The Long Road Home
"We're moving west." Three words. Three simple words that changed the course of her world.
Lucy had dreamed of adventure, just like any girl trapped in a house full of other children would. It wasn't unfamiliar, her life was nothing incredibly special or out of the ordinary. She was the third youngest, a middle child of sorts. Her eldest brother was married, and her older sister might never be. It was a horrible thing to think, but Elizabeth was twenty with a pudgy face and a desperate demeanor that chased away the men. Wanting a husband rarely got you a husband, just like wanting adventure rarely presented an opportunity for one. Of course, the real problem wasn't that Elizabeth wanted to be married so badly. It was that she was soft in all the wrong places with drab brown hair that was stick straight, just like her thin little lips. It was that she wanted to control the world, and that she demanded respect where none was due.
Lucy was next in line, the black sheep of the family. Or rather, blonde. Everyone was brunette after their mother, but Lucy had gotten her fathers golden ringlets, his full lips, heart shaped face, and sharper features that looked out of place next to her round faced siblings. She was a little shorter than her mother and sister's, and much slighter in frame. Any weight she did gain was put in more 'womanly' places, leaving her waistline defined and her jaw sharp. The simple truth was, Lucy was prettier than Elizabeth...and Elizabeth hated her for it. They got along most of the time, but there was an underlying bitterness. She couldn't be blamed, not really. Any potential suitors were lost to Lucy, who was friendly and just a little bit wild. Ma and Pa wouldn't have it, of course. Elizabeth would be married first, and that was that. Lucy had come to the disappointing conclusion that she would spend the rest of her life alone.
After Lucy was Paul, a mere year younger at sixteen with a strong physique that helped plenty with the chores. After him was Miles, who was thirteen and wired with energy. Bernard and Alice were last, three year old twins that kept their mother on her toes, and had ended her childbearing years. Lucy was fine with it, there were enough mouths to feed and shoes to buy as it was. Being a girl, particularly an older girl, she was kept busy with plenty of housework. Rarely was she allowed to spend time alone, and even on the nicest days work seemed to keep her indoors. Of course, there was also the fact that she hated wearing a bonnet and her fair skinned could burn in minutes, but her mother seemed to think that running off into the forest was irresponsible and downright dangerous. Every now and then she got to bring the boys water in the fields, and though the bucket was heavy and her skirts always got wet, she reveled in the sunshine and fresh air.
She would have ran wild, if they'd let her. While she was helpful, she was also incredibly forgetful and dangerously social. She could talk to just about anyone for hours on end, and she did whenever she got the chance. Scrubbing pans and kneading dough just didn't use enough of her energy, and small talk with her mother and sisters was bland and boring. Most of the time she was off in her head, staring out the window, imagining something exciting would happen. But dreaming of adventure and having one were two different things, and moving west was more than an adventure. There were stories of raids, lives lost along the trail, horses drowning in the rivers, children caught beneath the wheels. It was a cool evening when her parents had announced it, the whole family gathered around the fire. Alice was in her lap, chewing on her fist, oblivious to what the words meant. Normally her father would read a passage from the bible, a his soft voice lulling them all towards sleep. It was a welcome change to the way Reverend Allen yelled angrily every Sunday, and it helped her drift off even if her body was far from tired. But this news, this life changing news...no, she wouldn't sleep that night.
They would leave everything. Their friends, their family. Gregory, her eldest brother, had a child on the way. He wouldn't risk his wife and child out on the trail, wouldn't force Evelyn to give birth in the back of a wagon. And so, Lucy would never meet her niece, and she would never see her brother's face again. No Sunday night dinners, no late afternoon walks with her friend Bethany, no house full of memories where they had all grown up. Everything, they were leaving everything. They had all cried that night, and even more the day they were to leave. Everything was sold, replaced with a wagon and barrels full of bacon, water, flour, and beans. They all barely fit in the wagon, but after the train was assembled and they set on their way her father gave the older children permission to get out and walk. Lucy was the first out of the wagon, sliding down into the thick grass and relishing the sun on her face. It was beautiful, really. The line of wagons floated along like clouds over the green countryside, the sky a brilliant blue, and just enough breeze to-, "Lucy!" Her mother called, interrupting her moment of outdoor ecstasy. "What?"
Had she snapped? Yes, she definitely had. "Yes ma'am?"
