A/N: I think I should start this out by stating the obvious: I'm an Oregonian, born and bred. You would probably have figured that out on your own in good time, having read sentences about "David's family finding happiness in the bosom of the Pacific Northwest," and "Jack abandoning his dream of Santa Fe in favor of the fertile lands of the Willamette Valley." (Okay, I wont spread it on THAT thick.) The point is, I've been obsessed with the Oregon trail ever since I was big enough to lift an encyclopedia, seeing as it's the only thing my home state is famous for. And last night, I had a dream.

Did you ever play the computer game "Oregon Trail" when you were a kid? You know—you name your family, buy livestock, make deals with Indians crossing rivers and suchlike and finally end up settled out West after fifteen minutes of watching your oxen stroll along eating grass and occasionally dropping dead because you forgot to give them any water? It was impossible not to win. Of course, then they upgraded the format and you couldn't even play it anymore without your entire family dying of cholera after about four seconds. But that part isn't important. You see, last night, before bed, I unearthed my old copy of "Oregon Trail" and, entranced by the slowly hypnotic movements of the oxen, stayed downstairs playing it until about two in the morning. After that, I managed to rip my eyes away from the monitor, staying awake long enough to begin playing "Santa Fe" on my stereo, and promptly fell asleep. This is what I encountered—

Newsies. Wearing cowboy hats, riding horses (and it's not just Cowboy being delusional this time). Steering wagons, hunting for food, starting fires. Fording rivers. Building log cabins. Newsies—frontier style. I have seen the top of the mountain, and it is good.

Anyway, enough of my babbling. All you need to know is that this isn't completely unprecedented—and hopefully I can't be deemed insane for wanting to see Mush riding an Appaloosa. Also, although the Oregon Trail had its heyday in the 1850's, and 60's, it was still, I am pleased to say, alive and kicking as late as...oh, say...1899, perhaps? *grins shamelessly*

And now, on to the fic!

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Prologue—

Fresh Horses

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Looking back, it was almost inevitable. Ever since David and his family packed up and moved out West, It had seemed more and more obvious to Jack just how little future he had in New York. He had seen them off at the train station, said one last goodbye to David, who did his best to explain something that he himself didn't fully understand. His father had talked for years about the opportunity out West, how there were hundreds of acres of land there for the taking. He had always refused to accept the idea that he had worked all his life for nothing more than a tenement apartment on the Lower East Side. When he couldn't find any work again, and couldn't go back to his old job, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. So he got the deposit back on the apartment, sold what he couldn't afford to ship, and spent the last of his money on five train tickets headed for Oregon, the last frontier. It was his vision: fertile land and mountain ranges, water clear and cold, the forests and the prairies, and the sky—vast, unstintingly bright, arching into a violent blue zenith and stretched taught over the belly of possibility. It was the dream that he had always had, and now he was realizing it once and for all.

It goes without saying that everyone thought he was insane.

The entire family was being uprooted on a lark, and it made as much sense to David explaining it that day at the train yards as it did to Jack. Neither of them had ever been out of New York City in their lives, never farther away from home than Brooklyn, and even going there was an event. Their entire existences were contained on a tiny island, and that was the way that it had always been. To pick up and leave everything, to move three thousand miles away to the wild frontier—there were no words for this. Neither had any idea how to react.

"So I guess you ain't gonna be a newsie no more," Jack said at last, casting a sullen glance once more to the list of departure times.

David laughed lightly. "I doubt it," he said. "You think they can even read out there?"

"I dunno, Dave, they can't read too good here, neither."

They both knew that this was about the closest thing they would get to saying they would miss each other, how they would always be friends. They weren't good at saying goodbye. That was girl stuff.

"Davey!" Sarah called urgently. She was struggling to heave a steamer trunk full of the last of their possessions on board, pushing with all her might with Les on the other side, unable to catch the eye of a passing porter. "We're leaving!"

"I'll write," David said. Jack clapped a hand on his shoulder, and almost smiled.

"Carryin' da bannah."

"Carrying the banner."

And with that David departed, headed for an uncertain departure, away from this terrible city.

*~*~*

Jack had never thought that David would really hold true to his promise. He expected to get a few letters to begin with, but then for the writing to slowly taper off as he settled into his new life. It was how he knew things to work: old friends quickly lost their places in favor of new ones, old promises buckling under the weight of time. Somehow, though, it didn't quite work out that way this time. Maybe there was something in the water.

Because David DID write. Dozens of letters, long and detailed, sometimes arriving so often that Jack had to wonder if he ever did anything else. They were homesteading somewhere north of Portland, building a house among stands of pines, in the shadows of the mountains. It was something Jack found himself unable even to imagine, but with David's letters to guide him he sometimes felt as though he were witnessing it himself. Every time there were new stories—meeting new neighbors, plowing the fields, Les (who was getting more grown-up by the day, apparently) bringing a baby raccoon into the house, which he dressed in Sarah's new sunbonnet. Deer leaving hoofprints in the vegetable garden as they walked gingerly through rows of carrots and runner beans, leaving the imprint of time in their wake—planting time, harvest time, the coming of autumn and spring. David told Jack stories, stories of the life that he had never known he wanted, and Jack had nothing to give to him return. He found himself, desperate for something to talk about, writing up how many papers he had sold that day at the beginning of every letter.

In the daytime and the nighttime, he dreamed about the west. He had long ago given up on Santa Fe, seeing it as an ephemeral and fleeting dream, an escape that he eventually outgrew. The trouble was, he was outgrowing this life too. As a newsie he existed in a furious present tense, never looking ahead farther than a week. He had always known that someday he would have to find something real for himself. And the West was real. He wanted mountains, prairies and Indians, wild horses and wide-open space. He imagined doing things right for once, packing everything he had into a covered wagon and joining the army of pioneers that dreamed of the same thing he did. This was solid, this was real: this was a life. Everything he saw seemed to be ushering him out of his catch-as-catch-can existence, right down to the statue of Horace Greeley whose inscription he had done a good job of ignoring for years: "go west, young man, and grow up with your country."

Jack wanted out. Hesitation held him with as much strength as any tether of rope or chain, and ambitions became daydreams. He kept David's letters in his pocket during the day, to read during idle moments. For the longest time, it seemed as if Oregon would become yet another Santa Fe. But then, one night, he looked up at the sky, and realized that he had already lingered long enough.

He had been thinking that day about the skies out west. Gusty and endless and wild with stars—beauty. It was late in March, almost a year since David had left, and he was sitting out on the fire escape of the lodging house, alone, reveling in the spring air. He leaned his head back against the hard wrought-iron, and looked up. Hazy, a cloudless smog, dull, roiling heavens. And not a star in sight.

It was that moment that Jack's insatiable wanderlust became drive, pure and unburdened. Once he made a decision, he didn't go back. And he knew, now, with utter certainty, unmatched by anything: he was leaving. Now, forever. Not only that, but he would take with him whoever in the lodging house had once even dreamed of freedom and space. He was breaking free.

Slowly, Jack stood up, threw open the window's heavy sash, and stepped into the dimness of the bunkroom. In every eye that fell on him, there was a spark of curiosity, and in some a gleam of knowing yet to be quenched. Jack took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and began to speak.