There's a fearsome tale people spin about the west, that it's all gun smoke and vengeance. You set foot on its unruly soil and find adventure, endless possibility. Creed's head had been so full of stories when he was younger. His eyes had glistened greedily and when they shut, they envisioned something otherworldly. The west was never quiet. It never slept, they'd told him. Standing small in the open prairie, a soft breeze tugging at his clothes, Creed thought it'd never woke. It was a sleeping giant, their presence in it a passing disturbance. Soon they'd leave and it'd be as though they'd never come. The commotion mostly settled itself into towns and lonely ranches, the stretch between them a long interlude before the real world began. The west was quiet, and it slept hard into the day and all through the night.
Holding the bowl of his hat up towards his horse, Creed pet her nose as she ate oats out of the crown. Her ears flickered forward and back, her attention divided between her treat and the work being done aways from them. She was a pretty blue roan, the second horse Creed had ever owned, and the first he'd ever bought. There was spirit in her step and a brightness behind her eyes that contrasted Creed's. He drug his feet through the dirt and blinked tiredly at every passerby. Between the two of them, he could not argue against her being the better company. But, then again, he never had to be.
Westward bound, a fleeting acquaintance. He'd be with these folks for a few months, leave, and probably never see them again. The luck in that. He could do or say whatever came to mind. More often than not, the words that came out of is mouth were honest, if not a little cruel. They stung and pushed people away, gave them reason enough to avoid him. Perhaps that's why he found himself alone most nights, some kind of other that floated around camp till their direct purpose was no longer needed. He herded them in with their sheer dislike of him, putting himself between them and the prairie and threatening conversation dared they try and wander off.
As his horse finished her oats, he turned his hat over and shook it out, placing it on his head as he moved to walk around her. Patting her side as he went, he laid eye on the convoy and started toward them. They'd circled their wagons for the night, bedded down, and in the dimming light had started a fire to cook by. They'd been fortunate enough to come by a herd of antelope who'd staid still long enough for them to fell one. The meat had lasted them days and, tonight, they were eating the last of it. His stomach jumped at the thought, driving him near enough to linger close by the fire till the cooking was done.
He pressed his hands together anxiously as his eyes wandered, rubbing the stiffness from his palms and fingers. He spotted every person in camp, before his shoulders settled some and his gaze rested on the fire.
. . .
This vast and lonesome devil. Why did she ever dream good of it? That she could bring her family here and live happily without paying some terrible tax. They'd warned her of the west, that hidden in all its beauty was a rot. You couldn't live here without becoming apart of it. Oozing and black, it took the best from you, cut it out and buried it deep under the prairie's rolling yellow grasses. She wanted to throw herself in front of Christian and her husband, beg forgiveness for even suggesting they move from all they'd ever known to this godless countryside. Cassandra's death was too heavy of a tax and she'd live knowing she was the cause of it.
Wrapped tightly in her mother's shaw, Winifred firmly gripped the ends in one hand while holding a bowl in her other. The flies swarmed around her, touched her salty cheeks and lit down on the bowl like a murder of crows. The meat inside had gone sour and been a waste; the putrid stench of it turned her stomach. While staring hard into the distance, she spotted the guest she'd been waiting for, a hungry and mangy looking dog. Tossing the meat far ahead of her, she watched the sad creature dart forward and snatch a few pieces before quickly retreating.
The sun's fierce yellow eye sank low into the horizon, setting the world ablaze. Standing on the edge of Coldwater, she shut her eyes and wished herself back home, drowning the stillness of the prairie out with noise. It seemed to be a distant memory, hard to track. The city's chatter became wind, the clap of hooves against cobblestone streets became chirping crickets. Even the air tasted different, too fresh and crisp for Winifred's senses. It was all too raw and present for her to imagine anything different. Two months felt as though they'd lasted her a lifetime's worth.
Sniffing, Winifred tucked the bowl under her arm and wiped at her face with both hands. Sweeping back her frizzy hair, she turned toward the town's weathered houses and moved on.
Northern Nebraska. The lacuna between the civilized East and the feral West. Mostly uncharted. Like the plains they traveled for weeks now. The freshly carved trail behind them ragged and bent. Climbing up the hilltops and curving around rock formations and occasional patches of shrubs. Hooves and wagons left a path of broken, sun-bleached weeds in the neverending planes of the Summer-baked grassland. But come evening the nature regenerated, sipping the morning dew. What was once a trail, faded into a void of the prairie. As if no man put a foot on that soil. As if they were never there.
Ramon was fixed in the saddle for hours. But compared to his circumstantial companions he didn't hurry to dismount. The flat terrain was giving in to the caving land up ahead, and the ex-criminal strolled over to the edge of the descent. Just a black silhouette of a rider and a horse. Melted into one against the sizzling horizon. The lowering sun seemed to paint a halo around the body of a sinner. But Ramon didn't care for the stunning views. He stared down into the shadows, untouched by the waning, orange glow. The mawing mouth of the valley. Ready to ease them down into its cavity with a gentle slope. Lull with the whisper of the rustling grass-blades and dull with the monotone chorus of the crickets. Just waiting to swallow them all.
Or at least that would be some bullshit that Tajo would have said back in the day, trying to spook the youngest rutlers. Damned, Spanish son of a whore. Could make men piss their pants, both from laughter and dread. Just as much as he could with his iron. Forsaken vaquero with a second dick called overgrown ambition. Deep-rooted arrogance of sky-high aspirations that ripped him off this Earth. Along with Ramon's nipple. Stupid.
The brute grunted at his nickering steed, staring at the cursed valley they were going to enter with the ass-crack of dawn. The Hispanic man wouldn't even mind for trouble to find them there. At least he wouldn't if he didn't live with a mission. For once in his piss-poor life. Goal he was going to chase until he would find Danny. This one time Ramon wasn't doing it for himself. Hell, to some extent he wasn't even doing it for the young, missing redneck; now a grown-ass man. Deep down, in that cold, supposedly vacant heart. He was doing it for Tajo.