"Your bonnet." It was thrown back off of her head, held on by the ties around her neck. It was exactly where it should have been. The woman glowered at her until she lifted it to shield her face, promising herself that she would be rid of it as soon as she could. It was a day of bliss, as far as she was concerned. The boys ran around like wild, dogs, shouting and hollering until their father threatened to use the horse whip. Elizabeth got out of the wagon for a short while, struggling to keep up beside Lucy, holding her skirts so they wouldn't dirty. "It's so incredibly hot." She complained, fanning herself with her hand. "Better than rain." Lucy replied, tipping her head back to the sun could reach beneath her bonnet. "Anything's better than rain." Elizabeth grumbled on. "I'd prefer it."
"You'd rather have all of us crammed in the wagon together? All day long?"
That shut her up, at least for a little while.
Somewhere during the late afternoon they slowed to a stop, the train turning into a lump of wagons as they all started to set up camp. Her mother started working on a fire while Elizabeth searched for pans. "Paul, could you fetch water from the stream?" The stream. It was only a little ways off, glittering blue beneath a tall oak, bubbling happily...calling her. Lucy beat Paul to the bucket, just barely.
"I'll get it."
"Lucy, I'd really rather Paul-,"
"Well Paul doesn't have a bucket."
"Luckily, I DO have a bucket."
"I won't be long."
Paul watched her with a smirk, arms folded in indifference.
"Don't you stop and talk anyone's ear off, girl. Come straight back, ya hear?" Her Pa ordered as she walked away, pretending not to hear him. She would talk to anyone she saw fit.
Alan Warren should never have ended up where he was now. Born to an impecunious family to a father who bred horses for a living, Alan, the oldest of five, was destined for a life of farm labour. A skilled horseman, Warren joined the U.S. Calvary at fifteen and, by some fluke in paperwork, ended up fighting in the Battle of Plum Creek under the Rangers of the Republic of Texas. Recognized for his audaciousness in warfare, Warren was promoted to Major, a title he lived under until twenty-four, when he was diagnosed with Typhoid fever. Surviving the illness, Alan began to pick up mercenary work as a Scout for Westward Pioneers, employing his expansive knowledge of the West. He and his long-breathed horse, Highfly, a dark dapple grey stallion, had made a reasonable name for themselves on the Westward trail for their virtue and success.
The spring sun was blazing, a single white, hot eye of light in an infinite stretch of blue. Save for the mugginess, there was nothing unpleasant about the day. A warm breezed sifted through the small clearing, dispersing the smell of animal that surrounded the stream. Water bubbled down rocks and Alan watched the continuous stream with blasť blue eyes, holding on to the leather reins as Highfly slurped and splashed at the streamside. They had just returned to the East after helping a family wagon pass through the California Trail. Of course, now that was Spring was upon the land, more and more groups scrambled to get West and the working season for Alan had just begun. It was intentions to retire from Scouting following this season as he had made a respectable sum of money. He would return to New York, where he was from, and would marry an honest woman and lead a virtuous life that was not filled with the constant peril of war and Scouting.
Alan was a handsome man with a clean-shaven face, boyish features, and skin that had tanned from the long hours spent under the Southern sun. His Aryan blonde hair, which had gotten unruly and long over his travels, was tied back with a strip of leather from an old saddle to keep it out of his way. He was a simple man and wore simple clothes, black trousers and threadbare leather riding boots with spurs that caught the sun and gleamed. Although he no longer carried his Calvary blues and had traded them for some coffee some months back, he retained his standard-issue military Rifle, embellished with steel and Walnut wood that was beginning to have its colour wane, but he carried it heartwarmingly as it gave him comfort of his home and family, for whom he solely functioned.
Highfly lazily lifted his slender head, water dripping down his muzzle as he snorted, a sight that made Alan chuckle a little, patting the horse’s thick neck with endearment.
“I suppose you are trying to tell me you have finished, have you?”
He stretched his back a little, expelling a yawn. There were bound to be many families and groups around the stream today and one, or more, was bound to need a Scout. He had decided it would be best to hang around and offer his services. His saddlebags had been filled, his horse had been rested, and his gun reloaded, although his duties as a Scout were not something he enjoyed, he promised himself that this would be the last trip. This would be the last time he would travel through the inhospitable landscapes, across the endless miles of barren plain and grassland, scraping every survival instinct he had just to sustain himself. Sometimes, he felt as though if he were asked if the money was worth it, he would seriously have to consider his response.
