Spring 2020 Winner: West

It rolls on unwearidly,

and thus it makes hard things smooth.

I will be just as indefatigable.

– the wild swans –

Wyoming Territory, 1846

The only solace Elise had on the day she marched into Fort John was the bottle of magic in her pocket.  A tiny blonde woman driving a Conestoga wagon and nine oxen always drew attention, and she watched between the open gates of the fort as every head on the main road turned in their direction.  Elise slowed the team gently to a stop outside the fort, out of the way, and hopped down. Pushing her sunbonnet back so that it rested on her shoulders and twisting one of the ties around her finger, she glanced at Anders.  Her eldest brother had walked in his large form beside the wagon dutifully since Independence. 

   “Just act casual. You’ve got the papers. It’ll be fine.” He spoke under his breath, as they’d figured out long ago that people didn’t react well to a talking ox.  Her backside felt like it had been rubbed raw from days on the wooden seat, but she shook her legs out as she went to unhitch the four brothers who had been pulling the wagon.  They mumbled something about darned harnesses and lumbered off to join the others at the back of the wagon.  

   Slipping her hands into her pockets so that the left could grip the bottle, Elise strode through the brick walls, up the main road toward the hub of activity.  Frontiersman and traders, all dirty as she was from months on the road, milled about restocking their supplies and stretching their legs. A few soldiers smoked together outside the saloon, watching her with empty eyes.  

   A family of seven with weathered faces and hands full of parcels were coming out of a building with “General Store” painted above the door.  Elise directed her steps that way, giving the parents a polite nod. They returned it solemnly, and the youngest child, a girl, waved. Smiling at her, Elise pushed her way into the store. 

   It really wasn’t much more than a large room.  Barrels were stacked high against the back wall and labeled with black paint.  Two wooden sawhorses held up a board as a makeshift desk. The short man behind it had a surprisingly kind face for someone who lived in such an isolated landscape.  For a moment she wondered if this was Father Christmas come to life – the man looked just like she’d always imagined the spirit would.

   “Good morning, my dear!” He said as she entered, his Scandinavian accent making her feel comfortable instantly.  She grinned and nodded a greeting, pulling a few folded sheets of paper out of her right pocket. She rifled through them and handed one to him.  With a flourish, he perched a pair of spectacles on his nose and stroked his red-and-gray beard as he read aloud. 

   “Hello, my name is Elise, and my family is going to Oregon Territory.” He made a sort of humming noise at this, both eyebrows raising. “These are the supplies we will need, and I would appreciate it if you could provide them in exchange for compensation.”  He peered at her over his glasses with twinkling blue eyes. “Monetary compensation, I hope.” She nodded again, crossing her arms in a good-natured fashion, and he laughed. “Let’s see here… Yes, Miss Elise, you’ve come to the right place. I’ll get this together.”  He put the list down on the desk and sauntered over to the wall of barrels. “My name is Oskar, by the way. You can wait out front, if you’d like.” 

   She gave him a little curtsy and did as he suggested.  Stretching her arms above her head with a sigh, she lingered in the shade of the store’s small awning.  The soldiers and frontiersmen had gone inside, and the main street was deserted.  

   The silence that had followed her for the past two months caught up with her then.  Her brothers had done a good job keeping it away, singing as they walked endlessly toward the western horizon and joking with one another.  But now she was alone, and the weight of that forced her knees down into the dirt. Her breathing sped up until she was panting, hearing her own rapid heartbeat in her ears.

   “Are you okay there?” This voice was new.  Elise raised her eyes, and tried to focus on the man in buckskin as he knelt in front of her.  When his face came into clarity, she found that he had the fullest brown beard she’d ever seen and kind dark eyes above it.  

