A/N: ((solemnly)) And now, in order to apologize for the insane lateness of this update, Charlie Dalton will perform a song from the musical "Les Miserables". We hope that it makes it up to you, the audience at home.

DALTON: ((shuffles onstage wearing a lemon-yellow leotard and go-go boots)) ((sings)) MASTER OF THE 'OUSE! DOLING OUT THE CHARM! READY WITH A HANDSHAKE AND AN OPEN PALM! TELLS A SAUCY TALE! MAKES A LITTLE STIR! CUSTOMERS APPRECIATE A—((whispers)) Dakki, how do you pronounce that? ((pause)) Hey, wait a minute…shouldn't you be apologizing? You're the author!

Er.

DALTON: Anyway, I would like to take the time to thank you, the readers at home, for putting up with the insane lateness of this post, and also say that it was basically because of Lute that Dakki updated the fic at all before 2005. And now, my REAL favorite song from Les Miz—((clears his throat)) COME TO ME COSETTE! THE LIGHT IS FAAAAAAAAAAAAAAADING! CAN'T YOU SEE THE EVENING STAR A—

((lights out))

DALTON: Hey, where'd everybody go? Hello? Guys? …Doesn't anyone like my leotard?

--

Chapter Eight—

Wild Horses

--

"'Wash the fine clothes in one tub of suds, and throw them, when wrung, into another. Then wash them, in the second suds, turning them wrong side out. Put them in the boiling-bag, and boil them in strong suds, for half an hour, and not much more. Move them, while boiling, with the clothes-stick. Take them out of the boiling-bag, and put them into a tub of water, and rub the dirtiest places, again, if need be. Throwing them into the rinsing-water, and then wring them out, and put them into the blueing water'…"

Spot peered over the top of the book at Misery, who was staring into the mirror, turning her head this way and that, and trying to see if she still had any grass stuck in her plaits from the tussle they had had earlier that morning.

"Mis?" he asked.

"Huh?"

"Ya got any idea what the hell 'blueing water' is?"

She brushed a stray lock of auburn hair out of her eyes, and turned to look at him. "It makes your clothes blue?" she suggested, vaguely.

"But I—I hate the color blue," he stammered, seeming to be near tears. "Mis, I…I don' think I can do this."

"Yes you can."

"No, I can't."

"Spot," she said, picking up her brush and considering her reflection once more, "you have evaded death twelve times with nothing more than a sling shot and interesting hair. You have become dictator to forty-some boys, many of whom possessed biceps with greater circumferences than your waist. You have eaten spoiled mayonnaise and not gotten food poisoning. Twice. Why is doing your own laundry so incredibly hard?"

But Spot, still staring at the book—a copy of Catherine Beecher's A Treatise on Domestic Economy that he had borrowed from Hope—didn't seem to hear. A horrified expression on his face, he managed to rip his eyes away from the page, and glance over at Misery. "I just…won't even try. I'll wait until we get to Oregon, and then I'll…have…Sarah do it."

"Don't you think going eight weeks without washing your clothes is sort of pushing it already?" Misery asked.

"I have three pairs of underwear," Spot said. "That means that I have only worn each of them thirty-eight times so far. And I'm pleased to say that they are all still perfectly fresh."

"Spot, when Skittery opened your bag the other day he actually fainted."

"You have NO WAY of proving that my underwear was the cause of that!"

Misery just sighed and rolled her eyes.

"Yeah, well…" Spot muttered, suddenly noticing her spotlessly white shift, "if you do laundry so good, why won't you do mine?"

"Oh, I don't do my own laundry," she said casually. "Racetrack does it for me."

"What?"

"Yup. He's set up a nice little racket, does your underthings and trousers and all for two bits, sends 'em back to you the next day tied up with a little bow. It's very sweet-looking. Anyway, he's made a fortune doing it."

