth’s voice brought him from his reverie.. “That.”
Buck raised his eyes, following the direction of his wife’s pointed finger. His gaze took in the ramshackle fence, the leaning wagon wheel, the waterless well, the dry and dusty land. Finally he turned back to Elizabeth, at a complete loss as to what she meant.
Elizabeth sighed. “Last autumn, just after we were married, you took me on a tour of the ranch. We looked at the bunkhouse and yes, we made plans to convert it. And then we went inside and,” Elizabeth blushed slightly at the memory, “christened it.”
Buck smiled at the recollection as he took Elizabeth’s hand in his. “I remember that.”
“And afterwards,” Elizabeth continued, “I asked you why you didn’t use this land. I thought that it could be used for planting and you said that the soil was too dry and too rocky. That nothing would grow here. That it would be useless to even try. You called this land desolate.”
Elizabeth pulled her hand from his and got to her feet, her arms spread wide as she walked to the wagon wheel. Her gaze fell on the flowers clinging tentatively to life under the blazing sun. Carefully, she cradled one fragile blossom in her palm. “Look at it now, Buck. Things grow here.”
Buck pulled himself to his feet. “Bethie--”
“Because appearances can be deceiving. Because there’s always hope. Because sometimes just surviving is a struggle, but we can never give up.” Elizabeth lifted her eyes from the flowers and stepped to Buck’s side. She rested a hand lightly against his cheek before smoothing away the worried furrow of his brow. “Why didn’t you tell me that we were in trouble?”
“What could I tell you? That I failed? That we might lose everything?” Buck pulled away, scowling at the ground as if it was the very earth that had caused his frequent anxiety. “It’s my problem and--”
“That’s a crock and you know it,” Elizabeth interrupted. “The moment we said ‘I Do’, your problems became mine and mine became yours. This land is mine too -- maybe not in the eyes of the law, but it’s mine all the same. And you’ve got a stubborn streak in you! You’re more obstinate than Samson when you put your mind to it. Goodness Buck, sometimes you honestly make me want to grab up that long hair and strangle you with it!”
Buck choked out a strangled laugh at the image. He took a step toward his wife, drawing her hands into his. “I guess I am a little stubborn,” he admitted sheepishly.
Elizabeth rolled her eyes at his understatement before turning serious again. “How much debt are we in?”
Buck took a deep breath. As unpleasant as it would be to face Elizabeth’s disappointment in him, he suddenly felt relieved. Keeping the secret had been tearing at his conscience and his soul more than he’d been willing to admit. “It’s bad. I have the figures at the house.”
“I want to see them when we go back. Then we need to work out a plan of attack.”
Buck’s lips upturned in a weak smile as her words recalled his earlier thoughts.
“When I was in town last week, I saw that the hotel restaurant was looking for a waitress. I can also take in odd jobs -- cooking, sewing--”
“Bethie, no. I can’t ask you to do that.” Buck pressed his palm against his wife’s stomach, caressing her softly through the confines of her skirt. To the outside world she seemed not to have changed a bit, but he knew the contours of her body better than he knew his own. The slight swell of her stomach attested to the new life growing there. The thought of her lugging heavy platters of food almost made him nauseous. “We‘ll… we‘ll work something else out.”
Elizabeth clucked her tongue in irritation. “Firstly, Buck Cross, you didn’t ask me to do it. I volunteered. Secondly, you certainly can ask me. We’re married, and that means we share the burdens as well as the pleasures.. This is our fight.”
Buck found himself being pulled in by the sheer force of her determination. His heart swelled as he marvelled anew at the woman he had married -- the woman whom he grew to love more each day, even when he didn’t think it was humanly possible. He still had no intention of letting her work in a restaurant, but he was willing to entertain whatever other possibilities she may come up with. For the first time since the disease had rampaged through his herd, he began to feel a sense of optimism..
“And we’re going to flourish together?”
Elizabeth stepped into the circle of his arms. “No matter where or how we live, we’ll always flourish together.”
Music from the dance always seemed to carry past the walls of the saloon, but when the wind was right you could hear it clear to the end of town.
"Thank the gods for the wind."
"I'm sorry... did you say something?"
Buck started for a moment, startled from his thoughts by her voice. "Just a thought."
"Anything you want to tell me?"
Her wheat colored hair looked lovely in the sunset rays. Again, his thoughts were getting away with him. "Nothing, really."
"Nothing?" Abigail laid her hands on the rough hewn fence rail before she leaned back to look up into his eyes. Her long sandy lashes framed her emerald colored eyes.. the same color as the ribbon in her hair.