   “Ma’am?  Are you okay?”  He had a southern sound to him, his words slow and drawn out.  “Here, come on inside.” He grasped her elbows gently and helped her stand, nudging the door to the general store open with his foot.  Elise pulled her heavy feet forward and let him lead her in. She could hear the man and Oskar conversing – about her, if she had to guess, though she couldn’t make out the words – and soon she was seated in a wooden chair; a tin cup of water was being pressed into her hand.  She took a sip and yanked at the bow at her chin that kept her bonnet on. The door opened and closed; the stranger had left. Oskar was talking in rapid Swedish, and when she kept picking at the bonnet strings, he helped her take it off.  

   With fumbling fingers, she got the bottle out of her pocket.  Just looking at the deep blue liquid within helped her breathing slow down.  Oskar was completely silent as Elise held the tin cup between her knees so that she could uncork the bottle and splash a tiny drop of the magic inside into the water.  Carefully, she replaced the cork and put the bottle away, then chugged the last few gulps of water. She felt the magic rush through her, settling in her stomach, wrapping comfortably around her heart.  It buzzed in her ears, but it pushed the silence back, and that was what mattered.  

   “You’re a magic user,” Oskar said, his voice barely above a whisper.  Elise saw a light come on in his eyes. He laughed softly and winked at her.  “So am I. Not so many of us in this new land, eh?” 

   She gave him a small smile, shaking her head.  In fact, she hadn’t met any other magic users since the east coast, but it didn’t surprise her in the slightest that Oskar was one.  He refilled her tin cup from a pitcher and she drank dutifully.

   “I’ve got some yellow magic in the back if you still feel woozy.  Michael thinks you might’ve overheated – that’s the man who brought you in here.”  Oskar kept talking, for which she was thankful. “He’s newer around here, rolled in with Jon Lichton.”  At this name, Elise choked on her water. As she spluttered and coughed, the door opened again and Michael strode back in, his hat in his hand, accompanied by someone Elise had thought she’d never see again, and who seemed as shocked to see her as she was to see him.

   “Elise?” Jon looked confused until a giant grin broke out on his face.  Elise couldn’t help herself, she launched out of the chair and threw her arms around her brother’s neck.  He laughed, squeezing her tight enough that her feet left the floor. “What are you doing here? How did you get here?  Let me look at you.” He pulled away and gripped her shoulders so he could give her a once-over, put his hands on her face and wiped away a dusty smudge.  “Are the boys with you? And Father? Oh, I’m so glad you came west!” He swung her around, and she couldn’t help the tears that escaped even as she tried to hold them back.  Jon looked better than he had last time she’d seen him; he was tanned and muscular, with a thick beard of his own. And so human. So wonderfully human. She wanted to tell him everything, to rattle about all the events that had gotten her there, but she bit back the words just in time.  So she just held on tighter and took in the smell of him, letting her hands shake with the emotions she felt. 

   The moment was broken when Michael cleared his throat behind them. 

   “I’m sorry, I’m confused.  Who is this?” 

   Jon put her down, but kept his arms around her as he turned to face his friend. 

   “Michael King, I’d like you to meet my kid sister, Elise Lichton.”  He held her at arms-length again, and grinned. “Though, not as much of a kid as when I left, huh?”  Elise gave him a little good-natured shove, and hugged him again, letting his beard tickle her forehead.  “I haven’t seen her in… what is it now? Five years?” 

   She nodded against his chest, and the tears threatened again. 

   “Uh-huh.” Michael sounded skeptical, but he didn’t press further.  “I was coming back here to ask you, uh, Miss Lichton, have you had any episodes like that before?”  Elise felt a tremor run up her legs, but holding on to Jon made her steadier. She pulled her head back to look at the frontiersman and nodded.  A concerned wrinkle appeared between Jon’s eyebrows. 

   “What kind of episode?” 

   “She collapsed. Outside.” Michael gestured at the door.  Jon looked down at Elise. 

   “Are you okay?  Did you hurt yourself?  Here, sit down.” He led her back to the chair.  She shook her head and grabbed his hand to drag him out of the store.  Anders could explain everything. 

   “I’ll have your order waiting for you, Miss Lichton!”  Oskar waved at them as she sent him a smile over her shoulder.  