The smooth movement in the tall, ash-dark grass instantly drew the vigilant eye. The black horse nervously stepped back, neighing. No longer idle, Ramon swiftly drew his six-shooter and aimed one-handedly with a quick motion of thick wrist. Other palm flat as it smashed the hammer down. Shattering the atmospheric silence of dusk with the two rapid-fire shots. They rung in the air, creeping farther with the echo. Carried with the wind down the menacing valley.
The horse reared with a bray when the threatening creature tried to strike, unscratched by the bullets. Torres couldn't stay in the saddle, falling back. Misfortunate enough to hit his tail-bone in the process. Which made him howl with passion; a clear and juicy "MOTHER-FUCKER" followed by another shot. This time successful.
Ramon huffed, catching his breath as he watched his mount trot away. "Yeah, better run, scrub." He spat aside triumphantly before scrambling to his feet. Grumbling to himself as an afterthought. "You'll come crawling back like you always do. Stupid horse." The Hispanic dusted off his leather chaps and reached down for the hat. The moment his fingers grasped the edge and pulled the coal-colored brim up his arm jolted back, as if he touched hot iron. The hat fell aside and the big man gawked with his mouth ajar. How could he not smell that before… Or hear the nearly deafening buzz of dozens and dozens of flies crawling and wavering above what looked like a mangled carcass of a fox. With the milky veil clouding the intact eye. Staring right back at Ramon...
The cowboy scoffed at himself. At the initial, icy shudder that cascaded down his spine and lifted the hair on the back of his neck. “Bloody critters.” He picked up his hat again, this time much more gingerly, and he turned away from the dead thing. Looking for the one he just shot instead.
Say your name in hopes you'll hear it from the stars...
Ruth suddenly had large shoes to fill.
Part of her had already come to terms with the tremendous amount of additional responsibilities she was no doubt going to bear once they arrived in Coldwater; even on the journey there, she found herself naturally more inclined to make herself useful—fetching more water, keeping a careful eye on the horizon for smoke or light in the distance, listening for an especially creaky part of the wagon. Ruth didn’t mind it one bit. Having other things to look out for only gave her more to do and kept the boredom and misery of traveling like this at bay.
Her role expanded tenfold when Aunt Cassandra was killed. Having one less set of steady, seasoned hands in the kitchen, scrubbing the clothes clean, and keeping the home meant her own work doubled, but there was little she could do to fill the emotional void left behind in her wake. Perhaps Ruth was the type who could just get over these kinds of events with relative ease; maybe her relationship with her late aunt hadn’t been the best or the closest, in hindsight. They had but a fraction of the fierce closeness that defined her relationship with her mother.
She could see the hole as if it was big and obvious as a cannonball through the living room. As much as they all had to put on brave faces to make it through the long, lonely days in Coldwater, some weight had fallen heavy on her mother’s shoulders. In the quieter, less hectic moments, Winifred had become listless, quieter, lacking the usual force in her snaps and commands that usually put the fear of God in Ruth. She couldn’t say she blamed her at all, but she could hardly sympathize to the experience of having a sibling.
The worst part of this was that Ruth hadn’t the slightest idea how to alleviate that burden—was it guilt, regret? It wasn’t like she could ask; sometimes these kinds of murky depths were best left unstirred. Even in her efforts to keep the place spotless, wash proactively to keep laundry from piling up, and tending to the few straggling animals in the surrounding parts, it all felt like she was doing the bare minimum. Yes, it was what was expected, but wasn’t there something in all of this to be proud of?
Something about this place made it hard to find the bright side of most things, though. She couldn’t quite name the feeling, or what specifically about the endless stretch of drab sky made her want to stop what she was doing to wallow in how futile all this seemed, but Ruth felt it. This entire landscape was deeply unsettling, as is. Radically different from everything she’d known and loved, the exact opposite of the bustling, crowded city she called home all her life.
… Where was everyone? Had the group on their way here encountered a setback—had something terrible happened to them? Was there a reason this place had emptied out to begin with?
Scary thoughts didn't do her peace of mind any good.
She just so happened to be out on the empty shell of a town on a walk to clear her head when she stumbled across her mother, who had somehow drifted out of her presence like a specter when they had been in the house together earlier. Ruth smirked as she took in the scene: instead of using the spoiled meat as mulch or scrapping it altogether, Winifred managed to find the only dog in this place and made sure it didn’t starve. Maybe she wasn’t as far gone as she’d been lead to believe.
“You know it’s just going to come back with friends, right?” Despite her words, Ruth’s expression was warm, eyes sparkling. The breeze whipped through her dress fiercely, and she drew her arms in, shivering just slightly at the sudden chill that ran up her spine. “I’m glad we have enough to feed another mouth, though. That’s good news, mm?”
Ruth extended one arm out to embrace her mother from where she stood waiting. “Come on, Mother. Let’s head back to the house—I can braid your hair,” she offered gently. “I don’t think the wind is doing you any favors right now.”
The smell. That was all that Eleanor could think about. The wisps of smoke that curled into the darkening sky drifted over to her now and then and she couldn't help but breathe them in. A faint hint of willow and wet grass filled the void when the smoke curled back in and reached for the sky in prayer. People sat around the fire, a few she knew, some she had never spoken a word to, but all of them had the same goal in mind. To start new, fresh. Because isn't that what this long, dangerous, ugly, trek was? A challenge put in their way to see if they truly deserved it? It was all she could think about. The end goal, one that she so desperately needed. Once they reached the town, everything would be okay, everything would be in its own place and she would finally be able to breathe.
