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Molly GoodbarrelApril 28th 1848, Independence, Missouri

Molly had only just nodded towards the persons she knew (or presumed) were armed, before a high whistle cut through the air like an arrow, loud enough to make a dog wince and sharp as daggers. As Molly assumed was the whistlers intent, people stopped talking and....... looked, not merely those in attendance to the Miller's Party, but several folk on the sides of the road. Bold as brass, an Indian woman stepped forward, apparently intending to plant herself at the start of the queue, and judging by the determination in that brown gaze, unafraid of muscling her way there, if it proved needful. It was, in Molly's evaluation, something of an empty gesture, a bit of swagger to show one's mettle.......... but it wasn't as though the gathered throng had been neat-and-orderly thus far. Boss Lady Miller had plucked one of the Far Easterners to interview first, seemingly at random. Others had arrived and had been fairly content to let Boss Lady have her choice as to who should be interviewed next, though the first interview had yet to conclude.

Once all eyes were on her, Whistler spoke in a clear, firm voice, seeming to announce her skills and intent to all who'd care to listen. Molly cocked a brow but didn't comment, instead climbing up into her reading wagon's seat, the blue of her dress a sharp contrast to the dark, painted wood. The horses weren't pulling anything just yet, and adding her posterior to the wagon didn't put any more strain on them.

Medicine and firearms. And other skills, besides.

A small smile tugged on Molly's lips; if Whistler wasn't too cagey or proud to share, it would be good to compare notes with another practitioner of the healing arts. Molly wasn't precious with any of her knowledge, though she could understand how others might be. After further announcing to the other hopefuls that Whistler was grateful for the opportunity, a sweet sentiment if a misplaced one (the Millers were still absent and their opinions were the only ones that really mattered), the Sword Wielder pipped up, apparently taking a cue from Whistler's pronouncement and taking what Whistler had made into Center Stage.

He spoke with a showman's patter, a trait that he'd apparently honed at the circus, and though the connection fit, Molly couldn't help but wonder....... why former? The Circus was about as tightly knit a family as one could reasonably get - Molly had even attempted to join one, weeks before taking what was rightfully hers and vanishing into the wet and windy night, but her manner had been too highborn, her elocution too educated, her need too urgent. She was too obviously out of place for them to risk it.

So....... why had these two left the security of a troupe?

When Sword Wielder addressed her directly, she couldn't help but smile wide and give him a single, agreeable nod. Better an illusion that exalted the spirit than ten thousand truths. Besides, there were deeper meanings in this world than mere facts could ever proffer to the human heart. Sueheeyunwoo. Nope. Not on her life. Molly wasn't about to even attempt that one without hearing it aloud a few more times. Interesting that he'd keep what was likely his given name, despite the trouble it doubtless brought him. Molly watched as Sword Wielder worked the crowd, and once his talent was clear, Molly adjusted her mental moniker. From Sword Wielder to simply Swallower. Molly had to give it to the man, he had a knack for the stage.

Once his performance became........ explosive........ Molly frowned and her clear, sharp eyes took a closer look around, frankly missing Poncho's removal of her namesake and searching for what Molly suspected might be there.

But no. Though it was thoroughly disgusting, Swallower's....... display........ seemed to be an honest mistake rather than a well-placed diversion. Few things got a crowd's attention more than an obvious flub in a performance, which made it the ideal time for more innocuous sorts with sticky fingers to roam through an enthralled audience. Even when looking for it, Molly's gaze didn't catch any untoward movement, no new faces that would slip through the crowd like smoke before disappearing.

It seemed Poncho and Swallower were, in fact, alone.

Molly's attention returned to Poncho just in time to see those pistols slide back into their holsters.

None of these people, not even Boone, mattered even a little insofar as joining the Miller Party; all the razzle-dazzle, whether Whistler's pronouncement or the more literal show of the circus pair, needed to be pointed towards the Millers, neither of whom were around to be razzled or dazzled. They were the ones whose opinion mattered. Everybody else was just an audience, but Molly appreciated the show nonetheless.

Molly Goodbarrel had little doubt that everyone present would be accepted into the traveling party. The realities of travel were not wholly unknown to her. A bigger party would make for a more tempting target for bandit and raider alike....... but there was also safety to be found in numbers, and more horses or oxen the party as a group could afford to lose. Why, several of Molly's own horses had been a rescue on the last major trail she'd traveled, south rather than west, but no less littered with the failed attempt of a journey - a shattered wagon, gently starving horses still tethered and looking at her with desperate eyes, the remains of their former owners strewn about like fallen leaves..... it had been a grim discovery. Fortunately, Molly's reading wagon was relatively light, despite the load it carried, and she'd brought plenty of feed. It had been beyond risky, she knew that now, but she'd freed all the horses, fed and watered the three who stuck around, and took everything from that destroyed life that wasn't nailed down. Burying the bodies in shallow graves had been messy work, but it was the least Molly could do. Four horses, these days, one she'd started with and the other three thanks to the unnamed family who'd been traveling alone.

The sheriff at the next town hadn't been surprised at the news.

No, there was safety in numbers.

If the Millers were wise, they'd take on every comer with a horse and cart, and perhaps a few more besides. Molly certainly had more horses than she needed for her reading wagon, but it allowed her to carry considerably more.