   Elise led Jon back down the street, leaning heavily on his arm to stay upright and forcing her feet to move.  The wagon was still where she left it, thank goodness, and the boys milled around behind it, some of them still with ropes around their necks tying them to the back of the wagon. 

   “Where on earth did you get so many oxen?” Jon asked as he helped her hobble along.  She sighed and drew him close enough so the others could see him. As she expected, Matthias noticed them first and said in a confused tone, “Is that… Jon?”  The others took up the hue and cry, making them sound more like the cattle they were cursed to be as they bellowed with glee. 

   “Did that ox just talk?”  

   Elise turned to see that Michael had followed them, and now he was staring at the wagon with a bit of horror in his eyes.  

   “He surely did.”  Jon whispered in wonder.  “What is this, Elise?” 

   “She won’t tell you.”  This was Anders, and both Michael and Jon took a step back, startled.  “It’s a long story. We can explain everything tonight.” 

   The change happened the same as it always did.  As the sun went down, her brothers came together at the back of the wagon and began to transform from oxen back into men.  Elise darted between them, making sure harnesses were undone and no one still had rope around their necks. It was an awful sight, but one she’d almost gotten used to.  None of them had ever told her that it was painful, but she could see in their faces that it must be. But slowly their blond hair and brown eyes came back into view, clothes were magically reknit over them, and they were her brothers again. 

   After she’d given each of the nine a tight hug, Elise dished out large portions of the hoecakes she’d made over the fire.  They ate ravenously while listening to Jon tell his story. 

   “I came west for scientific research.” He pulled a leather notebook out of his satchel and flipped through it.  “There are so many wonders to see out here, and even more we don’t know of yet. I met Michael when he was leading a wagon train west.”  He nodded to his companion, who was eating slowly and looking uncomfortable. “He agreed to be my guide north over the Bighorn Mountains, but we had stopped here for supplies and so that I could send my findings back east.” He squeezed Elise’s shoulder where she sat beside him. “I guess it’s a good thing we did.” 

   “I’ll say!” Erik piped up from across the fire, his mouth full.  “But we’re supposed to be going to Oregon.” 

   “Nothing to say we couldn’t change our plans.” Anders shrugged. “We didn’t specify where we would go.” 

   “Why are you here anyway?” Jon passed his notebook to Aston when the latter motioned for it. “Is Father all right?” 

   An awkward silence fell over the camp as the brothers all exchanged glances.  Anders put his tin plate down in front of him.

   “Not exactly.  He’s taken a new wife.” 

   “Marisha.” Kristian supplied.

   “And she… doesn’t like us very much.” 

   Hans snorted. “That’s the understatement of the century.  She hates our guts.”

   “Despite the fact that we were running Father’s company-” 

   “Or because of it, we can’t be sure.” 

   “She managed to convince him to send us west.” Anders fixed Hans and Rupert with his famous quiet or I’ll kill you stare.  “To stake claims and make Father’s assets greater. She claimed.” 

   “And then she cursed us.” Amos said softly. “We aren’t sure why.” 

   “Father found himself a magic user?” Jon looked a bit impressed. 

   “A red magic user.” Aston said with a meaningful look. 

   “Interesting.” Jon scratched at his beard. “So you’re oxen by day, and yourselves by night.  That’s no small curse, she must be powerful.” 

   His siblings all shrugged.  Michael, who’d been silent this whole time, finally spoke up.

   “I hate to ask, but… Jon, did you not mention that you had ten brothers?  I count nine.” 

   A weighted tingle started in Elise’s feet as she watched the despair grow on her brothers’ faces.  

   “We were… we were fording the North Platte.” Kristian chewed on his lower lip. “Something went wrong, uh… we started to tip, and, well, Galen’s safety line came undone.  Elise screamed, and none of us knew what was happening, and…” He cut himself off with a shudder.

