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Wandering Hearts

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California, summer of 1861.

When she heard her brother had joined the Union, Nicole Haught donned the identity of Nicholas Haught Jr., an identity she made up in order to serve alongside Conner in the war and protect her baby brother. She had seen things she wished she hadn't. Killed men and other disguised women she would never know or meet. A few, she did meet, from when her camp would trade liquor, games, or even books on occasion, in the still hours of dawn whilst on patrol. All awaiting their orders for the time of attack. She fought and fought, sometimes celebrated, or even mourned.

The worst loss she experienced was one of her last. In their last battle before the war was won, Nicole and Conner had been called with their platoon to operate a siege on a Confederate camp the next state over.

Conner sacrificed his life in that battle, wedging his body between hers and another soldier's pistol, absorbing the blow for her. Nicole had shot the young Confederate soldier with her rifle straight between the eyes, dropping to her knees, gathering her brother's convulsing body in her arms and ignored the rest of the screaming and death created by the battle.

After they had finally won, dawn peeking shyly over the horizon, Nicole visited her brother's body and cried for her brother and comrades. She even cried for the Confederates, the young ones that didn't know any better than to blindly fight.

Something broke in her during that battle.

Nicole Haught lost a piece of herself as she watched her family lower her brother's casket into the earth, knowing she'd never see him again in this life. She cried until she couldn't and gasped for breath until her lungs hurt. Despair closed around her from all corners, circling her like a hungry animal in the house she had grown up in. Every picture and sound reminded her of her best friend.

She couldn't bear any more time in the house being constantly reminded of her failure to save her brother. Her mother and father weeping for their youngest child throughout the night.

The next morning, Nicole rode off at dawn before her parents awoke, in the hopes of locating a distant, new beginning away from the pain and nagging failure of her self-made promise.

 

Purgatory, spring of 1866.

Curtis McCready had always been a kind man. He kept a smile on his face, and a door open for his friends, the whole town loved him dearly. During the winter he fell ill and unfortunately passed away just as the new year began. The town paid their respects to the man for an entire week, and life in Purgatory wasn't quite the same without the jovial gentleman.

In his will, Curtis declared a close friend of his- one of his cowhands, Shorty- as his proxy until his niece could make the trip to town after being notified of his death. Shorty would act in his stead as head of the ranch and take up the spare room, living there in the weeks to come before Waverly’s arrival.

 

Massachusetts, spring of 1866.

Waverly Gibson was only twenty-one years of age when a courier came to her with a notice of her Uncle Curtis passing. She weeped at the news of her uncle's passing, feeling her heart break for the first time, and immediately packed all her bags, informing her newly hired hand to prepare for a trip to the Ghost River Triangle.

She had to preserve her uncle's memory, she decided as climbed into the wagon heading for the train station, it was the least she could do after all he had done for her. After taking her in as his own.

What she didn't know was the new and exciting adventure awaiting her past this period of mourning.

 

The journey spanned over four weeks until Waverly arrived in the Ghost River Triangle, the majority by rail, and quarter by coach.

She allowed a rueful smile to pass her lips, gazing upon her childhood town. It had expanded somewhat since her last days there as a mere child, quite a few more buildings occupied the square, citizens bustling about under the day's blistering haze.

As her carriage passed through the square, most of the crowd tried to eagerly peek in, some throwing only mildly curious gazes, while a few were just trying to get by without a hoof trampling them or a wheel running over them.

Waverly’s smile grew at the thought, at least some aspects she remembered hadn't changed.

As the carriage approached her new home, Waverly thought back on her childhood and memories of Curtis, her smile turned to a frown. It was strange, her uncle's sudden passing. Waverly made a promise to investigate the matter further once she had fully settled into her new title.

The carriage pulled to an abrupt halt, lurching Waverly out of her thoughts and off the seat suddenly, she let out a cry of shock.

”Sorry ‘bout that, ma’am!” Lonnie exclaimed after hearing her startled cry, “I shoulda told you we was stoppin’.”

“Quite alright, Lonnie,” Waverly said gently, hoisting herself back onto the seat and began brushing her dress off, “just don't make a habit of it, understand?”

”Yes, ma'am.”

Waverly opened the coach door, greeted by Lonnie, who offered to help her down. She gratefully accepted the gesture, turning her gaze on her uncle's home.

Her home.

“My, my, my,” a gruff voice greeted cheerfully, a chuckle mixed in, “are these old eyes deceivin’ me, or am I really gazin’ at little Waverly Gibson?”

