Inspired by the photograph of a wagon wheel in spring.
She didn't think she'd ever return. Yet, here she was, standing at the top of the hill, looking down upon the old claim that had been the source of her greatest joy—and her most crushing sorrow.
She took a deep breath. The evening air was fresh and crisp, faintly scented with the perfume of new-blown wildflowers. The land was green and flourishing, well-tended by the spring rains. Far off to the south she could see the dark furrows of newly turned earth, ready to be planted and become fertile with seed—anxious to bear their master healthy and abundant fruit.
Down below her stood the house. Newly whitewashed, it gleamed like a precious pearl in the golden twilight. In the window, a single candle sent out a warm glow across the yard. Its soft, inviting light seemed to know her, whispering its welcome. A part of her was tempted to go knock on the front door and ask the new owners whether she might be able to have a look around for old time's sake. But just as she was about to take a step forward, she heard the unmistakable music of a child's laughter. From around the side of the house, a little girl ran; her long blonde hair flying out behind her as she tried to keep two steps ahead of her daddy. She watched as the farmer reached out and caught his little girl, pulling her close and tickling her until the sound of her laughter echoed through the prairie. The little girl looked to be about four years old—the age her own child would have been if . . .
Instinctively, she turned away. No. She didn't belong here. The house, the land, they were changed. They weren't hers anymore. They belonged to a new family—a family that was flourishing, growing strong and going places together. She wiped a stray tear from her eye and prepared to head back to town.
And then she saw it. Her heart skipped a beat. Maybe there was still something of hers here after all.
She stepped down the fence line a few feet and stopped before it. The old wagon wheel lay propped up against the fence just as it had the day it was placed there. The climbing rosebush that she'd planted years ago was all a bloom. It wound itself like an adornment round the fence, slowly inching its way closer to the wheel like a blushing lover, shy and tentative.
"You always said we'd be goin' places, Henry Dunne," Rachel whispered as she gently traced the rim of the gray, weather-beaten wheel with her fingertips. A sad smile formed at the corners of her lips. "I just never expected we'd be goin' in two different directions."
She remembered the first day she and Henry arrived on this land. They drove up in a battered old buckboard that Henry had bought off a gambler the day he'd procured the deed to the farm. The ride out of town had been bumpy to say the least. The ill-fitting seat boards pinched and the axle squeaked and groaned to the point that Rachel wondered if the wagon would break apart into a dozen pieces before they even made it out of the livery. But Rachel didn't care how old the wagon was. To her, that buckboard might as well have been a golden coach bedecked with precious gems. In it, she was going to start a new life. Gone was her old existence as a card dealer and sometime prostitute. Now, she was riding into a new life as Mrs. Henry Dunne, devoted wife and mother of his future children.
Back then, the farm was a little worse for wear. Weeds and prairie grass stood hip-high throughout the property—all the way up to the dilapidated house's front door. Standing at the top of the hill for the first time, Rachel had joked that she'd need a scythe to clean out the living room.
"Now don't you worry, little lady," Henry had reassured, wrapping his arm around her waist with a smile. "We'll have this farm back in shape in no time at all. Yessir, we'll be goin' places, you and me."
At first, it seemed as if Henry's prediction was coming true. Within four months time, the house had become a welcome home, the south field was ready to plant, and Rachel was aglow with the knowledge that their first baby was on the way. To top it all off, Henry had collected on an old debt that was owed him and finally had money enough to purchase a much-needed new buckboard.
Rachel would never forget the day the old wheel found its home against the fence. She'd been up on the hill tending to her climbing roses when Henry appeared, with wheel in tow.
"What on earth are you doing with that?" Rachel asked. "I thought you were going to turn the old buckboard into scrap."
"Not all of it," Henry replied, resting the wheel against the fence. "I thought it would be nice to have a little reminder of where we started sittin' right here where we can admire it."
"I'll admit, it does look kind of nice next to the roses, doesn't it? Almost like they were meant to be together," Rachel admitted with a smile.
"Aye," Henry said, gently placing his hand on her growing stomach. "Just like we were meant to be."
Rachel shook her head as the memory faded away. Not all things were meant to be. Henry had said they'd be going places. Little did she realize then that only a week later, both Henry and their unborn child would be going to their graves and she would begin a new and very different journey on her own.
She smiled a little as she thought of her time with the Pony Express. She never would have guessed in the days following Henry's death that she'd become housemother to a pack of raucous young men who always seemed to find a way to get into trouble. She never thought she'd find a girlfriend to share her troubles with until she'd befriended Louise. Or find another person to laugh with until she'd met Teaspoon. She never dreamed that she'd find her calling as a schoolteacher and become one of Rock Creek's most beloved citizens because of it. Good luck seemed to guide her through every difficulty since Henry's death, leading her safely along every road.
Suddenly, she felt a soft, cool breeze kiss her cheeks, bringing with it the delicate scent of roses. Her heart jumped in her chest. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn't luck that had been guiding her all this time.
Rachel turned to face the old wagon wheel and smiled. "I love you, Henry Dunne."