   “Galen went under.” Anders picked up the story, putting a hand on Kristian’s shoulder. “We managed to get the wagon upright and to the far shore, but he was nowhere to be found.”  The horror on Jon’s face tightened the knot in Elise’s stomach. “We camped there for two nights, even walking downstream a few times, but it was no use. We had to keep moving. As hard as it was.” 

   “Elise hasn’t spoken since,” Heinrik whispered.  

   “I’m so sorry.” Michael said softly.  Jon rested his elbows on his knees and dropped his head into his hands.  In less than a heartbeat, his brothers were around him in a family-sized hug.  Elise was caught in the warmth of the embrace, and it almost stopped the shaking.  They stayed there together for a long moment, several of her brothers crying, before Michael said, “If you want to come north, I’ll help you get there.” 

   Anders swiped at a tear that had escaped and nodded.  “We thank you. We’ll move out at dawn.” 

   They slept in the same way they had every night, all piled together in the wagon bed.  But this night, as Jon joined them and Michael lay on the ground beneath the wagon, Elise couldn’t help but feel as if at last, they were complete.

   The journey to the mountains fell into a rhythm of wake, ride, work, eat, sleep, repeat.  Jon and Michael traded off driving the wagon and walking, which Elise was grateful for. She’d handled it okay so far, but since the North Platte fording, she was more than happy to hand over control, especially since it meant she could work on her project uninterrupted.  She spent her days in the wagon bed under the canvas top, sweating as she worked the stinging nettles they’d collected into bundles of fiber. Oskar had outfitted them with everything they might need to start a new life further north, and the tools and supplies rattled around her.  Her brothers chatted amongst themselves as they pulled, and though the conversation had started to get harder the longer they spent together, now that there were fresh faces, they turned their attentions there. 

   “So, Michael.” Anders started from his place beside the wagon. “Have you any family to speak of?”  Elise clambered over the back of the bench to sit beside Michael, tucking a little basket of fibers at her feet and pulled out her wool carders.

   Michael shifted on the bench. “No… they died when I was a kid.”  

   “Oh… I’m sorry.” Now everyone was uncomfortable, and Elise kept her hands still, knowing that the loud scraping of the carders would just make things worse.  After a long moment of silence, Michael cleared his throat. 

   “But I have a lot of friends in a lot of places.  And Jon’s become something of a brother.” The two of them grinned at each other, and the awkwardness fell away like a sigh.  Elise started carding the fibers, and Michael glanced down at them. 

   “If you don’t mind my asking, what is it you’re doing there?” 

   “Oh, she’s making scarves for us.” Hans called back from the yoke. 

   “Scarves?” Michael looked more confused. 

   “Supposedly, they’ll break the curse.”  Anders made the ox equivalent of a shrug. 

   “How do you figure that?” Jon asked from the other side of Anders.

   “An old woman came up to us while we were in Independence and gave her the carders, and told her this whole story about a family in the old country who had a similar thing happen, and scarves made of nettles solved the problem.” Aston laughed. “We all figured it couldn’t hurt.” 

   “Elise has been working on a scarf for each of us since then.” Anders finished the story.  

   “May I?” Michael gestured to her project.  They traded, she took the reins and he took the carders and examined them closely.  “Fascinating. These are ancient.”  He turned them over a couple of times, peering at every scratch. 

   “When did you become an expert in hand carders?” Jon asked in a teasing tone. 

   “You don’t know everything about me.” Michael raised an eyebrow good-naturedly, and Elise wanted to laugh.  She wouldn’t, but she wanted to, so she just smiled instead. 

   “Those are a nice piece of equipment,” he passed them back. “I wonder who the woman was.” 

   Elise had wondered that herself.  The woman had also given her the bottle of blue magic; she’d pressed it into her hand and said “Var modig, lilla du.”  Be brave, little one.  And she’d clung to that creed these past months. 