The sky filled with stars above them and she moved away from the light of the fire to have a better look. She had taken her broad hat off before they all sat down for dinner so she was able to freely lean her head back against their wagon. Eleanor was astounded every night by the light the tiny specks cast on the empty prairie. A stillness settled in around her and she reached a hand up to her necklace.
Grief still pulled at her heart every time she did so. The statement that only time could heal grief was a lie. Yes, it was true that she cried less, that she could have a few nights of peaceful slumber, ones without their taunting voices and angry expressions. She could wash laundry and take care of herself, plan a future filled with kids, and new beginnings. But she also cried every time she baked a pie, she woke often from nightmares, she avoids using lavender soap when possible even though it is the only one she knows how to make, and she often creates a different future, one where her family is alive and supporting her.
Yes, she is moving on, but that is not healed, and she knows she can never reach that point.
A twig snapped beside Eleanor, yanking her back to reality and she quickly tucked her necklace back into her dress. A figure approached gently in the darkness and she straightened up in preparation for what they had to say.
❝ MORLEY. ❞ His eyes were bars, and behind them was a fierce, unfed animal. When people looked at him they had the feeling of being shut out. He did not shut them out. He shut himself in.
“Maddy?” Leon asked with a voice full of concern, having finally noticed his youngest daughter had been sniffling incessantly for the past minute now. He had been watching his daughters while also getting everything in the wagon settled, and to make space for the girls to sleep.
Directly below him on the gravel, Camille had been rummaging around through one of their luggage trunks in a frantic search for all her belongings, which mostly consisted of her tossing away clothing and other day to day necessities. His youngest, Madeline, was doing the exact same thing, but with much less intensity as her older sister. Madeline stopped what she was doing once she heard her father's deep voice call out to her. She quickly shifted her attention away from the luggage to gaze up at her father with a glossy look in her eyes. Her cheeks looked especially flushed too.
“Are you feeling okay?” Leon carefully crouched down beside Madeline and moved aside her white-blonde hair from her face. He pressed his palm gently against her forehead while observing her little face, still sniffling. She wasn’t uncomfortably warm or seemed to be running a fever of any kind. Although, he assumed she had to have been feeling unwell due to her runny nose and watery eyes.
“She was crying!” Camille exclaimed, now having stopped what she was doing to come poke her head around to her fathers and baby sisters side. Leon’s brows knitted together as he studied his youngest daughter flushed face- confused as to why he didn’t remember or even notice Madeline had been crying. “Why was she crying Camille?” Leon questioned his eldest daughter, who just theatrically shrugged her shoulders and skipped back around to the luggage- she couldn’t be anymore unbothered. Leon sighed heavily before tenderly patting the toddlers back. Madeline wasn’t much of a talker either, so prying her to understand why she was crying was pointless.
Leon continued to study her intensely, but once she made eye contact with him, her face began to contour and her lips began to tremble. “Oh..” Leon frowned, it didn’t take much for him to quickly tell she had become tired based on the trembling of her lip alone. Madeline feeling put on the spot broke into shrill cries, and plopped down onto her bottom in the dirt. Leon exhaled heavily through his nose, now feeling a bit frustrated. It felt his own exhaustion was getting to him, as if it was beginning to feel painful. The father gathered himself onto his feet, and thoroughly brushed off the dirt from his hands. He leaned forward to lift the fussy Madeline up from the ground and into his arms, and she immediately began to settle down. The toddler wrapped her arms snuggly around his damp neck, gripped a handful of his hair from the back of his head- promptly content even in his sweaty embrace.
Leon’s eyes swiftly peered around from where he stood in search of his eldest daughter, only to find her underneath the wagon. “Get out from there.” Leon sternly said as he yanked Camille’s arm with his free hand and pulled her quickly out from there. Camille whined and wiggled adamantly in his grip, uncomfortable by the stronghold he had on her. In reality it wasn’t a tough grasp he had on her, but just enough to keep her from crawling underneath the wagon again. “Let’s get dressed for bed so we can eat with the others.” Leon let go of her arm once he felt she had calmed down, and herded her toward the opposite side of the wagon where they could have more privacy.
Camille giggled loudly and hopped ahead of him gingerly, still full of energy even after such a long day of traveling. Unlike he and Madeline who were both at the end of their rope for the day. Leon smirked, thinking of how their mother was also a night owl, and how she would’ve slept in until the afternoon if he didn’t wake her. Camille was almost too much like his wife, even though she’d profess constantly that he and Madeline were the ones who were so much alike.
Just the thought of it gave him the feeling of dull and hollow ache, like a long and never ending pit in his stomach. Only the words “why not me?” running through his head, repeating over and over again- becoming more and more aggressive and unrelenting as the seconds went on. He managed to dress his daughters into their nightgowns, still was unable to stop feeling so far away from his body and children. It felt as if he was always on the verge of tears, or just moments away from keeling over. Even with his body demanding such a sudden action to take for some kind of relief, did he just as easily push it aside.
“Close your eyes..” Leon muttered as he gently brushed a damp hand towel over Camille’s face. She didn’t mind washing her face, instead always laughing loudly, and yelling about how much it tickled. On the other hand, Madeline absolutely hated washing her face and would go as far as crocodile rolling away from him in a meager attempt to escape. He had wanted to give them both a bath tonight as he did every night, but figured actually getting to their destination first would make bathing them easier.
Leon managed to finish cleaning Madeline’s face, all while she spat furiously and flailed her body around. Leon would tell Madeline every single time to close her mouth while he washed her face because of the soap, but she simply ignored him and stuck her tongue out anyways. “Brush your hair and your sisters, please.” Leon handed over the wooden paddle brush to Camille who happily took it from him, and began slowly running it through her warm hair. He was relieved his eldest daughter enjoyed getting ready for bed, but not the actual sleeping part, sadly. Leon finished giving the bottle of milk a last few good shakes to be sure the formula was properly mixed in with the water. Every so often, he wouldn’t shake the powder enough, and he’d see Madeline spitting out the clumps of formula.