Buck couldn't stop thinking about her, couldn't stop wondering what it would feel like to touch her hair, feel it against his cheek...
Heat colored his cheeks... being caught was never good. Especially when the person catching him in such thoughts was Abigail Moriarty. "I'm sorry, Miss-"
She leaned toward the fence, her trim middle pressed against the thick wooden rail in a way that accentuated the round curve of her bosom to its best advantage. "Oh, Buck... I really am hurt. I've told you time and time again to call me Bea. All my friends call me Bea."
"Bea." He tried the sound in his own voice and shivered at the sound. 'Bea'... 'Bea'.. he could taste it on his lips, sweet and tart... delicate and full bodied, just like...
"You're doin' it again, Buck."
"Silly.." he could hear the chiding tone of her voice. "You're drifting off again."
He lifted his gaze to watch her as she flounced a few steps away and set herself down on a discarded wheel. "I've just got a lot on my mind."
Her giggle filled the air around him, twinging through the melodies of music from the dance and tickling his thoughts with her soft laughter. "There's only one thing I want on your mind, Buck."
He tried to concentrate on her words. Tried to come up with a reply that didn't sound as tongue tied as he felt, but there were her eyes again... staring up into his. Not good. There was no way to think when she... moved closer like that... when he... had to move closer too. "Bea?"
Her lips curved in a generous bow as she answered back with, "Buck?"
"I'm going to kiss you." Before the words were even out of his mouth, he was ready to fall on his own knife... what had possessed him to say..
"Well, it's about time."
She laid an elegant finger against the dark skin of his chest and smiled. "I've been waiting for you to try."
"MmmHmmm.." Bea's gaze flickered down to his chest beneath her finger, her eyes lingering a shade too long for most folk.
"But... someone might see."
She seemed to sense his hesitation, the pull that was warring with his own desires. "Buck," her soft velvet-toned voice sent little flames licking up his spine.
Her finger hooked into his shirt as she pulled him closer. "We're alone at the edge of town... don't make me wait."
"I ain't gonna die out here."
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than his throat closed over with another racking cough.
His hand reached up to grasp the railing of the fence only to slip from the large wooden beam when his numb fingers couldn't get purchase.
"Got to get.. up."
His legs were in much the same state, the freezing cold snow having melted from the heat of his own fever, had seeped through the fabric and chilled his skin.
He had managed to crawl to the fence in his waking hours and now... now, he just wanted one more burst of energy. A desperate attempt to save his own life.
Through the stars in his vision he spotted the spokes of a wheel. Slipping his arm through one he pulled himself up a bit. Again, his other arm... higher still. It took three attempts, but finally he could rest his back on the wheel behind him.
He knew.. knew with morbid certainty that he could go no further. This was the end for him... unless.
Unless someone found him.
A blaze of red floated into his vision. His kerchief.
It took some time, his numb fingers making any attempt to loosen the knot into a nearly hopeless task. Somehow, near the coming of the sunset, he had loosened the knot and freed the limp bit of fabric from his neck.
He slipped an end under the metal band of the wheel and watched from the corners of his vision as it waved and dipped in the chilling winds.
"There he is... there, by the fence!"
Opening his eyes he saw them. Riders. Two.. riding abreast as if the devil himself were after them. One on a snowy mount of silver, the other on a horse dark as midnight. It didn't look good... it looked like heaven.
He tried to raise his arm, but all of his attempts failed as his vision began to dim.
"Here," came a soft voice, "drink this." He barely felt the press against his lips before a heated liquid slipped between his lips and onto his tongue.
Good, I can still feel something.
He fought the urge to choke on the liquid as it poured into his throat. Turning his head away stilled the flow of coffee and he looked up at his saviors.
She smiled and cupped his cheek in her hands. "Jimmy, thank God we found you."
She didn’t think she’d ever return. Yet, here she was, standing at the top of the hill, looking down upon the old claim that had been the source of her greatest joy—and her most crushing sorrow.
She took a deep breath. The evening air was fresh and crisp, faintly scented with the perfume of new-blown wildflowers. The land was green and flourishing, well-tended by the spring rains. Far off to the south she could see the dark furrows of newly turned earth, ready to be planted and become fertile with seed--anxious to bear their master healthy and abundant fruit.