That slaughtered family had taught Molly a lesson she'd carried in the two months since. She was lucky the same fate hadn't befallen her, in her solitary wanderings. Luck of the devil, they said of her father. Was it possible she'd inherited the trait?

Maybe.
 
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Nukchinto Taloa & Wakeli LuaokaApril 28th 1848, Independence, Missouri

It had been a jarring change at one point to go from seeing his people, and only his people on a daily basis, to seeing them infrequently - or even rarely. While he was ranching, he and his sister were the only Choctaw - hell, the only native - for miles. He confided in Lua once he felt like he had more in common with the animals than his white boss and the boss’s family. They were trying to run free and live as they were meant to live. Lua didn’t understand, not really. It wasn’t that she was trying to forget or leave behind her people, but the frivolous things that the white people had kept grabbing her attention. Pretty dresses and shiny jewelry, fun music and parties, the energy of a full tavern, the bustle of a busy marketplace full of different-looking people. She was naturally curious. Taloa wasn’t going to stand in her way, but it did make a part of him both sad and bitter to find himself thinking that his sister seemed to be trying to wish herself white.

They weren’t the only natives in town either, there were a handful of others he saw skulking about, but when a pair of them marked up to the wagon party with intent to join, that made Taloa take notice. He did a double-take at Chevelle and Tallulah, stared for a moment, then raised his hand in a greeting towards both of them.

Lua poked her head out from behind their cart, where she was rearranging things for the upteenth time out of nerves, and spotted the pair as well. Something about seeing Tallulah in the cart, happily munching away on bread while what appeared to be her older sister did the work, made her grin. Even if she was older than Tallulah, she understood the ‘little sister of the one in charge’ feeling. She gave both women a wave as well, but Tallulah got a warm smile.

Taloa listened in carefully to Chevelle’s introduction. He had no doubt she’d be useful and pull her weight and then some, but he wanted to know where she was from. From who she was from. Rhode Island… unlikely to be Choctaw, but still… a comfort.

If everything went to shit, maybe the four of them would be able to take off on their own.

“What’s Mr. Miller doing that’s taking him so long?” Lua questioned as she circled around and climbed back up onto the front bench seat of their cart. She’d pulled a long tan piece of stiff grass out of the earth as she hung around, and reached over to start poking Taloa in the arm with it, as siblings tend to do.

“I don’t know. I saw him in town looking for something, eyes on the markets. Last minute supplies, I guess?” Taloa shrugged, swatting the grass away.

Their attention was soon drawn by Hyun and Camille’s display - mostly Hyun - though Lua had to look away and made a disgusted noise at the result of his show. She turned her head and put up one hand to shield the corner of her sight from the scene. Lua was strong and stubborn, but a few things made her stomach weak. That was one of them.

“Ugh. He’s not coming with us, is he?” Lua grumbled, and Taloa could only snort a laugh.

“Not up to me, string bean. Give them all some time and patience. You might like them.” He offered as he called her by one of his endless silly nicknames for her, climbing up into the bench seat next to her.

“Maybe you’ll like him. Did you hear what he said? Maybe he’s like you-” Lua started, then promptly went quiet when Taloa narrowed his eyes at her and shushed her, a bit sharply though quietly.

“Don’t talk about that. Not around others.” Taloa hissed, glancing around to see if anyone was paying them any attention. He turned slightly, making a quick sign with his hand that he knew Lua would understand.

<<”Not safe.”>>


 
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Gordon BooneApril 28th 1848, Independence, Missouri
Somewhere in the deep, dark, cursed recesses of Boone’s trauma-riddled mind, where a preacher wouldn’t dare delve and where learned men who would someday call themselves ‘psychologists’ would love to delve but wouldn’t for another thirty-some-odd years, Boone found himself watching Molly’s hand make its see-sawing motion, listening to her story about her near-brush with danger and her willingness to shoot a man in the knee, leg, or quite possibly the family jewels, and immediately deciding that was somehow, for some really flawed reason, a damn turn on. A more cautious man would have called that a sign, or even a red flag, to not mess with Ms. Goodbarrel for the sake of one’s twig and berries.

He wasn’t willing to play with fire, but he was willing to play with bullets and knives.

Boone’s lips moved briefly in a way that might have been a hint of the idea of a grin, but really looked more like just a facial twitch caused by an errant muscle before being pulled back into place by scar tissue.

“Maybe I’ll teach you, when we got time to make stops.” Boone said it simply, watching her climb up to take a seat at the front of her gypsy-like wagon. He spoke as if it was an already done-and-decided deal that not only was Molly coming with, she’d even accept his assistance.

Boone’s attention was snagged by a stage-voice calling everyone darling, and he couldn’t help but cross his arms and watch the man who introduced himself as Soo Hyun-Woo. He quickly decided the man was more like So Much Hot Air, with the way he treated this little patch of dirt and grass as a stage and declared himself and his traveling partner as circus runaways. That was probably the last thing he personally wanted in a wagon party compatriot. Circus acts, like any performer, thrived on drawing attention to themselves. This was the complete opposite of Boone’s modus operandi.

The whole show was… showy, typical of a circus act. Sword-swallowing was impressively reckless and not at all indicative of any useful skills, but at least the man’s comments were amusing. He watched with an impassive face; whatever his reaction to the stunt and the aftermath were, he kept it to himself… mostly. But not for long.