Spot thought about this for a moment, suddenly realizing how Racetrack had always seemed unnaturally fastidious about his clothes, his socks especially. If it weren't for that Sapphy girl he was always gazing after with a goony grin on his face, he would have figured him for a fairy. Either way, though, he couldn't've afforded to now—because, in truth, he really would have done anything to get his laundry done.

"Well," Spot said at last, attempting, in vain, to be casual, "d'you think…maybe…Race could do my laundry?"

"No," Misery said shortly.

Staring at her in disbelief for a moment, Spot just barely stopped himself from sobbing, turning it at the last minute into a snort of derision. "How the hell would you know?"

"Well," Misery considered, "this may just be a hunch, but, I seem to recall Race saying something to the effect of: 'I'd eat a buffalo chip with a side of horseradish before I would wash Spot Conlon's underwear. Mis, could you hand me that blueing-water?'"

"Why doesn't Race like horseradish?" Spot puzzled to himself.

"Look," Misery said, "Spot—I would just advise you, as a friend, to do your laundry. It's a valuable skill and God knows underwear can only exist for so long without disintegrating, and then you would have no underwear, and then where would you be? And," she added, "speaking as a girl—it just isn't attractive."

"I forget, are we fighting right now?"

"It depends on whether you're going to wash your underwear."

Spot just stared at her a moment. "Y'know…you've been talkin' a lot lately. And I'm not sure if I like it."

"That's very cute," she said tartly.

"What?"

"That you think I care. Now," she said, "go ask Racetrack real nice, and maybe he'll lend you some of his clothespins."

So first Spot turned sort of red and then he waved his hands around for a while, and gnashed his teeth, and then, after coming up with no better retort, he stormed off, laundry bag in hand, screaming, "WE'RE FINISHED, MIS!"

"FINE!"

"YEAH! WELL! I'M HAPPIER ABOUT IT THAN YOU ARE!"

"OH, YEAH?"

"YEAH!"

"WANNA SAY THAT TO MY FACE?"

"I JUST DID!"

"WELL…SAY IT AGAIN!"

This part went on for a very long time. It was all a question of who got the last word in.

Sitting over next to the breakfast-fire, eating his customary six-egg omelet while Sapphy worked on her twelve-egg one, Racetrack didn't even bother trying to decipher the conversation once it reached this point.

"So Mis and Spot split up again," he announced, taking a sip of his coffee. Sapphy just nodded. She really wasn't one for small talk in the mornings.

"That's the twelfth time since we crossed over into Nebraska, isn't it?"

"Eleventh."

"Right."

Sapphy paused, staring thoughtfully into her omelet. Then, she turned, and looked at her friend, a bemused smile on her face.

"Hey Race?"

"Yeah?"

"Why do you take such good care of your socks?"

"Sapph," Race said, beginning what, she could tell, was going to be a very long conversation, "the socks are the most important part of the wardrobe. Now…"

--

She's gone. She gave me a pen. I gave her my heart, she gave me a pen.

--Lloyd Dobler, "Say Anything"

--

She couldn't explain it, but there was something about being in the kitchen that satisfied Kiersten Connors more than anything else. Maybe it was just the simple joy of knowing the precise alchemy of turning eggs and flour and butter into something nourishing and whole, or the fact that, at least when she was cooking, she commanded respect. Maybe it was the fact that she had the highest authority, knew where everything was, knew how to do everything that needed to be done—even on the frontier, substituting hardtack for bread and chicory for coffee and cleaning her cast-iron pans out with sand, she was in control. She didn't know exactly what it was, but she knew that she was happy here, and she knew that, far from being just the right place for her, it was the right place—the admirable place—for any woman.

And that was why she was worried this morning—her oldest daughter, Hope, seemed to have gone astray. Now, it was her job to guide her back on track.

