For callensensei, JWood201 and Louise Hargadon for all the encouragement.
Also to Louise for the fantastic phrase 'high dudgeon'. Where you come up with these things my friend, I'll never know, but you ARE a comedy genius!
Written for fun, not profit- because sadly, these wonderful characters do not belong to me...
Dusty gripped the misshapen block of wood tightly in his left hand and held the small sharpened knife blade against it with his right, frowning with the herculean effort of concentrating on what he was trying to do. He tightened his fingers around the wood to hold it steady, hunching his shoulders and bracing his feet outwards and apart as he sat with his back hard up against the wagon wheel. He stuck the tip of his tongue between his lips, squinted his eyes, dug the edge of the knife blade into the wood and pushed. The knife blade caught, angled a little too deeply into the wood. Dusty kept pushing, gritting his teeth with the strain. He flexed his fingers, gripped the handle of the knife tightly and pushed once more, with considerable extra force this time, until a large hunk of wood tore off the block and flew across the clearing, landing in a pile of other chunks of wood that had suffered the same fate.
"Dag nabbit!" he shouted.
There was muffled tittering from inside the covered wagon. "Why don't you just give it up, Dusty?" said Lulu, poking her head of towering blonde curls under the tarpaulin and looking down at her flustered friend. "'Sides, every time you let fly with a piece o' that firewood, this whole darned wagon shakes like a bowl o' jello."
"It ain't firewood, Lulu," Dusty muttered. "I told you, I'm whittling."
"That ain't whittlin' Dusty, that's assault with a deadly weapon. Why d'you think everyone's taken cover? 'Cause anyone comes within ten yards o' this clearin', you go and shoot a piece o' wood into their behind."
"It ain't my fault this wood's too hard," Dusty protested, raising his face to glare at the showgirl.
"It ain't the wood, mister. It's the woodcutter."
"I'd like to see you try it," Dusty countered. "It ain't as easy as it looks." He examined his scarred and broken block of wood, wondering if it was actually beginning to resemble anything remotely recognisable yet.
"Why d'you think I ain't doin' it?" Lulu laughed scornfully. "Ain't no reason for me to do nothin' that's harder'n it looks. 'Sides," she leaned further out of the wagon and tapped the top of Dusty's hat affectionately, "what would I be gettin' outa it?"
"It's meant to be relaxing," Dusty said, straightening his hat where she'd pushed it sideways. "I used to watch this guy back East, boy, he'd whittle all kinds. Birds, horses, cats and dogs- whales even, with big spouts comin' outa their heads and everything. He said it made him feel all relaxed and good inside. All peaceful and stuff." He hacked another splintered chunk off the block and cussed loudly again. "Gold darnit!"
"Dusty, you're makin' me seasick," Lulu said resignedly, and pulled her head back into the wagon. "Why don't you go and do yer whittlin' someplace else?"
"'Cause I've gotten comfortable here, and that's the first step to bein' a good whittler." said Dusty stubbornly.
"And what's the second step, survivin' a good slap upside the head?"
Dusty pushed his back up against the wagon wheel, braced himself for another attack on his block of wood. "Why don't you go sit on a tail feather, Lulu?" he muttered. "All y'ever do is complain."
"'Cause all you ever do is annoy the hell outa me." Lulu hit the inside of the wagon just above where she figured the top of Dusty's head would be. "Especially when I'm tryin' to get some sleep."
Dusty heaved a great sigh and scrambled to his feet at last. He turned to face the wagon and spoke directly to where he figured Lulu's head would be. "Okay, Lulu, if that's the way you want it, I'm goin'. I was going to whittle you something, but I ain't makin' nothin' for you now, not if you can't appreciate a man's efforts to learn something new that he ain't ever done before."
He gathered up all his bits of wood, muttering pointedly about people who would never understand. He stuck his knife into his belt and stalked off, unaware that Lulu had stuck her head back out from under the tarpaulin, looking suddenly sad and almost apologetic.