Flipping the reins over the horse’s neck and tying them to the breastplate to keep pressure on Highfly’s mouth to prevent him from wandering off, Alan Warren crouched down, splashing his hands in the water and rinsing off his arms and face. The cool water was a brisk relief from the encroaching heat. He then drank and filled his canteen, taking his leisurely time down by the creek, as it would probably be the last time he’d be given a chance to relax for some weeks. With the sun beginning to decline and darkness setting in, Alan straightened himself and untied the reins, deciding to make for camp; however, before he got the chance to wander off, the sight of a young woman clamoring to the stream caught his attention. If it had been anyone else, he wouldn’t have thought twice, but it wasn’t everyday that a woman like that just hauled a bucket to a stream. Even on the trail, where survival was arduous and took every member of the wagon, he rarely saw women willing, or able, to engage in hard labour. The sight made him quirk an eyebrow and crack a goofy grin, resting a hand up on his hip and watching for a moment.
“Be careful you don’t fall in,” he teased her gently, although he did admire her for what she was doing. Alan had met many strong, self-governing women, especially when he spent some time trading with Native American tribes in the West, whose women were often political leaders, but to see an Anglo woman doing the same left an immediate impression on him.
“I wouldn’t want you to get your dress wet,” his teasing was all in good fun and he meant no harm by it, of course, he hadn’t realized until after he spoke that not all people took friendly to jesting.
The place was alive, buzzing with activity. Needless to say, Lucy was taking the long way to the creek with a detour that wove in and out between the wagons. Spirits were still high, being the first day on the road. Children were running in circles, women were crouching by fires, men were stretching out their muscles after a long day at the reins. Her own family would be doing something similar, waiting impatiently for her to return with the water. And yet, Lucy didn't feel rushed. This was an experience she would never have again, this first day on the trail. Maybe she would be scolded for dawdling, maybe Elizabeth would be in a sour mood and her mouth would be turned down in disapproval, but they wouldn't remember it a year from now. But this? This life? This excitement? This would keep with her forever. Besides, it wasn't the first time she'd taken a scolding.
"Woah!" A tiny figure slammed into her legs, nearly knocking her off balance. To her surprise, the little girl couldn't have been much older than Bernard and Alice. Faster, but not much older. "Olive!" A sweet looking red headed woman was running after her, breathless and slightly panicked. She picked up the little girl without hesitation, swinging her into her arms. It was then that Lucy realized the woman was a good head taller than she was. "I'm so sorry, she's going through this phase. I swear, she'll just up and run every chance I turn."
"It's really fine. Is she yours?"
"She'd say she was her Pa's, but technically, yes. I'm Clara."
"Nice to meet you. Maybe I'll see you around?"
"I'm sure we'll run into each other again."
They would have a hard time avoiding each other if the wanted, that was the truth of it. Wagon trains only had so many wagons, and the way they camped every night made dinner inevitably social. If you wanted to walk to a stream, or anywhere for that matter, you were going to see your neighbors. The little girl watched over her Ma's shoulder as she was carried away, and Lucy considered Clara. They must have been around the same age, if not exactly. And yet, there she was with a child. Babies weren't a completely foreign concept, she did have four younger siblings. However, the thought of having children of her own did feel completely foreign. Elizabeth always gushed about babies, how she couldn't wait to have her own, how she would dress them and what their names would be. Lucy liked babies, babies liked Lucy, but just because she could take care of a child didn't mean she should have one. Maybe it was because there were bigger things keeping her apart from the possibility of children, like finding a husband. It wasn't as though she were actively looking, not that it would have mattered anyways. Anyone she brought home belonged to Elizabeth, because Elizabeth needed to be married before Lucy. Her parents were dead set on it, which had brought Lucy to the conclusion that she was going to spend her life alone. It was really, truly, horribly possible.
Lucy wandered through the wagons for a while longer, aware that she was moving farther upstream, ignorant of how much time she really was taking. A few friendly exchanges were made between her and a few families, as well as an elderly couple with a speckled dog. Her feet led her towards the edge of camp, and she took it as a sign that it was time to get water. There was a man by the stream, but she wasn't timid as many women might have been. If he was drinking the water from that particular spot, then it was obviously good enough for her family. They were a short ways apart, but not so long that she wouldn't have hollered out a greeting. Would have, if he hadn't been so...him. Lucy was friendly, but she wasn't fearless. She didn't fear that he would attack her, a some unaccompanied women might, but she did fear the way he made her heart leap into her throat. He was clean shaven, sinfully handsome, and his hair had an uncanny resemblance in color to hers. She wondered if maybe he were to lie back, and she to lean in over him with her hair loose around her face...would they be able to tell the difference?
No. No, her mind would absolutely not go there.