She had first started to notice the signs a few months ago—Hope slipping off barely after breakfast to go walk with her friends, picking up their slang even—and now that the weather was turning hot, she sometimes walked around wearing nothing but her shift and boots: when just two months ago she would have been mortified at the idea of going off in public without her bonnet securely fastened over her lovely red hair. Kiersten even had the feeling that she might have even thrown out that copy of A Treatise on Domestic Economy that she had so thoughtfully given to her on her last birthday.

Hope had always had a little too much spirit for her own good, but something told Kiersten that there was some kind of direct cause for this behavior. She even knew its name: Mush Meyers.

It was just past nine when Hope skipped over, looking for a little breakfast, and maybe something to read that didn't involve laundry. Her mother was sitting on a stool beside the wagon, pitting and canning a bowl of black cherries. Ever since the first hot days of spring had set in a few weeks ago, people had been lining up with things for her to cook: first Hope with a honey comb that Mush had gotten for her, then the rest of them, bringing buttery field mushrooms, wild carrots, parsnips, Jerusalem artichoke, and once, a whole pound of tiny wild strawberries, heart-shaped and bleeding with juice--until one day Lute and Snitch had showed up, hats filled to the brims with fresh plums, expectant smiles on their faces, and Kiersten had put her foot down. No more canning, no more cooking, no more pickling, no more drying, no more anything; she would work her way through the food she had and make the breakfasts and dinners and do up the preserves, and then she would get to the plums.

And Snitch and Lute had just shrugged and wandered off, chins already sticky with juice.

So now, it was the first of June, and Kiersten was up to her elbows in cherries, hardly a wonderful position to negotiate from, but she would make do. As soon as she saw Hope skip up into the wagon—no doubt to find that copy of Tess of the D'Urbervilles she had, so battered its spine was nearly broken—she called her back, and sat her down on the stool next to hers.

"Sweet," she said, before her daughter could get anything out, "let me tell you a story.

"Once upon a time, there was a young girl just like you, and just like you, she wanted more than anything to grow up. And she did many things before her friends, but the thing she yearned for first was to wear a corset: she dreamed of having a tiny, ladylike waist just like her older sisters."

"But I don't wear a—"

"Ssh. Let me finish." She put down the paring knife that she had been using to work the pits out, and wiped off her hands on a clean cloth, delivered that morning in a bundle by the Italian boy. "Now, one day, when she was a little younger than you, the girl's mother said to her that she could finally have her own corset. Naturally, the girl was overjoyed. So they went to the department store, and so happy was the girl that she could finally have one, she picked out the first corset the saw, without even bothering to shop around for a better one. So they bought it—and not two days passed before it broke. That was what the girl got for making decisions hastily." Kiersten sat back, satisfied, and looked at her daughter in the eye. "I think I've made my point."

Hope just stared at her blankly. "I don't think I understand."

"What don't you understand, Sweet?"

"Well, I mean, I don't own a corset. Nobody I know does."

"Well, the corset is a metaphor."

"Oh. …For what?"

"For a boy, dear. I hope this means something to you."

And suddenly Hope knew exactly what her mother was talking about.

"But I won't do it. You can't make me."

"I can and I will." She saw the tearful look on her daughter's face, and sighed. "I know you think it will hurt him, but do you honestly think he loves you? Don't you know that he's just trying to use you?—now, don't cry, that never helped anyone. You're not a child anymore." She picked up an immaculately white handkerchief and handed it to her daughter. "And," she said, "on the off-chance that he has any real feeling for you, which I doubt—look, I'm just trying to make you feel better—then he will recover eventually, I think. But yes, beforehand, he will be hurt, crushed even. But the truth hurts. Now—go out there and do what needs to be done."

And that was exactly how Spot found Mush when he came across him a few hours later: hurt, crushed even, and trying desperately not to cry into the perfectly starched, white handkerchief that Hope had given him before she left. He was sitting by himself in a grove of Sycamores, just hidden from sight, and Spot had only found him because they had been about to leave that morning when they had realized Mush was left behind, and Spot had been sent out to find him, of course. (That was the story they were going to tell Mush, anyway. In reality, they had gotten a good half hour out of camp before anyone even noticed he was gone.)