Down below her stood the house. Newly whitewashed, it gleamed like a precious pearl in the golden twilight. In the window, a single candle sent out a warm glow across the yard. Its soft, inviting light seemed to know her, whispering its welcome. A part of her was tempted to go knock on the front door and ask the new owners whether she might be able to have a look around—for old time’s sake. But just as she was about to take a step forward, she heard the unmistakable music of a child’s laughter. From around the side of the house, a little girl ran—her long blonde hair flying out behind her as she tried to keep two steps ahead of her daddy. She watched as the farmer reached out and caught his little girl, pulling her close and tickling her until the sound of her laughter echoed through the prairie. The little girl looked to be about four years old—the age her own child would have been if . . .
Instinctively, she turned away. No. She didn’t belong here. The house, the land, they were changed. They weren’t hers anymore. They belonged to a new family—a family that was flourishing, growing strong and going places together. She wiped a stray tear from her eye and prepared to head back to town.
And then she saw it. Her heart skipped a beat. Maybe there was still something of hers here after all.
She stepped down the fence line a few feet and stopped before it. The old wagon wheel lay propped up against the fence just as it had the day it was placed there. The climbing rosebush that she’d planted years ago was all a bloom. It wound itself like an adornment round the fence, slowly inching its way closer to the wheel like a blushing lover, shy and tentative.
“You always said we’d be goin’ places, Henry Dunne,” Rachel whispered as she gently traced the rim of the gray, weather-beaten wheel with her fingertips. A sad smile formed at the corners of her lips. “I just never expected we’d be goin’ in two different directions.”
She remembered the first day she and Henry arrived on this land. They drove up in a battered old buckboard that Henry had bought off a gambler the day he’d procured the deed to the farm. The ride out of town had been bumpy to say the least. The ill-fitting seat boards pinched and the axle squeaked and groaned to the point that Rachel wondered if the wagon would break apart into a dozen pieces before they even made it out of the livery. But Rachel didn’t care how old the wagon was. To her, that buckboard might as well have been a golden coach bedecked with precious gems. In it, she was going to start a new life. Gone was her old existence as a card dealer and sometime prostitute. Now, she was riding into a new life as Mrs. Henry Dunne, devoted wife and mother of his future children.
Back then, the farm was a little worse for wear. Weeds and prairie grass stood hip-high throughout the property—all the way up to the dilapidated house’s front door. Standing at the top of the hill for the first time, Rachel had joked that she’d need a scythe to clean out the living room.
“Now don’t you worry, little lady,” Henry had reassured, wrapping his arm around her waist with a smile. “We’ll have this farm back in shape in no time at all. Yessir, we’ll be goin’ places, you and me.”
At first, it seemed as if Henry’s prediction was coming true. Within four months time, the house had become a welcome home, the south field was ready to plant, and Rachel was aglow with the knowledge that their first baby was on the way. To top it all off, Henry had collected on an old debt that was owed him and finally had money enough to purchase a much-needed new buckboard.
Rachel would never forget the day the old wheel found its home against the fence. She’d been up on the hill tending to her climbing roses when Henry appeared, with wheel in tow.
“What on earth are you doing with that?” Rachel asked. “I thought you were going to turn the old buckboard into scrap.”
“Not all of it,” Henry replied, resting the wheel against the fence. “I thought it would be nice to have a little reminder of where we started sittin’ right here where we can admire it.”
“I’ll admit, it does look kind of nice next to the roses, doesn’t it? Almost like they were meant to be together,” Rachel admitted with a smile.
“Aye,” Henry said, gently placing his hand on her growing stomach. “Just like we were meant to be.”
Rachel shook her head as the memory faded away. Not all things were meant to be. Henry had said they’d be going places. Little did she realize then that only a week later, both Henry and their unborn child would be going to their graves and she would begin a new and very different journey on her own.
She smiled a little as she thought of her time with the Pony Express. She never would have guessed in the days following Henry’s death that she’d become housemother to a pack of raucous young men who always seemed to find a way to get into trouble. She never thought she’d find a girlfriend to share her troubles with until she’d befriended Louise. Or find another person to laugh with until she’d met Teaspoon. She never dreamed that she’d find her calling as a schoolteacher and become one of Rock Creek’s most beloved citizens because of it. Good luck seemed to guide her through every difficulty since Henry’s death, leading her safely along every road.
Suddenly, she felt a soft, cool breeze kiss her cheeks, bringing with it the delicate scent of roses. Her heart jumped in her chest. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t luck that had been guiding her all this time.
Rachel turned to face the old wagon wheel and smiled. “I love you, Henry Dunne.”