And then he spoke, teasing her shamelessly as though it were proper. The two of them, unchaperoned, so far away from the wagons? That was bad enough without the way her mouth curved up into a grin as she spoke. Luckily, Lucy had never been terribly effective at self discipline. "Maybe I like it wet." She called back, wandering towards him a ways. It didn't have to be a long conversation, they could have left it at that. But he was tanned and his smile was contagious, drawing her closer like a moth to an oil lamp. "I was just going to lift my skirts up and wade right in, but now that you're here..." It was too far. She realized it only after the words escaped her lips, that she had just spoken of revealing her bare legs to a handsome stranger with a horse and a devilish grin. Luckily, her cheeks were already pink in the dying heat. "Well, I'll just have to figure something out." Her laugh wasn't nervous, though it was clear she was slightly abashed at what she'd said. But she let it go with a slight shake of her head, because nerves and humiliation would spoil such a beautiful evening.
The land dipped down into the creek, but the water was too shallow for her bucket. The deeper water was about a food down from a higher ledge. Could she lay in the grass and reach it? "I'm really hoping not to get any pebbles...or dirt, for that water. Ideally I'd just go straight to the middle; but as I said before, you ruined that." It wasn't small talk, but a genuine question of sorts. Though her heart was still beating fast, there was something about him that brought about a sense of security, a safeness, a timelessness. It had been a solid twenty minutes since she'd left the wagon.
As darkness began to settle like a damp blanket on the heat, the stream had lost some of its activity and became reclusive and peaceful, the way that Alan preferred it. He could talk to himself and to his horse without the worry that someone would think he was stark raving mad. Although he had another horse, a young bay draft mare by the name of Firefly that hauled his reasonable wagon, Highfly had always been his favourite. The horse had carried him valiantly through battles and now clamored through difficult terrain without objection. Highfly had just turned ten, an older age for such a hard-used horse, but he demonstrated no signs of his age and would go happily cantering through fields when allowed, occasionally throwing a youthful buck just to remind Alan of his youthful sprite.
With his hands in the water, Alan continued to scrub the dirt from his arms, sighing a little. Although the money was necessary, he was not entirely inclined to take the Westward voyage once more. It was a long trek and he had begun to worry that Highfly wouldn’t be able to complete another journey under the relentless heat and through the endless miles. Truth be told, the gray stallion was family, a friendly face that mitigated some of his homesickness; losing Highfly would be a devastating blow to his morale.
Alan got to his feet, drying off his hands on his pants and glancing back to the young woman when she responded. For a second, he just assumed she would ignore him in uneasiness as most women would, so, a look of shock blitzed across his expressions. Next to him, Highfly had cocked one back leg and had his eyes slowly blinking, beginning to doze off streamside.
When he actually registered what she said, he broke out in a hearty laugh, “Maybe you do, who am I to say?” he agreed- “It would certainly help alleviate some of this heat,” pointing out how delightful the cool water felt against his hot skin. Even Highfly had, like many of the pioneer children, plunged in to the stream to keep himself cool and escape the sunshine earlier that day. Had he not been busy preparing for the long road that he would ride tomorrow, Alan may have taken a leisurely swim, himself.
“Here,” he said, tossing the reins over Highfly’s neck, convinced the horse was too sleepy to go wandering off, and pulled off his riding boots, wading up to his knees in the water. The cool, bubbling water licked up his legs, dampening his trousers and spraying against his face in the slight of wind.
“If you give me your bucket, I’ll fill it for you?”
He acted like a young child—foolish and giddy—grinning brightly as his toes sunk in the mud. Perhaps it was his own lack of childhood that made him so eager to be silly. Plus, once he got on the road tomorrow, such folly could be dangerous and, more than likely, unwelcome by the wagons he would be leading.
Now free, Highfly lifted his ears for a moment and snorted, jiggling his bit as he turned away from the stream and beginning to wander away form the stream and towards a green pasture.
“Hig- wait—Highfly! You stop there!” he called out to the horse, but the animal paid him no mind. Alan wasn’t worried the horse was going run away, but thievery was not unheard of. The horse stopped and began to graze in eye view of Alan, who continued to keep a close eye on the horse like it was a toddler, but turned his attention back to the young lady.
“See? Now you do not have to get wet and you won’t get pebbles in your family’s water,” he stated very matter-of-factly. He studied her for a minute—she was a lovely young woman with a precious smile and a daring attitude that was both amusing and charming. She was younger than him by a number of years and was probably married, or at least he assumed. He could imagine her moving westward with her husband and young child to begin the endeavor of adulthood, as many young couples did, wanting to break from their former ties and show their independence. Having seen the west many times and having the scars and stories to prove it, Alan Warren had never understood the fever of the West. To him, the West was a desolate, isolated place that was unfriendly and inhospitable. It was dearth of homeliness, but filled with violence and uncertainty.
