A/N A story that came to mind after watching a scene from the movie "The Burrowers" it's on Netflix if you're interested. Please comment- let me know how I'm doing and if you like it.
Well, at least she was wearing black.
Beatrix dusted off her woolen skirt and made a face as her hands came away dark from the soot of an earlier train ride. She'd always detested traveling by train. Great smoking, dirty things that cut through the countryside leaving metal scars and black smut in the grass.
"Not long now, dear."
She looked up at the matronly woman who'd been sitting with her ever since the stage in Nashville, giving her a tight smile. The woman patted her hand and settled down to the bench beside her.
"I expect your cousin will be along directly."
"Thank you. You're very kind."
"It's no trouble, dear. I'll be staying here in town so I've no hurry. We'll just sit and have a nice little conversation."
Beatrix smiled politely. She'd traveled from Knoxville and was exhausted after two weeks of broken sleep. What she wanted was a bed, conversation be damned.
"I've been wanting to ask dear- I don't mean to be insensitive you understand- I don't ask to pain you- but, ahem, you're wearing... all... black?"
She cleared her throat delicately.
"Are you in mourning?"
She took a deep breath and plastered on a smile. The woman, though kind, was being incredibly irritating and personal. She could play it off; black wasn't such an unusual color for a traveling dress, but her sleep deprived brain wasn't up to falsehood.
"Yes. I am."
"Oh, dear, for whom?"
She swallowed. Here it comes.
"Oh! Oh, dear, I had no idea! And so you're going to your family out West! Oh, oh poor dear!"
The woman pulled a handkerchief from a pocket and pressed it to her mouth. Beatrix gritted her teeth to keep from rolling her eyes. A wagon rolled up in front of the station driven by a tall man with a strip of black crepe tied around his arm. Thank goodness. Maybe this was her ride.
"Beatrix? Beatrix Shaw?"
He hopped down from the spring board and doffed his hat nodding politely first to her neighbor and then to her. His hair was slicked back carefully with pomade which seemed at odds with his otherwise rough appearance.
"I'm Micah, your cousin. I'm here to collect you."
"Pleased to meet you. Mr. Delving, this is Ms. Guthrie; she was kind enough to keep me company as I waited. Ms. Guthrie, this is my cousin Micah Delving."
The man nodded again.
"Much obliged to you, ma'am. Sorry I'm comin' on late; there was a bit of trouble at the camp."
She gave her neighbor a more genuine smile and thanked her for her attention before helping her cousin lift her trunk into the wagon. He gave her dress a once over as he handed her onto the bench.
"You'll want to change that when we stop for the night."
"I take it we've a fair bit of travel before that time?"
"Yes ma'am we do. I'd like to go on 'till dark but then we'd be campin' out in the wilderness and, well.." he blushed and cleared his throat. "Wouldn't be seemly."
"Thank you for your consideration. How long until we reach the town?"
"Oh, no ma'am, we ain't stoppin' in a town. There's a homestead dozen odd miles out. We'll stay with them then leave with the dawn."
"Hopefully I'll make it there alive."
He misunderstood her.
"Don't fret yourself about that, ma'am, injuns don't bother us much 'round these parts. Missouri're mostly peaceable, though after all them Georgie injuns got marched off Oklahomie way they kicked up a little dust."
"Oh, no! I just meant that I'm very tired; I never sleep well when traveling and I didn't take well to the ferryboat. But there are Indians at the camp?"
Her companion shifted in his seat. For whatever reason he seemed very nervous.
"Not at the camp per say, but in the area. Sometimes you'll get some Cheyenne wandering around and even Osage in places but they don't much bother us anymore. They've figured out who's boss by now. Took the savages long enough."
Beatrix looked away. She'd been prepared for this sort of bigotry; as she understood it the majority of the western population thought of Indians as people from her neck of the woods thought of coloreds, if not worse. It didn't make actually seeing it any easier to bear, however. But as it was she was living on charity. Without her cousin's gracious offer she would be forced into an orphanage until her eighteenth year, or until a suitable husband could be provided for her.
"Please, forgive me. I'm very tired. I don't much feel up to conversation."
He nodded and they passed the rest of the trip in silence. She managed to nod off several times slumped over her carpet bag only to be brought back around with a start as they banged in and out of a deep rut. Sooner than even she had hoped they arrived to a hot dinner and warm fire, for which they were both intensely grateful. The early spring day had turned chilly and a thin wind blew, cutting through her clothes to find skin.