“Shorty?” Waverly gasped, snapping her gaze upon the older gentleman. “My goodness, it's been ages since I've seen you!”

She quickly strode across the gap between them and barrelled into Shorty, gripping him tightly, her heart warmed with immense affection as he hugged her back.

“Ah,” Shorty sighed happily, releasing her from his grip after another minute, he patted her shoulder gently, “some things never change.”

“I know,” Waverly sighed in agreement, her gaze leveling upon the house again. “It looks just how it did when I left, Shorty.”

“Ya know, being Curtis’ proxy and all,” Shorty gave a quick shrug of his shoulders, a grin twitching at the corner of his mouth buried underneath his grizzled beard, “if I hadn't kept up the property, your uncle woulda had me out on my ass faster than a rider for the Pony Express.”

Waverly giggled, now turning her attention back to Shorty, smiling ruefully.

“True. Uncle Curtis was known to be strict on occasion. Nevertheless though, a good man, but he could spoil the fun at times.”

Shorty grunted in agreement, silently jerking a thumb in the direction of her carriage, just as Lonnie stumbled, dropping a pile of suitcases on himself and began frantically yelling. His voice echoed across the yard loudly.

“I'm fine!”

Waverly sighed and raised a hand to massage her temple, glancing at Shorty out of the corner of her eyes tiredly, muttering in explanation, “Lonnie’s a recent hire…”

“Well, how about I go help him and show him how it's done?” Shorty was flashing a full fledged grin at her now, “Sheriff's inside, been waitin’ on your arrival.”

“Thank you, Shorty.” Waverly said, beginning to bid him farewell. “I'll see you in the house after I talk to the sheriff, then you can come be my witness for the signing. Being his proxy and all.”

She winked at her uncle's best friend, watching Shorty begin to make a beeline for Lonnie, introducing himself to the younger man politely, offering a hand with the downed suitcases.

Lonnie vehemently denied Shorty’s offer, but introduced himself nonetheless. Shorty locked gazes with her and shrugged.

Waverly laughed now, Uncle Curtis would have definitely liked Lonnie’s determination, even though he wasn't always the brightest.

 

Waverly held her breath after entering the parlor, gazing around the giant house. It was left almost exactly how she would picture it back in Massachusetts when she was homesick. She was also grateful to her uncle allowing her to travel and attend a women's seminary to further her education.

She had just finished her final classes at Mount Holyoke before her uncle passed. He had even sent a congratulatory letter to her before the spring, explaining how proud he was and that he couldn't wait to see her after four years.

Four years, Waverly thought with a mournful tone, and I didn't even visit not once.

“Waverly- uh- Miss Waverly?” Sheriff Nedley asked, correcting himself quickly. “You are her, right?”

Waverly opened her mouth to reply-

“In the flesh, Sheriff,” Shorty interrupted as he closed the door loudly behind himself, scuffing his boots on a crude mat in the doorway. “The one and only.”

“Yes,” Waverly agreed, tilting her head forward with a bashful smile.

“My, how you've grown, Miss Waverly.” Sheriff Nedley murmured, looking as if he were only just realizing how old he was. Perhaps a little sick with the revelation. “You was still a kid, last I saw you.”

“Indeed, Sheriff,” Waverly agreed for a second time, smile fading now, “now, I understand that you have paperwork for me to sign?”

“Ah,” Nedley grunted, pulling documents from his shoulder bag, also procuring an inkwell and quill, “just need you to sign a few things…”

 

Waverly sighed, it had been a long day, after traveling for weeks, then signing the documents, she had to discuss the future of the ranch with Shorty, which was a tiring ordeal in itself.

She had bid him an early night, retrieving to the room she used to reside in, having been left untouched since her departure for Mount Holyoke.

She silently prepared for bed, telling herself she'd unpack her suitcases in the morning when she felt better. If she ever felt better.

Wiping tears from her cheeks, Waverly blew out her bedside candle, curling under the familiar blankets. She laid frozen, darkness enveloping her, the only sounds were Shorty’s snores drifting through the walls and down the narrow hallway from the spare bedroom he was occupying for tonight before returning to the cowhand quarters the next day.

Leaving Waverly alone by herself in the house, only the whisper of a memory that her uncle ever lived there. No family again.

She would deal with that tomorrow, she told herself again quickly.

Waverly shut her eyes harshly, forcing herself to count her breaths until she drifted off into a fitful slumber.