Shifting his Rifle over his shoulders so it wouldn’t get wet, he extended a hand out to the young woman, offering to take her bucket from her.
“I’m Alan, by the way. Major Alan Warren, it’s a pleasure to meet your acquaintance,” completely oblivious to the fact that it was her family that had hired him as their Scout.
Lucy knew immediately that she was in trouble. Not the bad kind, but trouble of the sort that filled her stomach with anticipation and made her head feel light. It was really irrational, chances were nothing would become of this chance encounter. He was just another man that happened to be moving west, one that just happened to be friendly. Folks were kind, and everyone was in good spirits with the sunshine...yes, he was just being friendly. But her gut told her something else, warning her that he was someone she would be smart to walk away from. Her heart said otherwise, begging her to stay, pounding with exhilaration.
What was a few more minutes, when she'd already been gone so long?
He seemed like a boy, pulling off his boots and climbing into the stream so shamelessly. Lucy might have followed, but lifting her skirts would have been shameless in the worst way imaginable. The sun was already low in the sky, and there wouldn't be enough time for the material to dry if she let it hang where it was. The wagon was cramped and uncomfortable enough, without a wet dress to go along with it. The wandering horse filled her with amusement, but she didn't offer to chase after it. The truth was, Lucy was ill acquainted with horses. Her father believed that riding was strictly for boys, and most of her chores in the barn involved milking cows and gathering eggs. They didn't scare her, but they made her nervous, and that horse seemed to have a mind of his own. So, she watched from where she was, eyes turning back to Alan as he offered to take her bucket.
There wasn't a ring on his finger, but he could have been married. The truth was, she'd wandered about it from the moment she saw him. A handsome man like him, he had to be traveling with someone, and he was too old to be with his folks. But as he spoke his name, something changed in Lucy's expression. It was so familiar, it was..."Oh! You're the scout, aren't you?" A laugh escaped her, and she shook her head incredulously. The scout. The man leading the entire wagon train, easily the most important man within ten miles. And there he was, knee deep in a stream, holding out a hand for her bucket. Oh, right. Her bucket. Realizing that she had been staring outright, Lucy fumbled for a moment, handing him her bucket with a sheepish grin. "I'm Lucy, Lucy Wright."
Her body seemed to register the fact that she was going to stay longer than she should have, and she settled in on her knees next to the bank, dipping her hands in the water. It was blissfully cool, and beautifully clear. "I didn't expect that you would be out here." she teased him, fully aware that her mother was going to kill her when she returned. Maybe she wouldn't, if Lucy were to invite him for dinner? No, no, definitely not. Elizabeth would be all over him in a second. Of course, if they married Lucy would be free...but she was far to selfish for that. She wanted to keep him there with her as long as she possibly could. "I mean, don't you have more important things to do? You have a whole mass of untrained travelers struggling to cook their evening meal, and here you are playing in a stream." It was friendly teasing, though there was no smile on her lips to suggest it. Her expression was grave, serious, but there was a glint in her eye and an edge in her voice that said she was enjoying herself.
Alan bent down and tried to roll up his trousers a little so they wouldn’t get too wet; after all, there were few things he could imagine that were worse than having to pull on leather boots on top of wet trousers. Especially when he had work left to do tonight to prepare for the early departure the following morning. The first morning was always the most difficult as the families were still trying to figure out the routine, a routine they would very quickly become acquainted with. Even with all of the disorganization, the first week of traveling was always the easiest as the people were in good spirits, but the morale quickly declined as the heat, exhaustion, and hunger began to take its toll. Many would fall ill and some would not survive the trip, especially due to disease, which would undoubtedly spread through the ranks in good time.
“Hm, yea, I am,” he gave a nod, “Hopefully for the last time, actually,” he explained with a bit of indifference, “My horse and I are both getting old and this sun is beginning to have its detriments.” Of course, Alan wasn’t necessarily old and was one of the younger scouts in the business at the moment, but it was a good excuse for him to escape such a lucrative line of work. Plus, if he continued as a scout for another season, he’d surely have to purchase another horse to replace Highfly, and the trip just wouldn’t be the same without such a sure-footed, wide-lunged horse below him. Battle-seasoned horses were impossible to buy these days as they were being exchanged strictly amongst the militias now that tensions were escalating in the west between the militias and the Native American tribes.