It was cold—colder than Buck ever remembered. The snow had stopped during the night leaving the prairie covered in several inches of fresh snow. The landscape was frozen without a sign of life. Although the sun had broken through the thick clouds, it provided little warmth. The chill from the north wind intensified the freezing temperature.
The wind stung his face but Buck didn’t bother to protect himself. He walked directly into it. He wanted to feel it. He wanted to feel something—anything. He felt colder inside than out. His body was becoming numb matching the numbness he felt in his soul. It had been months since Ike had died. Time stood still. It felt like Ike had died only yesterday and it felt as if he hadn’t seen Ike for an eternity. The raw pain he had felt from the loss had imperceptibly faded over time but it was replaced by something worse—emptiness. He wasn’t able to feel anything within that vast emptiness that engulfed him.
Buck walked along the fence line brushing snow from each post he passed. As he slowly trudged through the snow, he saw the old wagon wheel leaning against the fence. He wondered how the strong winds of the storm hadn’t knocked it down and buried it beneath the snow. It was still standing straight against the post, each spoke covered in snow. The snow curved around the outside of the wheel clinging to its sides.
Something about the battered old wagon wheel touched Buck’s memory as he was steadily drawn closer, until he found himself standing in front of it. He knelt down in the snow carefully reaching out for it. He closed his hand tightly on the outside rim, feeling the coldness of the snow and hardness of the wood. He shut his eyes letting the image come together and take form. He saw it. The old wagon wheel transformed into a medicine wheel—the circle of life.
Nature teaches. Buck knew this. He knew it well but the emptiness he felt kept him from listening. He held the old wagon wheel in his hand and the image of the medicine wheel in his heart. It was spirit. It was core to his sacred beliefs that he had learned as a child. It represented the world and the six directions—North, South, East, West, Father Sky and Mother Earth. The medicine wheel teaches us about ourselves and the path that we walk in this life. It takes us to our center. It takes us back home after we journeyed around the wheel many times in life, until we learned enough to arrive at the center in a perfect dance.
Buck realized that his hand was tightly grasping the left side of the wheel—the West. Each direction had its meaning and lessons to teach. This was the direction from which he knew he entered the wheel when he was born. It is the place where the sun sets and night lives, the place of darkness where we must find our inner light and strength. It is the place of dreams where we can touch the very depths of our souls.
Buck knew that the West was the realm of Grandmother Earth who teaches about the cycles of change—of life, decay, death and rebirth. He remained motionless with his eyes closed letting the images come. The old wagon wheel no longer felt cold in his hand but rather warm as if it had been sitting in the hot summer sun. He could smell the sweet fragrance of the climbing red roses that grew alongside the wheel. They had been there last summer when Ike was still alive. They had withered and fell from their vines but they would return next summer. Life moved from one form to another, constantly changing. Life didn’t end. It changed as we traveled towards the spirit world.
As he began to move his hand around the rim of the wheel brushing off the snow, Buck realized that Ike had arrived at the center before him. He had learned his lessons in life and perfected the dance. It was time for him to go home. He was ready. Buck always knew that Ike was wiser and stronger than he was. He was trapped in the West—trapped in the darkness. He needed to find that light within himself so that he could move on and journey to the other directions. There were lessons he needed to learn if he would ever be prepared to join Ike at the center. In the East, he would learn about beginnings and visions. In the South, he would learn trust and innocence. And in the North, he would learn to share and give freely of himself to others.
Buck continued to move his hand around the outside of the wheel, travelling its circumference until he arrived back again on the left side—the West. It was time to move forward. Time to leave the darkness and take with him the wisdom of patience and change. Hesitantly, he lightly touched the center of the wheel—the center of the circle where everything began and would come together again in the spirit world. It was home. He would see Ike there again when he finished his journey. He didn’t know how many times he would have to travel around the wheel to learn all life’s lessons and be able to dance at the center, but he would make the journey with renewed determination.
An eagle screeched overhead startling Buck out of his thoughts. He opened his eyes searching for the source of the powerful cry. He heard it again. The eagle was circling high in the eastern sky, soaring on the wind. Buck slowly stood as he watch the bird circle higher and higher until it disappeared among the clouds. The sound of its cries faded in the air.
Buck whispered, “Thank you.” He knew the eagle had come to call him and point him in the right direction—the East. It was time to find the rising sun. It was time to seek visions. It was time to move forward.
Buck felt something wet on his face. When he touched his cheek, he was surprised to realize that it was his own tears that he felt. He was crying. He hadn’t been able to cry in months. He hadn’t been able to feel anything until now. When another gust of wind hit his face, he shivered. He was suddenly freezing. He smiled as he brushed away the tears. It was time to get back. It was time to begin again.