Leon observed Camille gently combing through Madeline’s hair, and very feebly began to smile. Camille caring for her baby sister gave him comfort, hoping that if something were to happen to him that they would take care of each other. “Good girl Camil-” Leon gasped, feeling his heart immediately drop at the sudden sharp and booming sound of a gunshot. His body reactively covered both his daughters before wrapping his arms tightly around them. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a gun being fired in the group he was traveling with, and he expected it. It still frightened him to his core each time, considering it was so sudden and without warning. That was especially frustrating for him to not know where or why a gun was being fired so close by. Their wagon bounced frantically to the side with the sound scaring the horse, followed by the thumps of the luggage falling inside the wagon.
Leon cussed sharply under his breath, before promptly surveying the area behind him to be sure whoever had fired the gun wasn’t close. He saw nothing. “Why..” Leon sighed heavily as he undid his arms from around the two, only to see they both had broken into tears. He wasn’t surprised, and mostly blamed it on his sudden and aggressive response, and the horse knocking the wagon around. “I’m sorry..” Leon gathered both the girls into his arms to comfort them while also apologizing profusely for what he had done.
The father eventually settled them down after great coaxing of food and reading before bed, and Camille was the first to recover from being so frightened. Madeline still sniffly but had hushed after Leon cradled her, and snuggled her against his chest while helping to hold the glass milk bottle up for her. Madeline could hold it herself, but he was anxious that she would drop it again. Camille was trying to kick her bare-feet down from the wagon, but Leon stopped her to demand she put her shoes on before running around in the dirt. “I can’t!” Camille chirped out in hebrew, as she swung her feet in the air. “I’m holding your sister, you can put them on yourself.” “I can’t do it myself!” Camille whined instistantly, her face starting to pinch together in irritation.
“I’ve seen you put your shoes on by yourself many times.” Leon argued with a strict tone of voice. He felt too tired for this, but both his hands were busy holding Madeline so he couldn’t stop what he was doing to put Camille’s shoes on for her. Although, Leon was aware Camille was refusing because they would play a little game before putting them on. Their mother was the one who started the daily routine to make it easier when putting their daughters shoes on, but it ironically was making things harder for him right now.
Leon bribed her with the possibility of reading a second book before bed if she put her shoes on herself. Camille didn’t verbally agree to his request, but went about putting on her boots with a huff. The father looked to the toddler content in the cradle of his arm. He could see her eyes slowly blinking to fight sleep, but he needed to keep her awake until she had eaten a proper meal, and not just milk. “I did it Abba!” Camille exclaimed, lifting out her arms to her father to bring her safely down to the ground. Leon checked to see if she had put her shoes on correctly, the most difficult part was clasping the buttons together, and she had done it.
“Good girl.” Leon gently helped Camille down from the wagon by grabbing onto his forearm like a monkey bar. Upon Camille touching the ground, she cheerfully squealed and started to hop away. Leon swiftly grabbed the paper bag of leftover matzah from the night before to eat tonight too. Camille didn’t eat much of the antelope, so most of her diet consisted of fruit and matzah with the occasional little bites of meat. “Slow down!” Leon’s deep voice bellowed out to Camille who was scampering straight toward the fire. From a distance, he could see the back of someone sitting beside the fire, giving him a small sense of relief. Camille clearly enjoyed meal time because it gave her the chance to chat up everyone, whether they liked it or not. It had to be Camille’s favorite part of the day, what she looked forward to the most compared to the monotonous everyday traveling.
Leon caught up to Camille who was eagerly hopping in place and squealing out shrill laughter while feet away from the fire. The father looked to see who’s back it was he saw from afar, and as expected it was Creed. “Move farther away from the fire Camille.” Leon herded his jumping daughter with his leg to be just a few feet from where she had been standing to give Creed the space he needed. Camille continued on with squealing and spinning on her heels. The dramatic contrast of Camille’s unwavering energy compared to the adults who were so evidently exhausted, that it was almost laughable.
Leon glanced to Madeline who was close to finishing her bottle, but looked to be on the verge of falling asleep. Leon patted the toddlers back and tenderly ran his hand through her white blonde hair to keep her awake. Madeline was so used to how chaotic her older sister was, that all the noise didn’t phase her and she still remained just as sleepy. Madeline was immune to her loud sister at this point.
Leon recalled the noise from only a few minutes ago, and began peering around to find who was responsible for the gun going off. He wasn’t surprised to see who was to blame once he caught the eye of Ramon off in the distance. “Mind warning us before firing off a gun, Ramon!” Leon exclaimed with intensity, and a bit of irritation. He was not over how much it frightened him earlier. Madeline surprised by the rumble in her father's chest, she hurriedly shifted around in his arms to peek at who he was talking to. Camille being just as curious, came around to Leon’s side to get a look at what was going on as well.
The weary timber felt unvarnished under his worn palm. Weathered and silvery instead of tawny as it once was. Christian walked along the side of the house, letting his calloused fingers caress the work of another man. Now twisted by the elements and lack of human attention.
The eyes of the wood became more bleak than dark. Like the eyes of a dead animal. Grooves between the planks grew wider with time, now slowly mapped with his fingertips. Firm touch of a gentle hand. The wood was gradually littered with the boreholes where it descended from the wall and covered the ground.
The creaking floor of the porch told him a story, just like the rest of it. Helped him to decide which parts of the house were salvageable and which needed to be taken down to the base and built from scratch. With the limited materials it was hard to imagine enough progress to be done around the run-down parts of town. At least not on time before the winter. But Christian hoped the newcomers would turn out to be decent men. Decent men who wouldn't shy away from hard work. Dedicated to reviving this place. The place his wife chose to make their home.