Dusty picked a spot that was more secluded, nowhere near the covered wagon or the stagecoach where the Brookhavens resided. God forbid he should annoy anyone else with his attempts to better himself. He settled his back against the smoothish side of a large boulder, piled all his chunks of wood beside him, extracted the knife from his belt and set to work once more.
After about forty five minutes, he found himself sitting amongst yet another scattered pile of wood chips and splinters and had also managed to cut the first finger of his left hand. Not badly, just a nick, but he was busy sucking blood off it when Betsy appeared.
"Oh, Dusty! What have you done to yourself?" she asked with wide eyed concern.
"Ufn 'etsy," he mumbled, shaking his head with his finger in his mouth.
"Let me see," she demanded. She knelt down next to him and pulled his hand away from his face. "Why, you're bleeding!"
"It's nothing," he shrugged. "It's just a scratch. I'm whittling, see?"
Betsy looked around at all the wasted scraps and chunks of wood and smiled sympathetically. "Yes, I see." Then she pulled a handkerchief from one of her dress pockets and started dabbing at Dusty's finger. "But you could have really hurt yourself, Dusty." She examined the small cut closely. "You're lucky it wasn't a lot deeper, the way you've been going at it."
Dusty sighed. "You know Betsy, just between you and me, I've been whittling all morning and I ain't getting' nowhere. Old Hank back East made it look so easy and all. I thought I'd be sittin' here with all horses and eagles and everything by now. I was gonna make Mr. Callahan a mountain lion!"
"A mountain lion?" Betsy repeated, disbelievingly.
"yeah, because they're brave and strong and so is he."
"Why, Dusty! That's so thoughtful of you!" Betsy was genuinely touched. She wondered what Mr. Callahan would say if he'd heard that. She imagined the big wagonmaster would be moved to tears!
"Not only that, I was gonna make Mrs. Brookhaven a little one o' those dogs she likes. A peckin...a pecker...a peckon..." He furrowed his brow, dug the tip of his knife firmly into another piece of wood. "A pickle..."
"A Pekingese," Betsy said helpfully. "Oh, Dusty, she'd be so thrilled to hear that!"
"Mr. Brookhaven, I was gonna whittle him a dollar sign. Seeing as how he loves his money and all."
"And he would have loved it!" Betsy laughed. Did Dusty realise he had a sense of irony?
"I was gonna whittle Andy one o' them little bowl things like he uses to mix up powders," Dusty continued, turning the tip of the blade into the wood. "I don't remember what that's called, either."
"A mortar," Betsy smiled at her friend's look of deep concentration.
"Yeah, one o' them."
Betsy moved slightly out of the way as Dusty looked like he was getting ready to shoot another piece of wood. "And what about Lulu?" she asked, settling down right beside him, thinking it was probably safer to be behind the line of fire than right in front of it.
He harrumphed, sounding rather like Mr. Brookhaven in high dudgeon. "Don't talk to me about her. She'd only laugh anyways."
"Oh, Dusty! No, she wouldn't. What makes you say that?"
"She didn't even like the fact I was whittlin' to start with." Just as Betsy expected, a large splinter of wood flipped end over end into the air and landed on top of the pile of many others. "Horsefeathers," he muttered, banging his fist into the dirt.
"Did she say something to you, Dusty?" Betsy watched closely the shifting expressions on Dusty's face. She hated to see him thwarted by his own lack of ability. He was such a sweet and gentle man in so many ways, it hurt her to know that he sometimes believed himself to be a failure. She wanted to stroke the hair back from his forehead, but she wasn't that bold. The best she could manage was to lay her hand lightly on his forearm.
He shrugged. "Just to go and do it someplace else, before she got mad." He peered at the rapidly diminishing lump of wood in his hand. "All she ever does is sleep in that wagon, only gets up when it's time to eat. Maybe I should whittle her a four poster bed or somethin'."
Betsy giggled. Her showgirl friend did have a lazy streak, that was very true. "I'm sure she didn't mean it," she smiled. "And I'm sure she would've appreciated whatever you decided to whittle for her. You know how fond she is of you. She likes the way you treat her like you treat everybody else."