"You okay, Mush?" Spot asked.

Mush nodded, and then looked up at Spot and almost burst out laughing.

"What?" Spot said defensively. If Mush hadn't looked so miserable already, he probably would have socked him in the jaw.

"Well…your clothes, Spot." Mush stifled a laugh again. "They're blue."

This was true. Spot's clothes were, in fact, all colored a rather unflattering shade of blue since his attempt to do laundry earlier that morning, and his hands were still dyed up to the elbows, no matter how many times he scrubbed at them with fat soap and water.

"Look," Spot said through clenched teeth, "do you know what blueing water is?"

"Yeah."

"Well, what is it?"

"A blue liquid, generally of indigo, used in rinsing white fabrics to prevent yellowing," Mush recited. "What, you didn't know that? Haven't you ever helped Racetrack with his laundering business?"

Spot just glared at him.

"Well, anyway, thanks for cheering me up, Spot," Mush said, almost happily. "I really needed a laugh. Leader of the Brooklyn newsies, doesn't even know what blueing water is. No wonder Jack's always makin' fun of you. But hey," he said, when he saw the expression of utter rage on Spot's face, "what kinda host am I being? Come sit down." He patted the ground next to him, and Spot, reluctantly, took a seat beside Mush, in leaning against the trunk of the Sycamore tree.

"So what are you so upset about?" Mush asked. "I mean, apart from the fact that you don't know what blueing water is?"

"How do you know I'm upset abut anything?" Spot asked irritably.

"You're always upset about something."

"Oh. Right. Well, me an' Mis split up again this morning—"

"For the twelfth time since we got to Nebraska?"

"No. The eleventh." Spot glared at Mush, who just shrugged. "Anyway, we split up again, and this time I think it's final, and well, it just…it's not like I care or anything. But…anyway. What's the matter with you?" he asked quickly.

And, suddenly remembering his problems, Mush sighed, and leaned his head back against the tree trunk.

"Sorry," Spot said, sounding almost sincere.

"It's fine. I mean…I'll be fine."

"Really?"

"No."

Spot took pity on him then. The bluing water remark aside—and that really had been below the belt—Mush was going through everything he was right now, and hurting so bad that it felt like his heart had been torn out—not that Spot felt that way—but there had to be some way to make him feel better. To make both of them feel better. And Spot knew exactly what it was.

"Listen," he said, putting a blue hand on Mush's shoulder, "you know we're getting to Fort Kearny tonight?" Mush nodded miserably. "And you know what's there?"

"A feed store and a church?"

"What else?"

"A post office?" Mush considered this. "But why would that make me happy? No one ever sends me mail! Not even seed samples! SPOT, NOT EVEN THE SEED SAMPLE PEOPLE LIKE ME, I—"

"MUSH!"

"What?"

"I am not talking. About. A post office. I am talking about the greatest whorehouse the American West has to offer."

"Oh."

Ever since they left Kansas City, Spot had been hearing stories about it, and now they were here, less than a day away, and he was determined to go. He told Mush about it, everything that he had heard: the most beautiful girls in Nebraska all lined up in their satin skirts; the champagne, the singing, the dancing till dawn. He had enough money saved up in his sock drawer to buy two girls; it was the perfect way to get over losing a lover. And Mush was going to come along, whether he liked it or not.

"You'd do that for me, Spot?"

"'Course I would. Can't stand to have you moping around any longer. And hey, who knows—maybe, if you really want to pay be back for it, I'll let you do my laundry."

"Really?"

"Sure thing, kid. After all, it was the least I could do."