Alan took her bucket and almost slipped over the slick rocks in the process. He laughed, barely managing to regain his footing before falling in, but not without thoroughly soaking his trousers and splashing himself in the face—something he had been hoping to avoid. “Well—“ he snorted, mumbling something under his breath as he waded through the stream, his damp blonde hair sticking to his neck. Dunking the bucket under the water, he tilted his head and glanced up to the young woman from the corner of his eyes, “Miss Wright, hm? Well, Miss Wright, I think you will do just fine on the trail,” he concluded. He had a good sense of those who would prosper and those who would struggle after taking so many groups West. She had a certain fire and sprite about her that he could only hope the journey wouldn’t break from her.
When she mentioned helping, he startled for a moment, turning his gaze back to the stream as he pulled the bucket from the water. “I can’t help them,” he said in a rather wistful tone, staring off in to some distant space, “The West is not some mystical land where food grows bountifully and the children and animals play happily in the grass. It’s a harsh land, and it’s unforgiving. It’s not like the East—it’s much more dangerous,” he explained thoughtfully, articulating each word with careful thought, “If they can’t survive the journey, they can’t survive the west. That’s why I can’t help them because they need to learn to think and act for themselves so that when they get west, they can survive when I am gone. My job is, solely, to lead them through the trail and protect them from attacks as best as my ability allows,” he looked very somber for a minute. His first time leading a trail, he had gotten very involved in the lives of the families and became especially close with the young children who revered him like some kind of hero and tried to steal and hide his things when he wasn’t looking—out of all good fun, of course. But that excursion had been particularly hard and following a raid, several of the children had been killed. After wearing the guilt of their deaths like heavy badges, Alan refused to get involved in the lives of the people he led and left them to their own devices as much as possible. He waved the memories from his mind and smiled warmly again, handing the full bucket back to her,
“Here you are Miss Wright, guaranteed pebble-free water.”
The last time? Something changed in her expression, though she recovered so quickly he might not have notice. Did that mean he'd be settling at the end of the trail, along with the rest of them? It was too perfect, really. So perfect it scared her, just a little. Then again, they'd only just met. He was a stranger to her, as she was to him, but something felt different. Maybe she was taking it all too seriously? After all, she had been stuck at home packing for the last month. The fresh air had probably gone to her head, made her giddy and delirious. But Lucy laughed loudly as he stumbled in the stream, and it didn't feel like they were strangers. Old friends maybe, out for a picnic or a bit of fishing before it was too dark to see. And it would be soon, the sun was falling so fast, the minutes passing like seconds.
It felt as though she belonged there, though she couldn't tell if it was because of Alan or the calm movement of the stream. They were only a short ways away from the wagons, but she couldn't hear voices or laughter. It was carried away by the light breeze that grew progressively cooler every time it blew. He said that he thought she would fare well on the trail, and Lucy believed it. This entire day had felt right, it had felt like fate. And now...now she was worried she would never be able to walk away from that stream. Lucy rose as he stepped out of the creek, brushing the grass off of her skirt, taking a few steps towards him. She didn't stop until she was close, maybe closer than she should have been. Close enough that she had to tip her head back to look at him. Normally she could talk for hours; and maybe she would have, if she hadn't felt so strange.
The conversation took a serious turn, as he described the reality of the west. To her, it sounded a lot like her parents had been fed a lie. They had sold everything, given up everything...for a lie. And yet, it didn't scare her. Of course she didn't like the idea of death and poor soil, but she didn't feel hopeless in that moment. Whatever danger might had waited in the west, it couldn't touch her. Not there, not yet. When he handed back her bucket she gave him a grateful smile, though her eyes wandered suddenly to a sight over his shoulder. "That's beautiful..." Lucy breathed, gazing up at the setting sun. It burned at the very edge of the sky, and the clouds had turned a brilliant combination of orange and pink. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen, and when she looked back to his eyes, she realized it. A word slipped between her lips, a word that no lady would ever say. She covered her mouth quickly, eyes filled with apology. "I'm sorry, it's just...I'm late. Really, really late." What could save her? Well, the answer was simple. And yet...not. She couldn't let Elizabeth have him, couldn't sumbit him to that...but if she went back alone..."Would you...would you like to have dinner with my family? My sister will probably harass you, but if I go back alone they'll probably eat me." It was too much to ask, it really was...but watching him walk off into that sunset, going home all alone...she didn't know if she could do it, and she certainly didn't want to.
“Well, it’s not all bad, Miss Wright. It’s beautiful. It’s not an easy place to make a living, but it's not like what you're used to. It’s tragically beautiful, but who knows, maybe you'll liked the wildness of it all.” He did have some distant affection for the West. The West and its frontier had provided him with so much and he was so eternally grateful for it. If the frontier had never existed, he’d still be in New York working as a farmer. Not that farming was bad, but being an adventurer, a soldier, and a guide had been so exhilarating and fulfilling in ways farming never could. With reward came punishment, and he had seen many devastating losses, but that came with the territory.