   It took more days than Elise could keep track of before they could even see the mountains in the distance.  The time was spent carding, then spinning, then knitting, with Michael giving her advice on how best to work the fibers into yarn and which stitch to use.  He would tell her about his adventures on the frontier, or Jon would talk about his research, and she would work. The three of them worked out a way of communication where one of them would open his hand and she would trace letters into his palm.  It was natural the way Michael became part of their family, putting them back together, leading them on to a new life. She pushed the thought of how he probably wouldn’t stay with them in the Bighorns out of her mind and just enjoyed making him smile.  

   By the time they reached their destination, Elise had ten blueish-gray scarves that she had dyed with a little bit of the magic.   She was ready to toss one onto Anders’ back to see if it would work, but Michael said, “Not that I want your brothers to stay cursed, mind you, but it might be better if we wait until we get where we’re going.  So we aren’t, you know, stuck in the middle of the prairie with no oxen to pull the wagon.” 

   So she stopped, even though her fingers itched for it to be done and over with.  Her heart ached to see their faces in the sunlight. But the mountains now towered over them, and for the first time, she really looked up. 

   “Beautiful, aren’t they?” Michael whispered, following her gaze.  She nodded, then had to remind herself to breathe. The Bighorn Mountains weren’t just beautiful, they were stunning – all gray and black with silver stripes down their sides where the rivers ran their courses.  Green grass and dark trees stretched as far as she could see, a stark and welcome contrast to the months of prairie they’d come through.

   “I could get used to it.” Kristian said with a laugh, and the others joined in. 

   “Is this it, Michael?” Jon asked.

   “Not quite.” Michael tipped his hat back on his head.  “There’s a perfect spot for settling in a little ways. I’ll get y’all there.” 

   The way he said it made the weight on Elise’s heart heavier.  

   They camped near a brook, and as Erik and Matthias helped her prepare the meal, her eyes kept finding his across the fire.  The unspoken something there made her pause every time. One of them would look away, but it still hung in the air, like a cord between them, neither of them wanting to pull far enough away for it to snap.  

   When her brothers were all snoring in the back of the wagon, Elise climbed back down, just to feel the grass on her feet.  Life was everywhere here, and it filled her chest as she looked up at the bright moon and sank to her knees.

   “Are you okay?” She started at the whispered words.  Michael’s eyes reflected the moon’s light from his place under the wagon.  She didn’t move to reply, and he scrambled to her side. “Is it happening again?” He put his hand between her shoulder blades, and she shivered at his touch.  She shook her head. 

   “Can you stand?” He helped her up and ran his fingers through his hair, which just made it wilder.  “Here, let’s get you a drink.” He led her toward the stream, but she stopped awkwardly before they got close, staring at the moving water.  The longest minutes of her life flashed in front of her, her one scream echoing like it was still ringing, and the utter silence that followed.  She hugged herself and shivered again. Michael was talking to her, she could tell. She tried to focus on him, but his face looked fuzzy until he said, “Elise.” and it cleared.  

   “This isn’t the North Platte.” He whispered, and the numb tingle settled on her again.  Michael’s jaw tightened and he took a deep breath, then bent over to roll up the legs of his pants.  The confusion startled her out of the haze, and she watched him with a frown. He left her standing on the bank and stepped into the stream.  

   “Come on, the current isn’t strong.” Michael turned back and extended his hand.   Elise shook her head, backing away, but he followed. “Elise,” he grabbed her arm gently, “I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”  

   There was the unspoken something in his eyes again, though this time it had an unspoken name.  Love.  He’d lied.  Something had happened to her, something he’d had a direct hand in.  

   Michael King was in love with her.  And darn it all, if she wasn’t in love with him too.  

   So she stepped into the current with his hands on her elbows and let the shivers run their course up her legs.  They stood there for what felt like an eternity, studying each other. Then he gave her a soft smile.

   “See?  Told you it wasn’t so bad.” 

   Elise blinked down at her feet with the stream flowing over them and let herself feel.  The coolness of the rocks under her toes. The warmth of his hands on her arms. The weight on her heart that lessened with each breath.  

   “I could stay.” His eyes caught hers, and she knew that she wanted him to stay, more than she had wanted anything.  So she leaned forward until her forehead was against his chest and let that say what she couldn’t. He wrapped his arms around her. 