“Well, if someone decides to open up a brothel in Salvation, they’ll have at least one skilled person on staff.” Okay, maybe one useful skill, and he wouldn’t say no to availing himself of the benefits of such skill, but that was a discussion for another day and time.

Surveying the crowd, Boone decided they seemed harmless, more or less. That was probably going to be a problem later, but for the here-and-now, at least he was mostly satisfied that nobody was going to try and rob his employer’s wagon.

Figuring that James was going to take his sweet-damn-time to get back here, Boone moseyed on over to the main Miller wagon, flipped the rear wooden panel down, and climbed up into the covered wagon. It was very tightly packed with just a narrow pathway up the middle - narrow enough he had to crab-walk sideways to fit down it, while hunching over so as to not hit his head on the covering overhead. This little pathway would get filled up soon too, no doubt.

Inching around a crate full of devil-knows-what, Boone had to suck in his stomach to squeeze past so that he could reach what he was looking for - his rucksack. He hadn’t put it this far into the middle of the wagon himself, but it had been shuffled around as more things were added to the pile. Even if he claimed he was just trying to travel light, the paucity of his belongings was probably saddening to witness. One single leather bag, roughly the size and shape of a doctor’s bag but far more scuffed and floppy, contained everything that Boone had to his name that wasn’t already on his person. He’d stitched on leather straps so he could hang it crosswise over his body, or sling it over both shoulders, whichever was necessary at the moment. Pulling it open, he rummaged around briefly between spare clothes and supplies for what he needed - a flask.

The Millers wouldn’t allow drunkenness on the trail, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t sneak a drink when he needed one.

With the number of folks who were lining up that didn’t look like they were coming with a fully-stocked wagon of their own of some kind, they probably would need to squeeze in some extra things here wherever they could. There wasn’t much room left, and he was probably going to wind up sleeping either under the wagon, or atop a bag of dry horse feed, but that probably beat getting crushed by a falling barrel of water. So, Boone took it upon himself to shove some things around and make a bit of room.

“Gonna see if I can make some room back here, Mrs. Miller.” Boone called out, assuming that Laura was on the other side of the wagon yet with Washington. He could probably get away with a drink break if he was also doing something useful… and this might let him eavesdrop on these little interviews.


 
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Charity HawthorneApril 28th 1848, Independence, Missouri

Charity paused. Though she was certainly relieved that the priestly-looking man's response confirmed she was in the right place, the fact she wasn't out of the water yet was still front and center in her mind. She'd just spent a sizeable majority of her life's savings on wagon grease and flour, and she was thoroughly dreading the idea of having done all that for nothing. She steeled herself internally to speak again, having become aware that it had been a slightly uncomfortable amount of time since the priest had asked his question and she still hadn't answered him.

"Oh, um. Yes. Thank you." She kicked herself internally, she knew her social skills had deteriorated but this was just embarrassing. She turned away from a befuddled looking Hosea without waiting for a response and sat down on the back of her wagon in exhaustion, bitterly reminiscing about the days when she could still have a conversation without feeling like her body was trying to wear its intestines as a scarf. Her capacity for interaction was incredibly limited, and between the photography job, supply-buying, and now the brief interlude with this admittedly friendly-seeming Sinclair fellow, she was feeling about ready to lay down in a pit and sink into the earth.

Her mind drifted, thinking of those times that felt now as though they were from another life entirely. Before her father joined the East India company, when she was still a carefree child who loved making friends with her classmates and going on walks with her mother. Before her parents fought, before the Opium war, before the man in the uniform told her that her father had been executed for desertion. In so many ways it felt like her life was defined by befores. Maybe part of her didn't want to let go of that. It was a lot easier to not care about the future, to be indifferent to living or dying. Caring meant having stakes, and the thought of that terrified her.

But why did that have to scare her so much?

She had very nearly tuned out of reality entirely when she heard a sharp whistle, followed shortly by a sudden round of light gasping from the crowd. She snapped out of it just in time to see the dandelion-man staring at her with a level of intensity that set even her on edge, holding his sword menacingly in the air. Gently but swiftly her hand slid to the barrel of her rifle, not entirely sure of how she ended up in this situation but also not entirely wanting to be skewered. Jesus, she really was bad at talking to people, she hadn't even had a single conversation with this man yet and he already wanted to kill her.
Her confusion only grew further as he then proceeded to thoroughly lick down his sword, gulp it down his throat like a baby bird, and promptly vomit on the ground. Charity was significantly more intimidated than if he had actually just tried to kill her.
Charity decided that long stretches of zoning out were probably not the greatest idea anymore, and concealed herself behind a barrel. What the hell did she just get herself into?

She hissed at the priestly man, desperate for an explanation as he and the swordsman seemed to have... some kind of thing going on based on the way he'd spoken to him, though she was entirely lost as to what.

"PSST! HOSEA! what on earth is going on???"

 
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Hosea SinclairApril 28th 1848, Independence, Missouri
This quiet woman seemed like she was probably quite nice, if not rather shy - and he couldn’t blame her. A whole crowd of odd strangers, he hardly knew what to say himself. When she trudged back to take a seat in her wagon, he followed, somewhat like a lost puppy. Still plenty within sight of the others, but she seemed safely normal. He wouldn’t mind making polite conversation - or if she was a bit too worn out from all of this, he’d at least be on hand to make sure nobody bothered her.