Note: I'm warning y'all now, this is stream of thought.. not art.. k?
I just had a hankerin' to return to the Dara Series.. but this time have more of Louis in the story. Hope you like it.
Useless.. he felt utterly useless, and old.
Gone were the days of the war, two wars in fact. Now, retirement... a man on the shelf.. a shell of a man... off his rocker with frustration.
Now, he didn't always grouse like this, Polly kept him pretty light at heart with her tart words and fiery looks. She could make him feel as spry as a young buck when they were together. Polly was off visiting a friend in the next town... leaving him alone to face...
There were times, times when he'd sit in the Hickok yard and keep watch over the children... children... child- how Jimmy Hickok had managed to keep himself alive long enough to marry... and marry Lou, for goodness sakes.. the boy had a lucky streak a mile wide down the seat of his pants. Letting loose a long-winded and weary sigh, he watched a tumbling ball of lanky limbs romp through the lengthening grass of the front yard.
The flailing limbs belonged to three boys that looked more like puppies than anything human. Jimmy's four year old boy, Louis, and Buck's pair of dark skinned braves scrambled for the top of their boyish hill.
In just this one day he'd lost track of the number of times they had begun to fight over something only to end up laughing like a bunch of drunk men at a town festival... at least these boys didn't turn green in the gills after.
Listen to this old man ramble, he thought.
A gentle yet insistent tug pulled on his cuff. His little poppet was pressed against his leg with her little gown half stuffed in her mouth.
Again, she pulled, her soft downy hair fluttering in the breeze.
"What is it, sweetheart?"
She mumbled something around the lacy bit in her mouth.
"Let go of that, sweetie... or you're liable to start earnin' the nickname Cody after awhile." With an gentle tug he'd removed the once washed and pressed edge from her mouth. "Now what did you want to say?"
"Flowers?" Lord, he had a knack for babble... Must have been all those drunks I've locked up over the years.
"Wanna see fow-wers"
A chubby little finger jabbed at the air and he had to lean way down to see where she was pointing. There. Across the yard, against the fence.. a little shock of flowers colored the air around them.
"Alright, little one... we'll go see the 'flowers'."
Lifting himself off the stairs he bent down and plopped the little girl down over his shoulder, her little feet kicking up in the air while she squealed in delight. He carried her, like a sack of flour, across the yard, past the rambling mess of limbs and over to the middle of the fence.
He ignored the aches and twinges in his back and lowered himself to the ground, just beside the fence. Sliding his little charge from his shoulder he placed her into the ankle high grasses and said with all the decorum he could muster. "Your flowers, my lady."
A five-tooth grin answered back as her chubby hands clapped together in time to her laughter. "Fow-wers.. Fow-wers..."
Okay, so he was an old softy when it came to babies, especially ones that could turn gunfighters into 'goo-goo'ing idiots. "That's right, sweetheart. Flowers."
Her mouth stretched into a little 'o' and her hand reached out toward the fence. "Pit-ter"
He scratched at his head and squinted at the scene before them. "I'm sorry, Sweetie.... I just don't get it."
"She said 'picture', Gramps."
Looking over his shoulder into the afternoon sun. "Louis?" Sure enough, the boys had interrupted their wrestling to wander on over.
"Yeah... she said picture."
"How do you figure that, boy?"
Buck's elder twin, the 'Loud One', piped in. "Louis has sun on the brain." He managed to avoid the pointed jab of Louis's elbow.
"It's right there, Grandpa. A picture." Louis knelt down beside his grandfather and gave a half grimace as his sister laid a sticky hand on his arm. "See here?" His hand reached out and traced around the flowers, mirroring the open section of a discarded wheel that lay against the fence. "It's crooked.. but it kinda looks like a frame... I think that's what the imp is saying."
Looking down at his grandson, he couldn't help but smile. He was sharp that one.. and sometimes a handful, but he loved his little sister, loved her more than he'd care to admit.
They sat there for a long moment, enjoying the view as soft breezes bent the long reaching stems of the flowers. It was almost a perfect moment.... until the Loud One grabbed Louis by the collar and yanked him back into the fray.
Gathering his little treasure into his lap, the proud Grandpa cuddled her against his chest and felt her fists grab onto his long hair as she giggled into his ear. "Gamm-pa"
He let out a long sigh and wrapped her tighter in his arms. Who said he was useless? The liar.