--

Fort Kearny was tiny really—just a church, a boarding house, a post office, and a general store made up the respectable portion of it, as well as a few weathered houses scattered along Main Street. And then there was Eurydice's: billed as the finest brothel in the West, and, as any weary traveler would tell you, it really was. It was not only a place to go if the journey got too long or the night too cold and lonely, but also the only place to go to get a stiff drink, play a game of chess, buy a copy of the news from New York City, catch up on your gossip, get advice on what to give to your wife for her birthday (and have it special-ordered from Paris), and play a hand of poker. Almost every night (not to mention morning and afternoon), the place was packed to bursting; as far as a half a mile away, you could hear through the clear spring air the sound of the commotion inside.

Standing next to Apollo, trying to warm herself as the coolness of night set in, Sapphy didn't know whether it would be better to look away or just keep staring straight ahead, waiting until she stopped feeling any pain. Either way, she couldn't seem to get it out of her head: no matter what they said, every one of these was the same, across every state line and border, and even here, on the plains of Nebraska, all she could think about was a place just like this in New Mexico, the place she had called home for nearly six months of her life.

Aphrodite's. It was a classy name, and the men liked to keep it classy too: felt sometimes like if they were putting their wad of cash down on a lacquered little night table in a room lit the color of roses, maybe they weren't putting money down at all, maybe the girls really did want them: and those moans and embraces and kisses were real after all, and not just an act. Some of them believed her, some of them didn't. She was a good actress. A great one. The next Lillie Langtree, just you watch, Madame used to laugh when they put her up on stage to sing for the men, the only time she was really happy. Eyes bright and blue as sapphires, hasn't she—and a voice like a songbird! Like an angel! If only there could be real angels. Satin skirts coming up over long legs and bruised knees, and glasses of pink champagne—gently now, gently. Sometimes they would ask her to take her clothes off for them, sometimes they undid the buttons and clasps themselves, but the only one she would even remember was the last she ever saw, the one who finally took her away: hands so rough and gentle, and how he kissed her like he meant it, and how they had melted into each other like milk and honey. He came back every day for a week and on the last day he had asked her, What do you say, my songbird, how would you like to get out of this cage?

Looking off one last time towards the horizon, she wiped the tears from her eyes, raised her face to the sky, and said one last quiet thank you. Then, she turned around, and called into the shadows to the person she knew had been waiting for her:

"What do you say, Higgins—how about we give you a run for your money?"

--

His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean
And you're the best thing that he's ever seen…

--Bob Dylan, "Lay Lady Lay"

--

She had been riding with him almost every night since the beginning of March, but it was only now that she challenged him to a race. He was confident he could give her a real challenge; she doubted it. Either way, she just needed a way to busy herself, and get her mind off things.

They set off just as the sun was fading from the horizon, with barely enough light to still see by—to the cottonwood tree a mile away and back, over the flat ground and new grass. It was simple enough, and she was confident she would beat him.

She started off with a steady lead. Apollo was in top form, thundering along without her even having to dig her heels in. She pictured him as he must be seen from far away: a glorious streak of gold blending into the sunset. And then, just when she felt she could almost smell victory, she saw a blur of gray streak past her right side. Racetrack.

She was fast, but he was faster; as she urged Apollo on, harder and harder, she could see him slowly get away from her, millimeter by millimeter, and the cottonwood tree was getting closer and the sky was getting darker and then—the ground dropped out from under her.

She pitched forward over Apollo's head, and fell hard on the ground. Apollo was behind her and for a brief moment she imagined being trampled under his powerful hooves, could almost feel it, but then she heard him as he came down on the other side of her, grazed past her within a hair's breadth. He didn't get far.

Afterwards—after Race had noticed she was nowhere to be seen and came back to look for her, right as he reached the cottonwood tree and was about to belt out the first verse of The Racetrack Song; after they had found the rabbit hole that Apollo had put his foot through, breaking his leg; after they had brought that glorious animal back to the campground and heard what they already knew: that there was no way to save him, at least without holding up the rest of the wagon train for months, and that, the next morning, he would have to be destroyed; after Sapphy had said goodbye to the animal that had been her only friend for so many months, run her hands over him one last time—afterwards, they sat together in Racetrack's tent, Sapphy leaning against him as he held her in his arms, too numb, too hurt, even to cry, wondering what she would do.