A well-timed move, it seemed.

Hosea just… didn’t know what to think about the circus-man at this point. He took an involuntary step closer to Charity’s wagon and further from the side-show antics as Hyun appeared to dip right into an impromptu show, finding himself with second-hand embarrassment. The moment the sword came out, he flinched, just as much as he flinched at the comment from Hyun about shoving them inside himself.

That seemed absurd. Was this man going to stab himself right here in front of them all? Was he that drunk? Was he possessed?

Before Hosea could object to such misuse of sharp objects, Hyun had settled his eyes upon him and stated that he seemed the type to enjoy this. Flabbergasted and shocked and speechless, Hosea opened and closed his mouth a few times in silence, face turning beet-red. He may be a missionary, but he was no sheltered fool. He knew a lewd joke when he heard one, and suddenly realized everything the man said was half about stabbing people with a sword, and half about… phallic… activities…. And the implication that he himself appeared to enjoy such things. The outrage! How dare this man insinuate such things, in front of a crowd no less!

Shock kept Hosea rooted to the spot just long enough to watch Hyun put the entirety of the sword down his throat before he couldn’t watch it any longer. He turned away, hearing the woman behind him. Thinking she’d merely climbed deeper into her wagon to fetch something or to avoid this crazed vision before them, he was surprised to find her hiding behind a barrel.

“I haven’t the faintest clue!” He whispered back, taking out his handkerchief and blotting his face. He wasn’t sweaty, but he felt like his skin was a thousand degrees with how hard he was blushing.

“The man is clearly insane. Pay no mind to anything he says. It’s the alcohol, no doubt. Or perhaps he’s on that… that opium or what-have-you.” He gave a somewhat dismissive gesture with his handkerchief towards the now-recovering Hyun and Camille (bless her heart for her patience with this poor fool) before patting his face again, folding it, and returning it to his pocket.

“Why are you hiding behind a barrel?”


 
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Juno BelroseApril 28th 1848, Independence, Missouri
Juno furrowed her eyebrows as the man rejected a sales pitch she never even gave. He'd be lucky to have her pony... not that she was selling. Her expression softened as he took the note from her, letting him read it fully before tucking it back into the pocket of her skirt. She smiled, shaking his hand eagerly. That was easy... The first man she'd picked and he was not only part of a travelling party, but was leading one. She momentarily bowed her head to him in thanks, before nodding along to his request. She'd tag along with him in the meantime... good! Maybe it would help quell some of her anxieties if she saw how prepared they were.

She led her pony by her side as they approached the livestock seller, eyeing up his collection. His horses looked... good. They looked sound, walked evenly with no limping or tripping, and their hooves were well maintained. They were a good weight, too, not ribby, but not chubby, either. She wasn't quite as knowledgeable on oxen, but they looked pretty healthy, too. She'd always kind of wanted to pet one, especially the big fluffy ones. She'd introduced herself as their livestock expert, maybe this was her chance...

But the seller gave her weird vibes, and the mention of a stallion gave her pause. Mr Miller didn't seem the type to be able to ride a stallion. She wasn't particularly keen on riding stallions, either, especially without groundwork first... and they needed to leave today. Somehow, his offer for lessons seemed even more suspicious. As the man looked between the two of them, gazing off at something behind them, she looked over her shoulder. Soldiers. They always made her a little nervous, too. Men whose entire role, entire identity, was based on violence... but Cassidy seemed a little too nervous, like he'd encountered these soldiers before.

As the two made a deal, Cassidy joining them as protection, she opened her mouth as if to speak, looking to Mr Miller with concern. He didn't seem to notice this man's strange behaviours at all... but she hadn't seen the rest of the party yet. Maybe Mr Miller made a habit of hiring criminals to drive his wagons. Maybe she was the only innocent one of the lot. She tightened her grip on Amigo's reins... A criminal with a collection of horses... he had to be a horse thief, and she wasn't letting a horse thief anywhere near her Amigo.

Once the deal was made, she led her pony towards the horses, taking two of Cassidy's in tow. She kept them together on her left with Amigo on her right in case an unfamiliar horse was enough to upset them. It looked like the seller was eager to get out of the soldiers' sights and she wasn't sure she wanted to be caught speaking with him, either. She then turned to Mr Miller with a nod and a smile to show she was ready to go.
 
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Laura Miller April 28th 1848, Independence, Missouri
Laura was a bit caught off guard to hear the two foreign men weren’t related, but the world was a wide place. Not every indian was related either, it was just odd to see two of them in such proximity in this area. She closed her mouth before asking him to maintain control of his “brother”, pausing for a moment to regain her thoughts.

“Well, Mr. Washington, you seem to be an upstanding man and I much appreciate you coming prepared. What are your intentions for going-”

A loud whistle interrupted her, loud enough for her to peek around the side of the wagon. The crowd blocked her view, and as such she dismissed the sound and chatter.

“Rambunctious group.” she noted with a stressed sigh. “I’m sure things will be calmer on the road. What are your intentions for going west-”

She was interrupted a second time by the sound of retching. A look of frustration crossed her face as she pinched the bridge of her nose.