Each memory of her still stung his split open heart, and it seemed as if everything was bringing the images back. The ethereal sway of a dress on her graceful figure. The way her soft skin creased by the outer corners of her lustrous eyes whenever she smiled. Phantom sensation of her lips brushing his soft beard. Trace of her perfume that allured men whenever she walked past a crowd. He could almost feel her each time he let his eyelids slip shut.
When he opened them again this time, shattering the painful picture painted in his troubled mind, Christian's body halted. Paralyzed. Standing with his side to the broken window he could have sworn he saw movement by the corner of his eye. More. That there was a person standing inside the house, in the middle of the room.
It took a few seconds for the man to win the battle against the unjustified fear and turn his head towards the sight. Only to realize there was nothing there. Except for the thousands of dust particles dancing in the shafts of sunlight bursting through the cracks. Christian let out a quivering breath, his heart still beating unnaturally fast. Was it indeed just fear or was it something else that made his body tingle as if previously electrocuted.
The white man composed himself and paced towards the entrance. The door was ajar, barely holding to the frame with water-damaged hinges. Stepping inside more hesitantly, Christian now felt like he was invading someone's home. "Hello..?" His soft-spoken voice seemed to be the only sound disrupting the quiet interior. Not granted with an answer, the man walked deeper into the stagnant space. Covered with layers of time. Floors awash with the signs of wildlife. Roof damaged at the center of the kitchen. Treating the dinner table with generous amounts of rainwater during downpours. So that the once sturdy legs looked ready to crumble.
Christian placed his hand against the wooden top. Watching the dust swirl around it in the dim light, after he disturbed it. The surface felt almost smooth under the idle strokes of his palm. Reading its nicks like body scars, Christian could relate. To the heavy weight of the tabletop resting on the impaired support. And he swallowed thickly at the thought. Of collapsing under the burden of his past. To be unable to crawl back up and have a future.
His body braced, eyes going wide. Tearing gaze and hand away from the table, the bearded male pivoted around. Now his heart hammered in his rib-cage and blood pulsed in his ears. He heard it. It had to be her because no one else ever called him that name. The word as clear as if she was standing right there! But she wasn't...
Now rattled and heartbroken, subconsciously clinging to the surreal notion, Christian hurried towards the adjacent room. Urgent movements of a desperate man. "Hello?! Show yourself. Please." But not a living soul responded to his calling.
Looking around the bedroom he felt dazed with the headrush. Chest clenched tightly enough that it was hard to breathe. Christian felt like the early signs of the oncoming panic attack were already overpowering his body. He could no longer think straight. And that's when he saw her… The world around him imploded. With an impossible sight spattering in his face. His body was flooded by the waves of heat and icy shudders. Cassandra… he inaudibly mouthed. Short on breath, exhale ragged. He didn't really see the brass oil-lamp sitting on the nightstand that he was gazing at. Just a reflection in the oddly clear glass. Of a woman with braided hair, wearing a blue dress. Not just any woman. His wife.
Christian whipped around with a hot gasp ripping off his chest "Cassy?!"
... But there is blood on my hands, and my lips are unclean.
The shadow of guilt and unease had yet to part ways with him.
He couldn’t help but feel dirty and despicable the more he observed this family—working within and around their routines, slowly assessing how they interacted with each other, staying as vague as possible in the limited small talk. River would have been a fool to not notice the obvious bond these people all shared; families as close-knit as the Dawsons were a rare find, even out on the frontier, where they’d all endured similar journeys to get here. And yet, their moral code and devotion to their God survived the hard journey to Coldwater, unwavering as ever.
Someone like him didn’t belong with people like this.
It was as obvious a statement as declaring that the sky that stretched on endlessly above them was blue. But even if he was dirty and damned, which he undoubtedly was by this point in his short life, he couldn’t even bring himself to mindlessly rob these people like he’d done dozens of times before without a second’s thought; the Dawsons were too pure, good, and fragile. River knew that despite all the things they saw and experienced on their trek here, life on the frontier carried a different kind of cruelty with a regularity that still bothered him on occasion. He didn’t know why he felt responsible for shielding them from it.
As he staked them out in the days before he finally approached them, he observed this family working tirelessly against the desperate loneliness and grief—River knew the mark that an unforeseen death left on other people better than he’d admit—and decided this was something he couldn’t ruin. He wasn’t sure what drove him down from that rocky precipice, hat off, head bowed, to politely ask for lodging in exchange for all the work he could do. He made sure to mention he knew these parts well and knew his way around a gun.
Why they decided to take him in, River had no idea. Regardless, he was welcomed in cautiously, but warmly: they let him wash his clothes and join them for dinner. And as he settled on a cot he was way too tall for later that night, stomach almost uncomfortably full with a delicious, home-cooked meal, the sudden, intense, overpowering weight of equal parts guilt and gratitude almost split his chest open. The young man hadn’t been this emotional in years. (No one had been this good to him in years.)
Privately, wordlessly, he mouthed a prayer in the still darkness, and vowed to do something good.
The work was hard, but certainly manageable—there’s not many things more difficult than driving cattle hundreds of miles across uncharted terrain, so River could hammer and haul and lift around this tiny town without much problem. He kept his big mouth shut, opting to listen to the two men his senior as much as he could and providing the leg work when he was asked to. It was simple. Not quite inane, but strangely cathartic; the idea of putting this place in good enough shape for others to inhabit just any day now was a nice kind of purpose, for once.
He had just gotten down from the roof of a home that desperately needed to be repaired when he heard a somewhat unfamiliar voice echo across the empty space. Immediately he tensed, jaw tightening, eyes squinting, hand instinctively going for his—strange lack of a holster on his hip. Shit. Right. River had to remind himself where he was and of the people he was with, but who had said that?