Inside a sheet had been tacked up around a narrow sofa for Beatrix and as soon as she'd washed her face and taken off her soiled dress she sank to it gratefully. Perversely the size of the couch and the snores of one of her hosts wouldn't let her sleep. She wanted to sob with frustration. At last in the small hours of the morning she managed to doze off, but true to his word Micah called her to wakefulness while stars were still thick in the sky.
Belatedly she realized she'd meant to change her dress; her clothes were still in the trunk in the back of the wagon. The thought of Micah digging in her trunk, pushing aside her nightclothes and underpinnings to find a suitable dress drained the last dregs of color from her exhaustion paled face. Her hostess saved her.
"You awake sugar? Micah and I've had some talk and I wanted to make you a gift. I made these dresses when I was your age; I've no daughter to cut them up for so thought you may as well have them. They'll be more suited to where you're going."
Beatrix thanked her and accepted the neatly folded dresses, three in all. They were simply cut of country fabric, without the smart tucks and trims of her own wardrobe. The sleeves were a bit fuller than was fashionable and she'd have to cut out a layer or two of net from her petticoat but those were easy fixes when she got around to making them. She decided on a soft yellow calico with small burgundy flowers. She'd need her shawl when they set out but after an afternoon spent in the sun she'd appreciate the lighter fabric. Once on the color suited her but the dress was too large and pooled on the floor around her feet.
She folded the blankets and joined the her cousin and the older woman at table.
"Oh don't you just look a picture!"
Beatrix smiled wanly.
"Thank you so much for the gift; it was so generous of you."
"Don't think on it! Those dresses were sitting in the bottom of a trunk not doing anyone any service."
She set a dish of grits in front of her with a hot buttered biscuit.
"I'm sorry we don't have any bacon for you."
Micah wiped his mouth.
"I think I'll go hitch up the horses. Mrs. McCloud, we're both obliged to you."
After a shy nod to Beatrix he stood and left her to her breakfast. The older woman looked at Beatrix and winked.
"Your cousin is quite the catch. Half the girls in the county are after him."
Beatrix smiled politely.
"Does he have a favorite?"
"No. No one in particular..."
She was too tired to catch the way Mrs. McCloud's eyes twinkled.
When she finished she helped to clean up and then went out to the wagon. She rummaged through her trunk and pulled out a belt to cinch up the dress. Tucking her shawl into it she clambered up onto the spring board. Her head was starting to ache from lack of sleep. Mrs. McCloud waved them off and with a jerk the wagon started to roll.
"How long until we arrive?"
Micah glanced at her.
"Should be a bit before sundown."
She pressed a hand to her face, her eyes burning with fatigue. She considered asking to lay in the back of the wagon but then a particularly nasty bump sent her into the air and she gave up the idea.
"Hold on Miss, we've a long way yet."
Smiling dimly at him she pulled at the brim of her bonnet. The sun was still low in the sky behind them but the air had already lost its chill. By noon it was scorching. Mrs. McCloud had packed them a cold chicken pie and the leftover biscuits from breakfast to make a picnic. She picked at it with her fork scanning the horizon. They'd passed a stand of trees a few miles behind but here there was nothing here but smooth, rolling prairie as far as the eye could see. Sighing she set down her plate.
"Sir, I wonder, could you.. give me a moment's privacy?"
He swiped at his mouth with the back of a hand.
She blinked rapidly and pressed her lips together.
"Just a moment at the back of the wagon, if you don't mind."
"Well what for Miss?"
"Mr. Delving I find myself taken up short."
A deep blush spread up from his collar to his cheeks and he nodded. After that supremely painful interview and the ensuing minutes of silence they set off again, soon coming upon a rail track. A glance at her neighbor showed him to still be flushed with his shoulders hunched almost high enough to touch the brim of his hat. His eyes stared resolutely ahead.
What half the girls in the county saw in him she didn't know. Appearances weren't unfortunate, but he'd been reserved and awkward from the first. Though perhaps in such an uncertain region stability and competence were more winsome than suave.
As it was obvious she wouldn't be able to rest she figured they might as well have a little conversation.
"What exactly is your job title?"
"I guess you could call me the supervisor."
She waited for him to elaborate but as nothing more was forth coming she tried again.
"What are you doing?"
Be still my beating heart.
"I mean at the camp."
"Oh. Well, not much to tell. We're just laying track."
"How long is it?"
"Starts in St. Louis and eventually'll hit Washington."
"How long until you get there?"
"Dunno. Not 'till end of '54, most like."
"When will it open for use?"
