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 WESTWARD EXPANSION — [OPEN], someone please indulge me
 Posted: May 21 2015, 01:45 PM

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"We'll stop here a couple days."

Ain't the horses getting tired? And Charlie himself, who's never been so sore in his life, not since he got sent out to the mines as a kid. This isn't so bad, he supposes, when the little log-built town peeks through the trees and old man Gifford pulls his horse up to a stop beside the building marked ALE & BEDS.

Behind the pair of them, the ponies shuffle to an uneasy halt—three chains worth of ponies, packed into two lines and all strapped together. Duke, who'd been hired on when Charlie was, left them midway through the Appalachians. Between you 'n me, Gifford had said, in a rare period of loquaciousness, that boy weren't good for much besides complaining. Charlie didn't disagree.

Two pairs of boots hit the ground, Gifford's steadier than Charlie's.

"Hold 'em a minute," the old man orders, and Charlie walks bow-legged over to pick up the reins of Gifford's big draft cross. The white-ticked old shepherd dog heels right along into the inn, leaving Charlie on his own with fifteen head of uneasy horses.

"Hush, you," he mutters to the draft that's trying to pick his pocket for treats, and once he's sure the daisy-chains of ponies are settled he goes checking down the line. This mare has been bobbing her head, gone lame somewhere on the rocks; this one has a bite on her haunches to be cleaned; the old gelding Charlie's been on since they left the coast is dull-eyed and bleary. As bad as some of the horses look, the boy tending them is maybe worse: coated in a month's worth of dust and horse dirt, limping on his left foot, shaggy haired and growing the beginnings of a young man's scruff.

"Y'almost look like a man now," Gifford says from the Inn's doorway. "Help me get the beasts tied down and then you're free a day or two. You done good." And the old man passes a few coins into his companion's palm; and Charlie looks at him wide-eyed before scurrying to the saddlebags for supplies.


The Inn itself is nothing at all to write home about, not for a kid like Charlie that grew up in the beginnings of a bustling city. But by god, it has a roof and straw-packed mattresses for the guests, and a big wooden basin for bathing and washing clothes. The big main room has it's bar settled along the wall, and the whole place is so newly built it still smells like trees and sawdust. And Lord, there are people—people besides Mr. Gifford, who is no warmth on a cold starry spring night. Charlie catches himself gawping in the doorway, and jingles his newly-earned coins in his fist, and pulls up a seat at the bar.

Ale, he thinks, and then a bath, and a bed... A single night where he doesn't have to wake in the dark to repack hoof abscesses and tear down camp. When Gifford finds another hand to help them cross the plains, they'll be on their way again, but for now...

"Ale?" he asks no one in particular, voice rusty from disuse.
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