“Pardon my manners for just a moment, please.” She gave Washington a curt nod before crossing behind the wagon just in time to see Boone disappearing into it. The damned cowboy had seemed to find himself entitled to the space since he first joined on, which drove her absolutely bonkers, but James wasn't willing to let him sleep on the ground. she reluctantly agreed; The ground deserved much better. She cleared her throat as he called out to her, responding with hardly confined rage in a tone more like an angry parent than anything else.

“Mr. Boone, please keep any drunken nausea out of my wagon. We just woke up for God’s sake.” she turned back to Washington, exasperated by the chaos. She figured there was an equal chance between the visibly drunk foreign man and Boone to be the ones to fall sick, and if that was the case, it was just like the cowboy to show up purely to piss her off and then immediately let the crowd fall into chaos.

“Like I was saying, we’d love reasonable men to stick around Salvation, so if you plan on staying, that is certainly a bonus.”

 
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James Miller April 28th 1848, Independence, Missouri
The fog was starting to clear when James made his way back towards the wagon train, most of his new livestock in the tow of Mr. Cassidy, who led them from horseback. He led the prettiest looking mare himself while the mute girl led two others, which worked out fine. The sight of a crowd around his wagon made him immediately light up. He couldn't help but pull ahead with the mare, failing to even notice the cowboy's annoyance, much less react. He didn't recognize most of the faces, his face falling slightly as he didn't immediately see his wife or the guard he'd hired, but he shrugged it off and waved at the crowd.

“Good morning!” He called out excitedly just before approaching the group, the mare lowering her ears at his sudden sound but not spooking. He waited for Cassidy and Juno to catch up, handing the rope that held the mare to one of them.

“Would you mind setting them up for travel while I address the group? I'll get your paperwork finished right after.” He smiled. Cassidy gave a curt nod and led the majority of the stock towards the front of the wagon for tacking. With that settled, he turned towards the crowd once more, offering handshakes to everyone present.

“It's a pleasure to meet you all, I'm Mr. Miller, I'm sure you've met my wonderful wife Laura-”

He paused when he met Taloa, recognizing him as the same man who was trying to sell his horse earlier. His face flushed with shame before he continued.

“We’re thrilled to have you as members of our wagon party. Just give me a moment-” He went to the wagon and fumbled with several sheets of paper before beginning to hand them out. “I’ve got pencils as well, if anybody needs them.”

He was about halfway through handing things out when Laura came from around the wagon. He beamed at her, desperately wanting to scoop her up, but unwilling to embarrass her. She looked frazzled and shocked for a moment as he handed out another contract.

“You picked a lovely group, dear, I’m so excited to get to know everyone. Have they met Boone yet?” He didn’t give her a chance to respond. Laura sighed, took one of the contracts and handed it to Washington, mumbling a prayer.

“He’s harsh at first but he’ll warm up to us, he’s a good man at heart.”

When he was finished with the contracts, he stood up on his wagon to be sure he could be seen by everyone, then checked his pocket watch.

“Seems we have about two hours until departure. We’ll be leaving much earlier once we’re on the trail, but wanted everyone to have plenty of time to finish their business… speaking of which, as much as I’d love to carry everyone’s things in my wagons, we’re already stocked up on extra food. Anyone who can’t afford a wagon can take a loan from me at no interest, so long as you remain in Salvation to pay it off.”

This was a measured charity. Miller Mercantile would be the only general store in the town, the more and longer people stayed, the more profitable his business would be. Those profit margins not including the fact it was a loan and not a gift.

Being good sure felt good.

“Once you’re done with the paperwork, please bring them back to me and I’ll get it filed away. I have a good feeling about this expedit-”
He jolted as he felt something brush against his boot, kicking it away instinctively and subsequently losing his balance. He fell backwards into his wagon, knocking over a crate. That was the least of his concerns, however.

A massive black snake soared into the crowd, writhing in the air before hitting the ground with a crack. It jerked and seized for several minutes with its mouth agape and foaming before falling still. The kick had been a bit too much for its spine, which bent at an unnatural angle. The snake had bent itself into a kind of cross as it writhed, its empty gaze set on the trail ahead.
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Charity HawthorneApril 28th 1848, Independence, Missouri

Opium. God, of all of her home country's sins, opium had to be among the vilest. She suddenly felt a good deal more sympathy towards the swordsman if that was whatever was up with him. She assumed Hosea probably knew better than she would, considering the... dynamic the two seemed to have. Of course, she had never considered that it was possible for such a dynamic to exist between two men, but Charity had long ago learned it was a fool's errand to assume that the world works based on expectations. Hosea's reply certainly seemed to imply it was one sided anyways (regardless of the fact that he was clearly blushing harder than a sunset), so she decided it was probably best not to ask about it.

Maybe they were just on a break or something.

She considered answering his question honestly. That she was scared to death and still wasn't sure if she was making the right decision, that she'd hardly had more than a surface-level conversation in more than three years, that she was so utterly alone-

She realized she was starting to drift from reality again. Shit, think of something less embarrassing to say.

"It's easier to observe when you're not being observed."

Perfect, that sounded just vaguely wise and mystical enough to answer the question without raising more. Oh god, who was she kidding, she was making such a fool of herself, this was a terrible idea. If she could barely maintain three sentences worth of conversation with the least intimidating person in the entire party how on earth could she ever hope to keep things on good terms with the bloody sword-eating vomit man?