Lucy had marched right up to him and he had to angle his head down to look at her, givig her a curious tilt of his head that caused a few loose strands of blonde hair to fall off his face. Still, she took her bucket and was on her way, leaving him a bit puzzled and winded. Alan clamored out of the stream shortly after her, going the short distance to retrieve Highfly before sitting down streamside. He pat dried his feet on the grass, pulled on his boots and buttoned them up to his knee. They were proper soldier’s boots and he had owned them since joining the Calvary. The leather had become so perfectly soft and molded to his leg shape that he couldn’t bear the thought of having to buy new ones and go through the torturous six months of blisters to break in a new pair, especially while on the trail. Even the smallest wound like a blister could lead to a serious infection that Alan couldn’t risk; as the Scout, it was of utmost importance that he maintained his health and capacity to lead. He smiled pleasantly, getting to his feet and glancing to Lucy as she spoke, following her attention to the molten setting sun.
“What—oh, what? Why are you apologizing, Miss Wright? Don’t apologize, as there is no need. I should be the one apologizing for keeping you so late. It’s dangerous at night. You know, coyotes and stuff,” now he was just being risible. Although there were parts of the journey that it truly would be dangerous to be out after the sun, the early part of the journey was no more dangerous than a walk around one’s yard.
“I-“ he glanced at her, considering the offer. Going to dinner with her family was against every law he had put out for himself, including the promise that he’d never again allow himself to get involved, but before he could even think of declining, he found himself accepting.
“That sounds very nice, Miss Wright,” He couldn’t quite believe what he had just said. He knew attachment was bad, and yet here he was, being swept away by his feelings, “And that’s fine, I have been harassed before,” he laughed, “Although it’s not usually by women. It’s usually children trying to steal my gun.”
“Now, as for you,” he turned away from her momentarily and to Highfly, “Are you going to behave yourself?” He took the reins and knotted them to a low tree branch nearby, just loose enough so the horse could graze.
He would come! A wave of relief washed over her, and the most grateful of smiles came to her face. It wasn't excited or giddy, but filled with deep gratitude, along with the faintest note of apology. Watching him tie up his horse, Lucy wondered how on earth she could do such a thing to this poor man. More than anything, she wanted to keep him to herself. She wanted to bring him back and hold onto his arm, shoving Elizabeth away every time she got close. Some slight trace of naivety made her believe that maybe he wouldn't be scared off, maybe she would be allowed to keep him. Oh, why had she done it? Why hadn't she sent him back to his wagon where he would be safe and secret? Because she couldn't stand the thought of the scolding she would get, and she would most definitely get one. No...no, that wasn't it. The thought of him walking away to the front of the train, so far away from her...it made her sick. Her stomach literally revolted against the idea. Or, was that hunger?
When he had finished she turned to lead him back towards their camp. He would notice, as she stuck to the outside of the lines of wagons, that they had quite a bit of a walk. She was much farther away from home than she needed to be to fetch a simple bucket of water. It bumped against her legs as she walked, heavy and demanding, but at least it gave her something to do with her hands. "Oh, this will be much worse than pesky children." She tried to tease, though there was an obvious note of worry in her voice. "I don't entirely know how to explain it, so I'll just apologize now and say that I am very, very sorry about my family. I really am. But, you know, just incase I don't get a chance to after, I'm sorry." She glanced up at him, the peachy sky reflecting off his tan skin and golden hair. A smile played on her lips, eyes peering up into his for just a little too long. "And...I'm glad you came."
As they reached her family's wagon, Lucy became noticeably nervous. She brushed a curl that had escaped behind her ear, glanced down at her dress, took a few deep breaths. "Lucille Marie Wright, do you have any idea how-," Irresponsible? Selfish? Late she was? It didn't matter. Her Ma came around the side of the wagon with a glare that could kill anyone with a weak heart, and stopped dead in her tracks. Her expression changed immediately at the sight of Alan, features fixed in something between utter shock and misplaced hope. "Oh." Already primping, already touching her hair, smiling just a little as her eyes flickered between the two of them. "Ma, this is Major Allen Warren." The title couldn't hurt. "He's the scout leading the train, you remember?"
"Why yes, of course! So night to meet you, I've heard wonderful things. I saw you briefly this morning, but I didn't get a chance to say hello."
"I invited him for supper."
"Of course! We'd be happy to have him! Lucy, will you run and get your sister?"
Not her Pa, not her brothers, just Elizabeth.