His scanning dark eyes finally fixed on Christian, who stepped cautiously into one of the empty homes scattered along the main dir road. River hurried over from his post, not quite jogging, but striding with urgency, his mind now racing with the worst likely scenario: someone not online himself was looting the place, and the older man could very well find himself staring down the barrel of a shotgun.
The scene that greeted him inside this shell of a home was almost more unsettling than what he expected. River stepped through the threshold silently, slowly, watching Christian shake in a totally empty room. Then he got sloppy. His expression began to twist into something just the slightest bit judgemental when he stepped too hard.
River flinched hard at the sudden exclamation, instinctively drawing his arms close to his body with the noise.
“Fuckin' hell,” the young man remarked, sighing loudly towards the end. River met Christian’s wild, panicked eyes with a similar expression, though he tried to continue on with the conversation as if he hadn’t been frightened (and hadn't cursed in front of a God-fearing man). “… There’s no one else in here. Who’s Cassy?”
Away in an ocean of yellow grass and soft silence, the Coldwater wagon train makes its journey through. Miles yonder, the Dawsons await its arrival.
There weren't many sounds of the prairie that Creed hadn't grown accustomed to. The high pitched squeal of a ground squirrel, the distant rumble of a brewing storm, and that ever present rustle of grass. The sound of company, though a little more foreign at times, was also familiar. He could read the harsh creak of a wagon's wheel and tell you if it needed changed or not, or make out a whisper from the bustling wind. All in all, Creed figured he knew this wilderness almost intimately, able to decipher its every word.
As the camp settled into it their beds for the night, he paid close attention to the noise they made, shutting his eyes and rubbing at his hands in a tired manner. They moved around in their wagons, spread their bed rolls, and clanged their dish-ware together carelessly, perfectly at home despite the mere few months they'd spent here. Creed knew it was routine which made them so comfortable but, all the same, it perturbed him to see them so unguarded. The wind carried telling signs of their presence and there was no telling what creature or person might pick it up. He could tell them to talk low and tiptoe about the place all the time, but that'd be a little redundant given the noise the wagons and animals made. Regardless, that didn't keep him from the want of wringing everyone's neck.
As if to spite him, a resounding crack split through the air like lightening and it hung there long after, begging attention from the onlookers. Creed went stiff and craned his neck around, studying the camp again. He'd thought everyone was within its boundaries but, as he looked, he swore at his own negligence. Some time back, Creed had drawn a fine line between those who'd paid their way out west, and those that had tagged along for the mere adventure of it. He had costumers and he had vagrants, making it along by the skin of their teeth and other's giving nature. Creed had had half the mind to cut ties with them aways back, but the majority seemed persistent on letting them tag along. Which would be fine, Creed supposed, if he'd seen a penny of gratitude for ferrying three extra guests out to Coldwater.
Rolling his jaw, Creed pressed his lips thinly together. Ramon was missing and the sound he'd heard was no doubt gunfire. He'd been lax about his treatment of the three extra guests, less attentive, but as another shot followed the distant echo of the first, Creed shifted his feet nervously and weighed his odds. Given the man's demeanor, he could be firing off a shot for any number of reasons. Waltzing out to check which of it it was would leave the camp one less gun if there happened to be trouble. Staying put, for now, would be his best option.
Ever the opportunist, the shrill scream of Mr. Morley's oldest daughter sounded behind him, growing in volume like an approaching train. He braced himself, scared he was standing in her path, and held his breath as the banshee passed him by. As she sped up to the fire, Creed imagined that same train charging off the end of a broken bridge and pressed his feet into the ground, ready to lunge forward and grab her by the scruff of her collar. She stopped, fortunately, just short of joining their meal for the night and instead hopped up and down excitedly, his nerves not yet put to rest.
Watching her bounce in place next to the fire, Creed clasped his hands together tightly and only relaxed some when Leon told her to move away. Creed bobbed his head in a wordless greeting, watched as she was corralled away by her pa's foot, and looked back towards the fire as Mr. Graham appeared to turn the spit around in the flame.
Tired, hungry, and paranoid. A fine disaster in the making. Letting out a stifled yawn, Creed surveyed the camp again, this time accounting for every soul which had joined them in their journey west. Crouching, he took up a plate and passed it to Graham, trying to ignore the way his mouth watered at the smell and sound of cooking meat. As his plate was filled, he took it back and quickly moved away from the fire, intent on walking the perimeter of the camp to get a good look at the horizon.
Taking his first bite, Creed felt a twig snap under his foot as he approached the Graham's wagon. Continuing on, he spied Eleanor and slowed some as he came to pass by her.
"Grub's up," Creed spoke, barely having swallowed his first mouth full. Swiping at his lips with one thumb, he wiped the grease on his trousers and prepared to offer her a hand if she started to stand. Waiting for her response, he eyed the prairie beyond their small circle, searching for the blasted idiot who gone off alone and fired his gun.
The broken window pane grinned into the room with the large shards stuck in the frame. Crooked and uneven, mischievously reflecting the beams of slanted light. The ray that caught onto the edge of the glass shot inside with laser focus. It struck Christian's blurred vision as he turned around. Rendering him temporary blind in front of the figure that erected in the doorway.
The older male didn’t even register the curse that would normally make such a well bred gentleman flinch. He let out a breathy grunt, instinctively shielding his squinting eyes. But as his arm sunk down, right before his fuzzy sight began to clear, he saw her. Gorgeous. Like back then when they first met. As beautiful as on the day they set out on their journey. It swelled in his chest, that purest longing.
Yet the tormented mind could tell the truth from the wishful projection, and the Easter colors of her dress heaved with the undulating pleats. Flicked and dispersed like fata morgana. Giving way to the tall, dark silhouette, blocking the sunlit room. He knew that young man. River Calhoun.