Mercifully, it was at this moment that the mysterious Mr. Miller arrived and introduced himself to the crowd. At the very least, he seemed like a strong contender to steal Hosea's "least intimidating" title, which was mostly a relief.
Mostly.

She braced herself as he handed out contracts, eventually grabbing one with as little conversation as she could manage. At the very least she was quite certain she'd disproved the theory of spontaneous human combustion, as if it were possible she would've already been a smoldering pile of ashes an hour ago.

Miller finished handing out paperwork and was in the midst of describing his willingness to give out loans (Charity was suddenly a lot less regretful about having spent so much, one of the few things in the world she'd learned not to trust was easy debt), when he suddenly yelped and fell backwards.
Charity flinched at the sudden sound, opening her eyes just in time to see a writhing black snake thud into the ground a few feet in front of her, contorting and twisting in strange shapes as it died. Lord, if ever there were a sign not to do something...

No. She was in too deep to quit now.

She read the contract thoroughly, raising her eyebrows at a few clauses but deciding she'd be better off not asking about them. Hesitantly, she signed.

x Charity Hawthorne

God she hoped she'd made the right choice.

 
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Gordon BooneApril 28th 1848, Independence, Missouri

Unfortunately, Boone wasn’t in the wagon long enough to really eavesdrop on anything too useful from Mrs. Miller, not with how she was so damn easily distracted by simple noises. Typical. He wasn’t sure what he expected, but hearing some secrets from his fellow travelers would have been great. Surely some of these folks had to be running from some dark past, scandal, mistake, or something… but then again, as Boone took a swig from a flask and stashed it inside his coat, he took a glance out the wagon and studied the others. Too many looked fresh-faced and happy in general. It pissed him off. All these damn happy people.

When Mrs. Miller called to him about drunken nausea, he rolled his eyes and shouted back at her through the fabric of the wagon’s covering.

“It ain’t me yakkin’ my guts out, it’s that one damn Oriental with the floppy hair and the sword! You go tell the one you’re talking with to deal with his brother, else I will!” Boone likely neither knew or cared where either man came from or that they were not at all related.

Boone shoved around a few crates and sacks that weren’t placed well, making sure things wouldn’t tip over or bust open from the rocking of the wagon while in motion. By the time he was done, the narrow pathway was somehow narrower, but the weight was better distributed across the axles of the wagon, and there were fewer tipping hazards inside. He even managed to save himself a nice flat area atop a few crates where he could curl up and sleep at night if needed. It made sense - wagon guard stays with the wagon, even while sleeping. Presuming Mrs. Miller didn’t steal James’ balls and make him back down from his earlier promise, of course.

Turning his back on the contents of the wagon, he leaned against some sacks stacked on a barrel and snuck a sip from his flask as he listened to James. He expected some silly cheery little speech, and damn near got one - before he watched James suddenly kick at something only to make himself fall backwards.

Boone stood there, nonchalantly and relaxed as an old dog in front of a fireplace, while James flailed next to him, knocking over a crate on his way down. He watched the long writhing form go flying nicely before smashing into the ground. Not too unlike James’ trajectory, though with more of an arc to it. And maybe more grace.

“Real inspirin’ speech there, Mr. Miller.” Boone said in a low, flat voice as he raised his flask in a toast to James, stole another sip, then slid it back into his coat. Leaving James sprawled against the crates and bags, Boone took a few steps out of the shadows of the wagon and hopped down out of it, boots kicking up some dust as he hit the ground.

Sliding his knife out of its sheath across his torso, Boone cautiously approached the snake. It sure looked dead, what with the foam at its mouth and its stillness, but you never knew for sure with some critters.

“Well if that ain’t just a fuckin’ omen.” Boone muttered.


 
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Hosea SinclairApril 28th 1848, Independence, Missouri

The nice woman’s answer made complete sense - she was observing, of course. A wise choice to observe before acting or speaking. He did similar things frequently. He nodded at her answer, murmuring his agreement, before his attention was stolen away by a man raising his voice like a polite herald.

Ah, so this was the fabled Mr. James Miller - what a relief! He looked like a well-kept man, clean and sober, upstanding and energetic. He had somewhat expected Mr. Miller to be a little older, but he supposed most men of a more advanced age may not be willing or spry enough to make the arduous journey westward. Hosea was not fully sure he was physically up to it either, and expected a lot of exhaustion and sore feet, but that was the price one paid to bring salvation to… well, Salvation. He would take full advantage of sitting on the back of Miss Hawthorne’s wagon while he could.

After he accepted his copy of the contract and a pencil to write with, Hosea was sliding his reading glasses from his pocket and perching them upon his nose when he looked up at the sound of a clatter and Mr. Miller’s abrupt end to his sentence. It all happened so fast, he barely even registered what had happened until he saw the snake on the ground.

Black as the devil - likely poisonous, with a visage so foul - but curled upon the ground like a cross. Though, from Hosea’s position, it was an upside-down cross. The Catholics may call it a Petrine Cross, but to him that was the sign of the Devil.

“Lord have mercy, what a terrible sign.” He exhaled, gripping the contract tighter until the paper rumpled under his fingers. Truthfully, that sign made him fearful, but that fear only drove home his decision that this was the right choice.

