Willow grimaced as the left side of her small open wagon bounced over a rock, pitching her and her belongings sharply to the right before everything lurched back with a thump. She reached behind her with one hand until her fingertips felt coarse material and pulled a blanket out from under a box with a strong tug. Transferring both reins to one hand, she stood up slightly off of her perch and stacked the folded blanket atop the two already on the wooden seat. Gingerly settling her aching bottom down on the still inadequate padding, she allowed a pitiful whimper to escape her lips. At the sound, her horse turned its head back slightly and whinnied.
"You think it's funny do you, horse? Well, I think you rolled over that rock on purpose. Stupid horse."
Her muttering only earned her another snort from the animal, and Willow turned her attention back to the trail in front of her. There was little to distinguish it from the land surrounding her, other than several pairs of wagon wheel ruts cutting their way across the desolate plain. The sky stretched on for miles in every direction, the horizon broken only sporadically by a sandstone structure or a mesa. Sparse prairie grass undulated in the gentle breeze, lulling the weary traveler's senses even more than the sameness of the terrain.
Despite the severe beauty of the landscape, Willow couldn't imagine a less inviting place. She'd passed a number of grave markers over the past few days; hastily constructed wooden crosses bearing names and dates, some lettered in charcoal, some crudely carved. Most she'd seen were a decade old or more; forgotten reminders of the hardships faced by those brave or crazy enough to cross the continent by land during the heady early days of the gold rush. More than fifteen years later, the trek wasn't much easier, and the chance of striking it rich was even less likely. The loud shriek of a train whistle drew Willow out of her ponderings and she looked to the right, where off in the distance she spied dark grey smoke billow and dissipate in the air.
'Lotta things fixin' to change,' she thought darkly.
Another jarring bump jolted the redhead's attention back to the trail, and she cursed loudly. Shielding her eyes with her hand, she squinted at the sun for an instant and noted that it was only mid-day. She knew she should push on til nightfall, but the thought of the town she'd spotted that morning from the top of a bluff gave her pause. It had been four or five days since she'd seen anything approximating a town, and the lure of a bath and a bed was too great. If she passed up this opportunity, it could be an even longer stretch before she another chance. She pulled sharply on the right rein and the wagon lurched out of the ruts. She could just make out the outline of slant roofs against the open expanse of blue sky. With a murmur of "giddup" and a shake of the reins, Willow steered the cart in the direction of the town.
"I'm guessing three or four miles at most, horse. Think you can get us there without killin' me?"
The horse chose that moment to shake its head, momentarily dispelling the cluster of flies around its ears. Willow put her feet up on the kickboard and frowned.