Christian’s hope-arcing gaze changed after he blinked. Smothered by disappointment. Ultimately turning info a misty look of a man beaten down with sorrow. It didn't take more than a few seconds to come from the point of unnatural exhilaration to unwilling acceptance. Allow the weight of harsh reality to crush his sternum. But it took a moment longer to compose himself.
Looking down as if he couldn't hold the young man's gaze any longer, Graves swallowed against the lump in his throat. Pinching the bridge of his nose when his eyes slipped shut, he confirmed. "Yes. I thought I saw someone." He inhaled a deeper gulp of dusty air, trying to calm down his breathing. Then he forced himself to look up again. "But I was wrong." There was no one there…
Whether he forgot or evaded the question, was unclear.
With a rushed stride, trying to keep his weak knees working, the older male walked past the other. "The roof needs total repair." His voice creaked with the last syllable so Christian cleared his throat and stopped near the ruined kitchen table. Gesturing around them. "We can salvage most of the house but the kitchen floor and furniture needs replacing as well." Lean fingers of his right hand involuntarily twitched so Christian lowered his palm again to hide it. Expression strained with a cocktail of contradicting emotions. Compared to River, the older male was never best at masking his feelings. The traces of earlier distress still clear in his bloodshed eyes and abnormally jittery behavior.
The fleeting twilight began to drain away the light of the day. Rushed with the inbound clouds, it stubbornly pooled along the horizon. With the evanescent hues of bloody red, and magenta shades of the Cowboy's Roses. Purple flowers that spilled down the slope of the nearby valley.
The blinding heat in the middle of their makeshift camp made the meadows seem darker, and the night fall sooner. So despite the swishing grass that forecasted his arrival, it felt as if Ramon came out of the pitch black shadow. Right by Eleanor's side. With his charcoal-colored coat, hat and shaggy scruff covering his jaw he resembled a prairie demon more than a man created in god's image.
Hispanic blatantly eyed the younger female with tan, milky skin. It stirred that primal hunger in his gut. But not as much as the smell of food in that moment. He acknowledged her temporary companion with a guttural sound that vibrated in his throat. Creed was one of the few travelers whose presence Ramon didn't mind. Not realizing that the time they spent together scouting ahead of the group brought him a sense of belonging. Something he didn't even know he missed.
He strode past both of them. Visibly unperturbed by the fact he came back without a horse.
There was no hello as the brawny male approached the center of the circle formed by the caravan. Dismissive of the blonde man's justified complaint. But he did make a point of silently greeting his fellows by tossing a head of a snake right in front of Leon's feet. The skull was half missing, filled with lead. The jaws forced apart, yawning with venom fangs smiling up towards the little girl nestled in her father's guarding hold.
Wordlessly, the ex-criminal plopped to one of the crates surrounding the fire. After briefly sweeping his companions with an unfriendly glare, he drew his knife. To skin the headless creature. Illuminated by the orange glow its rust-colored scales looked ablaze. Smooth columns of armored muscle, so powerful against the fragile skeleton of its prey. Now stripped naked with Ramon's single stroke and a nasty sound of tearing tissue. He exposed dead serpent's lean flesh that glistened in the swaying light.
Eleanor squinted her eyes at the figure and as soon as he spoke she knew it was Creed. The fire illuminated just his outline but she felt no threat from him.
She noticed him looking out at the dark prairie but as she was standing he offered out a callused hand to help her up.
Eleanor dusted off her long dress as she readjusted herself before following Creed's gaze.
For some reason, being out here, in the wild, made her feel more at home than she had ever felt before. Part of her wanted to continue on their little journey forever, never settling. It felt like there was too much to see, too much she was missing out on and just thinking about it made her soul hurt.
A coyote howled in the distance and Eleanor wondered how far away it may be. Not out of fear though, more out of simple curiosity. As her mind wondered briefly on the subject, she noticed a movement out of the corner of her eye and turned abruptly while taking a step back. If she didn't know who it was already, she would have guessed an evil spirit had landed among them as the dark figure of Ramon emerged from the darkness. Her heart rate quickened slightly but she straightened up even more and looked him straight on. His dark eyes blatantly stared her down and she almost looked away, almost. But every ounce in her being pushed her to show that she wasn't affected by his sudden appearance.
This feeling of weakness was something new to Eleanor and she tried to hide it as much as possible. Her whole life she prided herself on being able to stand strong and relentless to the threats that constantly invaded her life. At a young age, she was constantly by her older brother's side instead of cowering behind him like their younger sister. This ability drove her as far as to catch rattlesnakes with her bare hands for fun, had allowed her to scare off a 200-pound mountain lion, and to scale a 100-foot wall with nothing.
Eleanor knew Ramon, his presence put her on edge and she constantly found herself swaying from either being completely outraged or in a state of wonderment at how he could give off such an extreme presence.
He let out a simple grunt towards Creed and walked over to the fire, a snake dangling from his hand before he tossed what looked like a head, at Leon's feet.
She felt a surge of protectiveness over the little girl cradled in his arms and started to walk back towards the fire in time to see the skinning of the devil's creature. A thin stream of blood dripped off the exposed flesh of the serpent, the pink muscle reminding her strangely of a large worm. Her gut told her she was going to be sick but she pushed the feeling down and began to march towards Ramon, her fear and worry disappearing by the fact that this wasn't about her. She almost made it to him when a hand pressed gently on her right shoulder to hold her back.
Cause' there's a whole world out there of other people's tales."
❝ MORLEY. ❞ I am burdened by love because it compels me to go on living, coerces me into a survival I do not want.