And as she talked, Racetrack thought, and wondered if there was any way he ever could think to comfort her, if someone who had only ever experienced pain could give anything to someone else.

And some time near midnight—it might have been the next day—she leaned her head against his shoulder and looked him in the eyes and said, half to herself: "I don't think I'll ever be strong enough." And he knew exactly what to do;

And he reached down and kissed her, kissed her like rain in a desert, kissed her like snow melting in the spring, and she opened up beneath him, like the petals of a rose.

--

Shout outs!

LadyRach: KID BLINK: Obviously, you have never had a fish put down you pants before.

RACETRACK: And you do not understand the full dangers of a lightning storm!

((both skip off into the sunset singing the Update Song))

Well, at least they're not having gratuitous, badly-written sex, I guess…((pause)) What am I SAYING?

Dreamer110: YAY! ((thinks a moment, and hands the purple one over to Dalton))

DALTON: Dakki, I…I don't know what to say—I'm touched.

Well, it coordinates with your leotard.

DALTON: It's not a LEOTARD! It's a dance outfit.

Hope Diamonde: DALTON: AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH! ((runs off))

((shrugs)) Well, it was worth a try…

Ireland O'Reily: Hm. I think I shall check by putting some goldfish down Blink's pants. It's a regular game at our house, actually: "Let's Put Something Down Blink's Pants And See If He Finds It Objectionable". We play it on Tuesday nights, instead of Yahtzee.

And! You shall be making your debut, my love, in the next chapter, as a prostitute. But, you know, a classy one.

BLINK: Why don't we ever put those down my pants?

Shooter O'Brien: BLINK: I know you rule my world, baby.

Aaaaaaand the award for worst come-on line ever goes to…

(Actually, Blink gets the second place trophy. The best goes to Charlie, for "Am I happy to see you, or have I just stuck a CANOE down my leotard?")

Lute-my-love: ((does the "Guess-who-updated-before-Lute-did?" dance)) Enough said, my Ice Cream Princess.

Sapphy: DALTON: ((reads)) …I don't get it. Was that in reference to just the fish? Am I missing something?

((flicks Dalton's equally flickable ear, giggles and runs off))

MiseryLovesCompany: AUGH! NOT THE DUCKS! HAVE MERCY! I—((is trampled by four thousand Canadian geese))

HA! I have only been trampled by a different species of waterfowl! I—((is trampled by ducks))

Rats.

Utopia Today: Almost as delicious as Dalton's lemon leotard? Yum.

DALTON: How! Many! Times! Do I have to tell you? It's…A DANCE COSTUME!

Checkmate: ((solemnly) I love you. Marry me? ((sings)) AND NOBODY! IN ALL OF OZ! NO WIZARD THAT THERE IS OR WAS! IS EVER GONNA BRING…ME-E-EEEEEEEEE DOOOOOWWWWWWN! Sing with me, Charlie!

NadaZimri: Oh, his pelvic thrust is going beautifully—especially with his leotard on.

DALTON:…I'm not even gonna try anymore.

Saturday: GAH. What is it about your reviews that just makes me jump up and down and then grin like Christian Bale just walked into the computer room wearing nothing but a silver ribbon, and then feel all empowered to sit down and write another chapter? What? I don't know. But we must get married, or at the very least become a Broadway-musical writing team—Marshall/Brown, or Brown/Marshall, if you wish.

--

NEXT UP—THE NEXT CHAPTER, WHICH WILL COME MUCH FASTER THAN THIS ONE DID, HAVE TWO NEW OC'S, THE INTERIOR OF A BROTHEL, AND OTHER FUN STUFF!

DALTON: Like we believe you.

But you MUST! Clap if you believe in updates! …And Dalton's lemon-yellow leotard. Really, tell him he looks sexy. I think he needs it a lot.