"Groundbreaking was supposed to last fall but there was a nasty cholera outbreak so they've put it off 'till Independence Day."
As soon as it was out of her mouth she realized how inappropriate the sentiment was. She'd meant the idea of opening on a holiday, not the disease. She struggled for something to say next but he beat her to it.
"So.. what's Tennessee like?"
"Well, we lived in the mountains. Everything was green hills and grass and moss with rivers in the valleys."
"In fall the tips of the mountains would turn red and you could watch the color drip down."
He gave her a look askance.
"Alright.. so Uncle Nathan was a preacher?"
"Yes, and a farmer of sorts. He experimented with horticulture."
"You miss him?"
"Yes. Very much."
There was a lull in the conversation and, now depressed, she gave up the effort. Eventually the sun descended level with their eyes, blinding on the horizon.
"Won't be long now."
She nodded, her head swimming with the effort. The bright sunshine had kept her alert but as the light faded her exhaustion returned with a vengeance.
At last in the distance there appeared the lights from a group of small buildings huddled at the side of the track. Overhead the first stars twinkled dreamily behind wisps of pink cloud in the darkening sky. She jumped when he spoke.
"Miss, don't think me forward but, just how old are you again?"
"Oh. You seem older than that."
She smiled politely.
"I'm told that fairly often."
"Don't mistake me, I didn't mean anything bad by it. 'Round these parts girl needs a good head on her shoulders. A man needs to.. to know he can leave his.. woman at home- without worrying about her."
Instantly she was awake, back stiff. Was this why he'd invited her to stay with him? Was he looking for a wife? As she hadn't replied to this last they lapsed into silence. She glanced at him from the corner of her eye. He was tall, and strongly built with dark hair and eyes like herself. His skin was dark and weathered from the sun and his hands were like a pair of work gloves. He looked to be in his late twenties, seemed to have all his teeth and wasn't bad looking, with acceptable manners, if a bit rusticated.
The question was would he try to force the issue or let her come to it (or not) in her own time?
Suddenly he was beside her, prodding her arm.
As she opened her eyes dots swam in front of them. She hadn't even felt the wagon come to a stop.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine, I just need-"
But as she stood the blood rushed to her head, giving the lie to her words. Her knees buckled and she collapsed forward, the overlong hem pinned under her boot preventing her from catching herself. Micah caught her and lifted her up, trying to carry her into the building.
"Oh, goodness, please put me down I just stood up too fast!"
"Nearly there, Miss."
"Mr. Delving put me down!"
After a slight hesitation he did as she asked but kept a hold of her elbow.
"Please, call me Micah."
She swallowed, clutching his arm despite herself.
"Just let's stand here a moment."
The dots disappeared and the queer buzzing sound left her ears.
"I think I'm alright."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. I'm just tired from the trip."
Carefully gathering up her skirt- she didn't fancy taking another tumble- she followed him through the door. Around two large tables were gathered a couple dozen men eating from tin plates.
Micah led her to the end of the bench and helped her take a seat. A large woman with a dour face and flour covered apron set two plates of chicken dumplings in front of them. Well, she set down Micah's plate. She threw Beatrix's, sloping onto the table.
"She's lucky I don't shove it down her throat. Havin' to feed her kind makes me sick!"
She planted two meaty hands on her hips and glared down at her.
"'Spect you're more used to bein' served by slaves, that right?"
Beatrix gaped at her.
"I know where you're from, Missy. You own any people?"
"No! We didn't!"
The woman scoffed and walked away. For a moment Beatrix considered pursuing the issue but you get more flies with honey than vinegar. And anyway it wasn't as much a priority as finding a bed. She choked down half her plate and then looked at Micah.
"Where am I sleeping?"
He flushed again. She wondered dimly if she'd ever see his natural skin tone.
"You'll be stayin' in my office- but I'll bunk with the boys, Miss, don't you worry."
She thanked him and stood, waiting for him to show her the way. A short walk brought them to a rough building with a tin roof. Inside was a beat up desk and a cot. Two spare sets of clothes hung on nails on the wall and there was a small window covered with wax paper.
"I'll go get your trunk."
She sat on the bed and nodded, untying the strings of her bonnet with shaking fingers. She managed to stay awake until he returned.
"Don't worry about getting up early tomorrow, just take a morning to rest."
"I don't think that will be a problem."
He nodded and then said to his feet.
"Don't mind Mrs. Adkins. She'll come 'round. G'night, Miss."
"Good night Mr. Delving. Thank you so much for all your help."
No prizes for guessing his response to that last.