Lucy didn't realize it, but she had moved closer to Alan at the mention of her sister. "I'm holding the bucket." It was probably the lamest excuse in the history of excuses. Luckily, the stupidity of the comment stunned her mother enough for her to give up on the idea. "Elizabeth? Elizabeth!" she called over her shoulder. "Here we go." Lucy muttered under her breath, just loud enough for Alan to hear. Her arm was pressed against his, though her hands were occupied with the bucket. She might as well have been gripping his wrist, with the expression of sheer dread on her face. Elizabeth came around the side of the wagon with a slightly sour expression, that changed suddenly into wide eyed awe. Of course, why not? Alan was tall, strong, incredibly handsome, and he'd been brought to her doorstep. Better yet, he was trapped with all of them for the next however many months. It was her sisters dream. "Oh, hello." She purred, touching her drab brown hair. The two girls looked nothing alike. Elizabeth was tall and thick, features round and soft, lips nearly the same color as the rest of her face.
"This is my eldest daughter, Elizabeth." her mother announced, as if she were some sort of prize.
Lucy wanted to let them all know that she had found him first, but it hardly seemed to matter.
"Elizabeth, this is Major Alan Warren. He's leading the wagon train, and he'd staying for dinner.
"It's an honor to meet you." Elizabeth said, stepping forward and offering him her hand. Lucy wanted to spit in it.
As they strolled along, Alan slipped his hands in his pockets, not exactly sure how to respond to her apologies regarding her family and, to be honest, a bit apprehensive as to why he had accepted her offer. He didn’t allow the worry to last long though, as many mothers along the trail had attempted to marry off their daughters to him. It made sense, he supposed—they were heading West for a new dream, a new life—and what better way to start that than marrying off a daughter to the first eligible bachelor they saw? Of course, Alan had never married even though his mother, whenever he did get her letters, spoke very fondly of the idea of him marrying a nice woman and giving her an endless supply of grandchildren to spoil rotten. He kept all the old letters that his mother and siblings had sent to him, even though the woman he called mum was not actually of his same flesh and blood. Still, despite her incessant nagging, Alan declined to marry on the westward trail for his own personal reasons and yet, here he was, finding a beautiful young woman with every ounce of passion for adventure that he had. Of course life decided to work in these annoying ways.
“I’m glad I came to,” he responded, looking down in her direction from the corner of his eyes, offering a vestige of a smile, “And don’t you worry Miss Wright, nothing is more pesky than pesky children.” He stated with a hint of amusement, walking around the various camps. As they ambled, he took the time to glance about—inspecting how all the families were doing. He didn’t like to help them, but he wasn’t about to let them perish on the trail due to their own ineptitude, either. He took careful note of the families that he could imagine would struggle so that he could make sure that they didn’t fall behind later down the trail. Alan’s mindless mental rambles came to an end when the brisk voice of what had to be a mother broke the silence and a giddy smile crossed his facial expressions, brightening up his blue eyes. He dearly missed the sound of a mother’s scolding voice as his own back home had to use it on him frequently to keep him out of trouble. It was a soothing sound that brought back a crash of memories.
“It’s nice to meet you as well, ma’am,” Alan responded curtly, nodding his head in courteously, “Thank you greatly for allowing me to stay-“ dually noting that Lucy’s mum had asked her to fetch his sister and looked amusedly down at Lucy, “Oh hush,” he teased her in a quiet voice, giving her a soft nudge with his elbow when her mother wasn’t paying attention to them, “You have quite a tongue on you for a lady,” careful to make sure that her mother wouldn’t overhear them. His actions, he was well aware, were inappropriate for a gentleman like himself, but his eyes glittered with hilarity and spirit, opening his palm to her so he could relieve her of the heavy bucket.
Alan quickly straightened to attention when the young woman rounded the wagon. She surprised him quite a lot, although his face showed no change in emotion. Standing next to him was Lucy, a ravishing and witty young woman, and he had expected the same from her sister. It wasn’t that she was unattractive, Alan had been taught to never think in such a way, but she seemed—morose? Characterless? Uninspired? He didn’t know exactly how to put the words in his head, but in a way, he felt bad for her. She must have had to exist in the shadow of her brilliant younger sister who had a personality to match her comeliness.
“Elizabeth,” he spoke in an amiable enough voice, acknowledging her, giving a quick peck to the back of her hand, “Please, it’s just Alan, no need for the formalities. Plus, I’m not in the Calvary anymore.” Sure, he still retained the right to use his rank and often did, but he was in good company now, and he preferred to be called Alan, anyways. Major Warren sounded foreign, almost surreal, to him.