“You all need me, more direly than I even anticipated.” Hosea stated, a bit louder, as he scanned the rest of the contract, merely looking for any objectionable or ungodly provisions. Finding none, he smoothed the paper on the bottom of the wagon and signed his signature with a flourish, including the abbreviation for his title as an Elder.

x EQ. Hosea Sinclair

He might even avail himself of a loan from Mr. Miller for a wagon, too. A burden shared was a burden lightened, after all.

 
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Washington ZhaoApril 28th 1848, Independence, Missouri

Washington's eyes had widened slightly as he heard Mrs. Miller's statement and questions. Though he was, by nature an honest, gentle, and kind man, a man who had both a great deal of intelligence and humility - and one who was very well trained, so to speak, in social etiquette; Washington had not thought of himself as an "upstanding" man.

He had, after all, disobeyed his parents, and risked dishonoring his family with his scandalous behavior. Washington carried with him a great deal of shame for this. The terrible violence that had been afflicted on him and his traveling companion, would not have happened if they had remained in New York, if they had not... insisted.... on being together. In his mind, both men had been punished for who and what they were, and what they had done together. But somehow Washington had escaped death... and now if anything, he was a doomed man - not an upstanding one.

He could not tell her that, could he? But did she not have the right to know that she was traveling with a man who had a history of criminal behavior - a sodomite? That he was cursed, and most likely would carry his bad fortune along with her and the rest of the traveling party?

Washington opened his mouth to speak and then paused, distracted by the woman being distracted herself. When she turned back and asked her question again, slightly rephrased, he nodded his head.

His intentions? What could he tell her of that? That he was running away from his family and the shame of his past? That he was trying to outrun the grief of the loss of the only man who ever made him feel he belonged somewhere? That his ultimate goal was to die alone, as far away from New York that he could travel to? That he honestly did not even expect to reach California, that this was all just..

Once more, the young man opened his mouth to speak. And once more, Mrs. Miller's attentions immediately went elsewhere. Washington lowered his eyes as he heard the words of the man she referred to as Mr. Boone. Brothers... A brief feeling of embarrassment swept over the young man as he gathered himself before Mrs. Miller turned back to him.

When she had finished speaking, some how satisfied by the answers he had never had the chance to give to her, Washington simply nodded his head.

"Yes Ma'am. Thank you." He said, barely above a whisper, and then followed her around the side of the wagon once more. He took the contract from her and then joined the others, though purposefully not getting too close to the other Oriental man, as if to silently assert they were indeed strangers.

Immediately though, Washington was struck by the smell, and he pulled his handkerchief from his pocket to cover his nose. He looked towards the other man - his so called brother - who was sat on the ground smoking a cigarette. To his absolute horror, the other man looked up and stared at him, as if he had become aware of Washington's gaze the second it landed on him. The older man grinned and winked, giving him the sort of look Washington had only seen given by men to the women at the saloon, when they sought to purchase their affections for the night. Certainly not the look of one brother to another.

Washington's cheeks flushed and he looked down at the contract again. As Mr. Miller spoke, Washington read through the words carefully, then raised his eyes to look around at the others who had gathered while he had been behind the wagon.

He expected far more white, Europeans. He himself was surprised by the diverse nature of the group. He saw the few native people, which he supposed made sense. He had never really spoken to people like that before, though. He had only read of them in books. Most shocking perhaps was the third Asian. It was Juno... the silent girl he had known from his time working in the General Store.

He had met her several times before, when she would come to the store where he most often sat behind the counter and worked the register due to his skills with calculations in his head. He'd always liked her, but she was not someone he expected to see on this journey. In fact, if Washington were to make a list of all of the people he knew in Independence that he might guess would be joining him on this journey - Juno would be the last on the list.

Though to be fair, he doubted she would ever have expected to see the quiet, nervous boy from the General Store ready to depart for California either. He lowered his eyes before she'd too have a chance to make eye contact with him and then carefully, Washington marked his name at the bottom of the contract.

____X Washington Zhao_____

Keeping his eyes low, Washington saw movement on the ground - spotting the snake going towards Mr. Miller. Before he could give out a warning to the leader of their party, the poor creature had been kicked into the air. It was an awful sight, and when it's body came to a rest on the path in front of them, the young man's dark eyes lifted and stared up at Mr. Miller.

Washington swallowed hard as he made brief eye contact, then quickly lowered his head and eyes back to the ground.


 
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Juno_Banner with art.pngJuno BelroseApril 28th 1848, Independence, Missouri
As the trio approached the group of strangers, Juno purposely peeled away from Cassidy, Amigo in tow. She wanted to meet the rest of the group... maybe seeing her travel buddies would settle her nerves just a little. She imagined battle-hardened soldiers with proud scars on their faces to show their experience, armed to the teeth with whatever they could find to fend off raiders on the trail... Tall, strong, even a little scary looking...

The first person she locked eyes with was a priest... Maybe he'd bless their wagons and whatever higher power was listening would protect them on their journey, Christian or not. A priest was something her mother tried a few months after she lost her voice... Maybe some sort of demon had taken it from her, maybe God could return it... but they both knew who the real demon was. Her mother was just in denial, doing everything in her power to fix her daughter... other than leaving her husband, of course. She wasn't sure how much she liked priests. They didn't like to... fix things that needed more than a prayer. She hoped he wasn't going to make them say grace around the campfire every night.