"She sure has a funny way of showin' it," Dusty muttered. He pushed the blade through the wood, carving off another hunk. This one wasn't as raggedly splintered as the others. Maybe he was making some progress after all.
"She's used to being on her defences all the time," Betsy reasoned. "She forgets that she doesn't have to be that way around you. She still thinks she has to be Showgirl LuluBelle."
"But that is who she is," said Dusty, scraping away a residue of splinters from the block of wood. "Don't offend me none."
"I know. And I think that's what confuses her. You don't react to her the way most men do. When she has one of her temper tantrums you just walk away and ignore her."
Dusty looked as though he'd stopped listening. He leaned over the shrinking block of wood and hacked off another piece, and then another, his tongue clamped between his lips. Betsy decided there was no point talking about Lulu, or any other women for that matter. Dusty really was his own easy going, uncomplicated man. He could take it or leave it. As long as he had something to do, to practise at, like whittling, lassoing or God forbid, gunslinging, he was content just to be with himself.
The whittling really didn't seem to be bearing much fruit though. His muttered cusses grew stronger, including a particularly colourful expletive that he could only have learned from Lulu. Finally he took what was left of his block of wood, which really wasn't much now, and prepared to throw it across the clearing in disgust. His arm was poised above his head ready for launching when Betsy suddenly reached up and curled her fingers around his hand, causing him to stare at her in surprise.
"Let me see it first, Dusty," she said with a sweet smile.
"It's nothing," he shrugged, letting her prise it out of his grip.
Betsy held it up and looked it over. It was oval shaped, rather rough-hewn, a little smaller than the palm of her hand and slightly more rounded and smooth on one side than the other. But it dipped in at the top and was more pointed at the bottom and she could see at once what it looked like to her.
"Dusty, it's a heart," she said, her eyes wide.
Dusty pulled a spectacular grimace. "That ain't a heart," he said scornfully. "It's just a stupid ol' chunk of wood." He made to grab it again, but Betsy held it up high and away from him.
"Dusty, it's a heart. Look." She held onto it tightly and showed it to him, holding it right up in front of his face and turning it this way and that. "Okay, so it's a little wobbly on one side, but to me that just makes it more of a heart, because hearts aren't always perfect."
Dusty raised his eyebrows, his mouth twisted wryly. "I guess you might say it's kind of a little bit like a heart, if you squint. And maybe if you stood on your head."
"When did you become such a cynic?" Betsy laughed. "It's a heart. No doubt about it. The question is, Dusty, were you intending to whittle a heart?"
"No," he admitted. "But I was trying to make something for you, Betsy. I just didn't know what."
"For me?" Betsy was surprised. "Not Lulu?"
"No, Betsy, I told you I wasn't whittling for Lulu. She needs to be nicer to me first before I start doin' nice things for her."
"Dusty, that's not like you!"
"Mr. Callahan says you shouldn't let people take advantage," Dusty said, examining the small cut on his finger. "That's what I think Lulu does sometimes."
"Why, Dusty!" Betsy said, turning the 'heart' over and over in her hands. "Could it actually be that all this so-called fruitless whittling is actually helping you to think a little clearer?"
Dusty frowned at her. "Like how?"
"Well, like meditation for example. Learning about yourself at the same time as you're concentrating on something else."
Dusty thought for a moment. "That's kind of like what Hank back East said. Whittling helped him think."
"And I think whittling had helped you think, Dusty." Betsy laughed. "So what do you think of that?"
Dusty took the misshapen lump of wood from Betsy's outstretched hand and examined it closely. "You know, Betsy, maybe it does look kind of like a heart, now that you mention it. It's a little rough on one side though. Maybe I should just..." he looked down and started to fumble for the knife tucked in his belt but Betsy quickly reached out and snatched the wood away.
"No, Dusty, it doesn't need any more work. Really." She held it up to the sun and traced its uneven contours with her fingers, smiling with delight. "It's perfect how it is. Just perfect."