   “I don’t have anything to offer, really.  But you can have it all, every last bit of it.  Whatever I can do to make you happy, Elise, you’ll get it.”  

   The tears she’d been holding in since the North Platte escaped then, but whether or not they were still sorrowful she couldn’t tell.  Her heart felt too full for grief. 

   After a long moment, they got out of the water.  Elise directed him to quietly extract a dishcloth from her trunk – he could reach over the edge of the wagon – and they dried their feet.  He lifted her up onto the wagon seat, and she curled herself up into his arms, and he told her all about the little house he would build in the valley, and the life they would build together.  Before she knew it, she was asleep.

   “Would you look at these two?” 

   “Don’t even care that we could be uncursed right now, do they?”

   “We pull them all the way to Wyoming, and this is the thanks we get.” 

   Elise woke with a stiff feeling in her neck, and blinked down at her brothers, who circled the wagon in their ox forms and were looking up at her expectantly. 

   “Well?” Matthias said.  “What do you have to say for yourself?” 

   She took in her situation.  She was still snuggled in Michael’s embrace, his head resting on the top of hers as he snored softly.  Not wanting to wake him up, and thus finding it impossible to throw something at her brother, she resorted to sticking out her tongue.  They all burst into laughter. 

   “Don’t mind them,” Jon popped up from the wagon bed behind them. “They’re just anxious to get uncursed is all.”

   “Yes.  So can we get a move on, please?”  That was Hans, and Jon helped her out by fetching a pickle from the barrel and lobbing it at him.  At the snack being launched past his ear, Michael snorted awake. Elise shifted away from his arms and stretched hers above her head. 

   “Good morning.” He whispered, and she smiled before tilting her head toward her brothers, who were now watching them with narrowed eyes.  “Everyone. Good morning everyone.” Michael altered his sentence as he stretched out his long legs. 

   “Good morning to you too, Mr. King.” Heinrik’s voice held a chuckle, even as he tried to look intimidating.  “We have to ask what you mean by all of this. I mean, we find you asleep on the wagon seat with our sister in your arms.”  Somehow, he made his eyebrows wiggle. “We don’t want any funny business.” 

   “Nothing happened, gentlemen.  Your sister is the picture of propriety.”  Michael winked at her, and her brothers laughed again when she blushed.

   There was a general air of cheerfulness as they pulled out within the hour, and the landscape grew no less beautiful.  Michael directed the team to follow the brook, and when they reached their destination in the afternoon, she could see why Michael had insisted they wait.  The stream widened into a small river, which led into a lake. In the distance, the mountains rose up like a protective fence, but the valley still rolled with little hills.  There would be plenty of room for crops and livestock, with trees enough to build a village; but the first thing to do was to make her brothers themselves again. 

   They lined up in age order like they used to back home, facing the lake.  Elise, Jon, and Michael stood before them, their hands full of scarves.

   “Here goes nothing.”  Anders murmured as Elise approached him first.  

   “Will we have to wear them forever?” Amos, the youngest, asked from the end of the line. 

   “We’ll find out, won’t we?” Rupert said from his spot in the middle.  Elise started trembling, like her body couldn’t contain the potential of what was about to happen.  With her shaking hands, she draped a scarf around Anders’ neck. She blinked, and there he was, fully human, with a huge grin on his face.  No painful change, just relief. The others scrambled to get their own scarves on, and before she knew it, they were in a family-wide hug again.  

   Hans and Rupert pulled away first, and took off running through the grass. 

   “No more hooves!” Amos cried, barrelling after them.  Soon, they were all running, thrilled at feeling the grass under their toes.  Michael nudged Elise’s elbow. 

   “I’ll race you to that tree.”

   She squinted up at him and asked,

   “You sure you can keep up?”

   She rocked up onto her toes and pecked a little kiss on his cheek before taking off.  His laugh followed her before he did.

   And for the first time since the North Platte, Elise’s legs didn’t shake.