Now the cowboy, he looked like he knew what he was doing... kind of like Cassidy but without the stolen horses... that she knew of, anyway. The look of him gave her a glimmer of hope. He was armed, he had proud scars on his face, and he looked damn scary. She liked to believe he could shoot one dirty look at a raider and they'd run away with their tail between their legs... but the leader, she didn't look to keen on him, either. She presumed that lady was the leader, anyway, with the way everyone was looking at her. Well, Mr Miller was probably the official leader, but she seemed to be doing all the jobs the leader should be doing, and she had that leadership face.

Then... a woman behind a barrel. She leaned back a little, trying to get a slightly clearer view as she furrowed her brow. Huh. Before she could think too much about it, James handed her a slip of paper. She gave him a polite nod before rooting around in her skirt pocket for one of her pencil. This was going to be a long journey, she wasn't even sure if the 6 she'd packed would be enough if she was planning on talking and drawing on the way. She twiddled her pencil as she read the contract before scribbling her name at the bottom.

x Juno Belrose

As she finished the curl of the final E, she noticed a movement in the corner of her eye... She looked up. A snake! A black rat snake, to be exact. She'd seen quite a few in her time, mostly out on the trail with Amigo... mostly after Amigo had jumped 3ft into the air and sprinted in the opposite direction, whether she was still in the saddle or not. Amigo's eyes pricked forward, lowering his head as he watched... This was probably a good training moment! She scratched at Amigo's neck as they watched it. These guys were cool... Their babies were often prey for other, bigger snakes, and American Minks like to snack on the adults once their fully grown. Their tails even vibrate when they feel threaten--

As James yelped, she lunged forward, holding her hands out as if to disarm him. These guys were constrictors, it would only be a problem if they got wrapped around his neck. She watched as the snake was flung from his boot, writhing and seizing before finally laying to rest in the dry dirt... She looked to James with a frown, the inner corners of her eyebrows arched upwards. Poor snake.

She looked between the crowd as they shared their two cents... Well if that ain’t just a fuckin’ omen... You all need me, more direly than I even anticipated... She sighed. What did they expect? If you kick a snake hard enough, it's gonna die, that's how most animals work... and the shape it ended up in, well... that was purely a poorly timed nuance of animal behaviour.
 
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Nukchinto Taloa & Wakeli LuaokaApril 28th 1848, Independence, Missouri
Two hours until departure… if Taloa wasn’t nervous to begin with, he was now. The great distance they’d have to travel, again, made the idea of leaving feel so… final. It was not just that the journey was long, arduous, and expensive, and therefore not one to be repeated lightly. He and his sister had made more than their fair share of long travels. They could do it again and again if needed, until they were old and frail. But no, it wasn’t the physical change in location that felt daunting. It was the mental and spiritual change that came with leaving a place behind, with intent to never return.

When he first proposed this to Lua, she asked him several times: ’Are you sure? They’d discussed it at length, planned everything out, saved up all that they needed, brought all that they required. Lua had stopped asking him this weeks ago, until now.

“Are you sure we’re ready?” Lua asked, leaning against Taloa’s shoulder as she lowered her voice. “I’m nervous. Two hours is forever and not long enough.”

Taloa shifted to wrap his arm around his sister’s shoulders and give her a hug while he mulled over her question. Lua could be the strongest, most stubborn girl he’d ever known, but that didn’t make her immune to worry. And if she worried, so did he… but it was his job to protect her, and to make her see that things would be okay.

“We’ve planned exactly what we needed to bring. We triple-checked what we packed. We ended up saving more money than we needed and have a bit left over for emergencies. We have extras of all the important things. We found a wagon party that looks decent.” Okay, maybe decent was a stretch but it wasn’t a band of roving bandits, nor was it a bunch of old aristocrats with not a thought in their head. Besides, they’d already signed their contracts earlier. They were in it for the long haul.

“I’m ready. We’ll be fine, it-” Taloa stopped himself as he saw the black snake hit the ground, shudder, and curl up in its death. He sat frozen for a moment next to Lua, who had her hand clamped over her mouth in shock.

“Sinti Lapitta?” Lua whispered to Taloa behind her hand, subtly motioning at James with a nod of her head. “But him? Sinti Lapitta visits wise young men and Mr. Miller just kicked him! Who was he supposed to be visiting? And why?”

Oh, that wasn’t a good sign. Even the rough-and-vile Boone, who had been looking sideways at his sister in ways he didn’t like, seemed to realize that. Taloa was already climbing down off his cart. Spotting a long, sturdy thin branch that had fallen to the grass nearby, Taloa picked that up and carried it with him.

“Give it some room.” Taloa stated in a quiet but firm voice as he approached the snake. Not give Mr. Miller room though - give the snake room. He gently started to slide a branch under the snake’s curled body, intending to lift it up. It looked dead, but he was keeping his distance just in case the thing was merely stunned, and came to its senses. Rat snakes’ bites weren’t dangerous to humans, but that didn’t mean he was looking to risk one anyways.

“Any problems with disposing of the snake?” Taloa looked up at those gathered, the snake draped over the branch but not yet raised off the ground. He didn’t expect any arguments, but he didn’t know these people well enough to make that assumption.

 

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