Leon immediately placed the bottom of his shoe on top of the serpents discarded head before either one of his daughters caught sight of it. He was genuinely unphased by the man's brutish and spiteful behavior after having known him this long. Leon thought of him to be even more childish than his two year old. He was repulsed by the sight of him and his moronic behavior at this point and wasn’t interested in starting an argument with him. The father being well aware of how incapable he was of being empathetic- let alone insightful of his actions. “Let’s eat before it gets cold.” Leon tenderly said as he quickly kicked away the head of the snake far from his children. Camille gazed up at her tall and broad father with a confused look on her face. He placed a tough hand on Camille’s back to guide her further away from Ramon. His oldest daughter promptly recovered from her father's sudden change in behavior and went right back to hopping on her toes. Camille wasn’t interested in Ramon, and became used to his weird behavior much like her father. Leon had taught her not to instigate an argument unless it was absolutely necessary.
Once Camille caught sight of Eleanor now having joined the group, she happily and loudly with her characteristic squealing and jumped right to her. Leon with a heavy sigh turned his attention to his youngest daughter snoozing in his arms. The father could tell she had already fallen deep into sleep. He took the bottle from her gaping mouth and stuffed it carefully into his pocket. Leon decided not to wake her due to how peaceful she looked even if she hadn’t eaten a full meal yet. She would be extra hungry in the morning, or would most likely wake up early because of it but the toddler looked too comfortable, so he couldn’t bring himself to wake her. Leon kept a keen eye on his oldest daughter bouncing beside the couple while going ahead to poke at the meat with his only free hand. The father gently adjusted the toddler in his arms to rest her against his chest in order to give him more space to use his other hand. Madeline fussed sharply upon being slightly moved, so he brought back his arm to hold her fully once again. He felt frustrated being unable to get everything ready for himself and Camille to eat all while keeping the toddler from waking up. She was unfortunately easy to wake if moved even a bit, but not by loud noises. Madeline settled down again, her head nestled into the crook of his neck and with one of her arms around his neck to clutch a handful of his hair. Thankfully, he now had more freedom in his other hand with his upper arm supporting the toddler.
Leon being tall enough to avoid such an intense heat was able to easily go about getting a big enough chunk out of the meat for himself and daughter. “Camille.” The father sternly said in order to get her attention, “Can you get a plate for me?” His eldest daughter whipped her head around from the couple at the sound of her father's deep voice. “What?” She chirped having not heard what her father said clearly enough. “I need you to get a plate so we can eat.” Leon motioned his head toward the plates on the wooden box a few feet away from him. Camille followed where her father had gestured too and swiftly went about retrieving a plate. The plates were slightly out of reach for her, but she managed to stand far enough on her toes to grab one without any mishaps. “Good girl.” Leon sighed in relief considering how clumsy she is. “Here Abba!” Camille squeaked, grinning widely up at her father while holding the plate. “Can you hold it for me?” Leon asked, and Camille cheerfully nodded in agreement. He placed the skewer with the meat above the plate and carefully pushed the very hot food with his fingers. “Thank you.” Leon warmly said, now taking the plate from his daughter. The father placed a leg in front of Camille before she could dash away from him- knowing she would want to go back to the couple right away. “Let’s eat and then you can play.” Leon sternly said before he slowly and carefully took a seat onto the tarp, making sure he wouldn’t wake the toddler or spill any of the food. He set the plate onto the ground beside him before taking Camille by the sleeve. “Eat a bite for me.” Leon sharply said, only for Camille to whine and try to fidget away from his grasp. The father threatened not reading a book to her tonight, and she begrudgingly stood still. Leon picked a good sized bit of meat with his fingers before holding it up to her lips. Camille hesitantly took the bite of food from her father but held it in her mouth. Leon’s brows furrowed together as he waited to see her swallow her food before she ran off again. “Swallow.” Leon demanded, it being clear he was feeling inpatient, frustrated, and exhausted. Camille finally did as she was told, and swiftly turned on her heel to hop back off to the couple with loud squealing to follow.
He sighed heavily, having wanted to atleast get a few bites of food in her, but she was unable to stay still in the company of the others. This never got old for Camille as she was always excited to join the group by the fire every night for dinner. Leon adjusted the toddler in her arms and into his lap so he could use both his hands to eat, and once he moved her slightly her face began to contour. Leon rested her swiftly and gently into his lap while also slightly bouncing his knee to soothe her back to sleep. The toddler wearily whimpered and cried out but once he started to tenderly pet her white blonde hair did she quiet down. Looking at her made him feel unbelievably worn out. Madeline’s cheeks were more rosey than usual after having cried earlier, also explaining why she was passed out so soon. Leon adjusted her night gown from her face to get a better look at her. The father could feel his heavy eyes begin to drift closed, but the sound of his oldest daughter giggling loudly brought him back. Leon could easily fall asleep sitting up right there if he wasn’t fighting so hard to stay awake. Madeline’s little soft breathing and silky hair felt and sounded like a lullaby.
He didn’t have much of an appetite being as distracted and stressed as he was constantly. His girls came first, so he easily would forget to take care of himself. Leon could tell he had lost weight since beginning their travel too. The father picked a few bites of meat for himself very carefully so as to not disturbed the toddler. He kept a stiff eye on his oldest daughter at the same time, watching her flail around cheerfully beside the young woman, Eleanor. Camille enjoyed her attention, and usually would be the first to bug her about whatever was on her mind. Leon listened to his daughter to make sure she wasn’t misbehaving or pushing any boundaries with Eleanor as she often did with everyone. He wanted her to eat a little more instead of wanting the adults undivided attention. “Look!” Camille exclaimed vehemently, while she danced and spun on her toes- performing her new and well thought out dance moves. His daughter spinning even faster now wasn’t paying attention to how closely she was getting to the fire. “Camille! Get away from the fire!” Leon snapped, raising his voice loudly to get her attention. Knowing he would distub toddler snoozing in his lap, was he just about to get to his feet to stop her.