Okay, I'll admit this is a pretty self-indulgent one-shot now. I haven't checked out enough episodes to really know what the Dusty/Betsy/Lulu situation is, so this is just my own 'hopeless romantic' take on things. (Stop laughing, anyone who knows me.) I have no idea of Dusty's or Betsy's past lives back East, and so everything contained within this story comes straight from my own head. However, I have endeavoured to keep it believable.
Again, dedicated to the other wagons in the train. Callensensei, JWood201 and Louise Hargadon.
It was a hot day. Not that the other days hadn't been hot too, but this one just felt hotter than most. It was high summer and the sun was a merciless, unblinking eye glaring whitely down on the merry band of stragglers as they hauled themselves across the plain.
Dusty felt his shirt sticking to his back as the stagecoach trundled over the trail, bouncing jauntily along on its creaky suspension coils. Movement like this could almost lull a man to sleep, he decided, opening his eyes wide and then slumping over with the effort. It was okay for Mr. and Mrs. Brookhaven, inside the coach with the drapes down and lots of comfortable cushions. Even in this heat they didn't have to keep their eyes open any more than they needed to.
Lazy summer flies and gnats whisked past Dusty's face, as careless in their flight paths as he was at swatting them away. His head drooped again. He had a vague vision of a table piled high with cool refreshments before he blinked himself awake once more. This wasn't good. Any more of this and he was liable to take a wrong turning, and who knew where it would lead them this time?
Mr. Callahan rode up beside the stagecoach and slowed his horse down. "Dusty, are you okay there?" he asked, concerned.
"Oh, hi Mr. Callahan," Dusty said, attempting to sound alert and wide awake. However, it seemed that this required more effort than he was capable of, and immediately he leaned right over forwards and started snoring, the reins hanging limply in his hands.
Mr. Callahan stood up in his saddle. "Dusty. Dusty! Wake up!"
Dusty began mumbling, hunched his shoulders as though brushing off an imaginary other person. "No, ma. No, I ain't going to school. I went yesterday."
Mr. Callahan shook his head resignedly. "Whoooaaaa there, everybody!" he cried, his voice deep and booming. The covered wagon was about two hundred yards behind the stagecoach and he nudged his horse into a canter towards it.
"What's the matter, Cal?" asked Andy. He was on his own on the wagon seat, the girls having taken themselves inside and under cover.
"It's Dusty," the big wagonmaster told the young pharmacist. "He just can't keep his eyes open. You know what happens when he falls asleep at the reins. We either need to find somewhere to rest up, or find some way to keep that boy awake."
"Well, I'd take over from him," said Andy, "but obviously I can't." he raised his own reins to demonstrate.
"And I can't do the job, because someone needs to scout and I can't trust him to do that, either," said Mr. Callahan with a studious frown. "Not unless we want him to lead us into a nest of snakes or a sea of quicksand."
Andy and the wagonmaster looked at each other. Mr. Callahan was sweaty enough himself, with his big glistening face and large circular wet patches under his arms.
"What should we do, then?" Andy shrugged. "We could pull over and rest, but I thought you said we needed to make up the time."
"And we do," Mr. Callahan said gruffly. He tried to peer past Andy's shoulder into the wagon. "Lulu, Betsy? You awake in there?"
"Go away," came Lulu's voice, her intent clear. She wasn't going to be doing any favours for anyone today.
"Come on, girls. I need someone to go sit with Dusty, keep him awake."
"I ain't doin' it," Lulu said petulantly. "Ain't my job to wake 'em up."
Andy shrugged again. Mr. Callahan sighed heavily. "Thanks a whole bunch, Lulu. You really know how to work as part of a team."
The showgirl responded with her own dramatic sigh. "That sun ain't good for a gal's complexion," she protested. "I can't do the Coochie Dance if I look like an old shoe, now. Can I?"
Mr. Callahan raised his eyes skyward and shook his big head. "Lord, give me strength," he said pointedly.
After a moment, Betsy's head appeared in the wagon's opening. "I'll do it, Mr. Callahan," she said. "I'll sit with Dusty."
"Here that, Lulu?" Mr. Callahan called. "Betsy has offered to help. Isn't that real sweet of Betsy?"
"No offence to Betsy," Lulu retorted, "but her whole future don't rest on bein' able to do that Coochie Dance."
Mr. Callahan smiled. Lulu was a pain in the ass, but you couldn't really stay mad at her. A showgirl's life wasn't all frilly skirts and ribbons. Sometimes Lulu had to act like more of a man than any of the real men she was paid to entertain.
"Okay, Lulu, you keep that sweet complexion of yours unblemished," he chuckled. "Meanwhile, the rest of us'll concentrate on keepin' this here wagon train moving."
Once the wagon had caught up to the stationary stagecoach, Andy engaged the brakes, climbed down and helped Betsy disembark. Mrs. Brookhaven had half way pulled up the drapes on the stagecoach's window and was waggling her parasol through the gap.
"Do take this Betsy, dear. It's marvellous for keeping off the rays of that awful sun."
"And please, Betsy, if you would, use it to prod that boy and stop his hideous snoring!" added Mr. Brookhaven, from somewhere inside the darkened depths of the vehicle.
Mr. Callahan distributed water while they had stopped. Then he set about the arduous task of waking Dusty up again.
"Dusty!" he boomed.
"I told you, I ain't eatin' that earthworm," Dusty mumbled, his head sunk onto his chest.
"Dusty, if you don't wake up..." Mr. Callahan took Mrs. Brookhaven's parasol from Betsy's hand, leaned up out of the saddle and poked Dusty in the ribcage with the pointed tip.
Immediately the young man's eyes flew open and he sat bolt upright, making the whole stagecoach move sideways and back again. "What, who, when, where?" He garbled. After a few moments of blinking and reorientating, he looked around, puzzled. "Mr. Callahan, why have we stopped?"
"We stopped, Dusty, because you stopped. You fell fast asleep at the reins again."
"Oh." Dusty looked sheepish. "Sorry, folks."
"That's okay," said Mr. Callahan. "We all know the heat makes us tired, and it is an unusually hot day. But we can't afford to stop more than we need to, so that's why Betsy here's volunteered to sit up there with you and try to keep you awake."
"Aw! Betsy, you don't need to do that!" Dusty was not so much sheepish now as full-blown embarrassed.
"There's no ifs or buts about it, Dusty," said Mr. Callahan decisively. "We need someone up there to keep you awake."
"It's all right, Dusty, I don't mind," smiled Betsy sweetly. "It's no worse than sitting on the wagon bench with Lulu and Andy."
"But there's no shade!" her friend persisted.
"Mrs. Brookhaven lent me this," Betsy replied, opening up the parasol and twirling it around. "This will keep the sun off both our heads!"
"Well, if you're sure you don't mind," Dusty said, scooting to the edge of the stagecoach seat to help her up.
The big wagonmaster waited until Betsy was safely up on the stagecoach seat with Dusty, then he trotted his horse back to the wagon alongside Andy. "That poor girl's got her work cut out for her," he sighed as Andy climbed back up onto the wagon and took up the reins. "You know what a sleeping Dusty's like. He makes ol' Rip Van Winkle look like an insomniac."
With Andy settled on the wagon and Dusty and Betsy settled on the stagecoach, Mr. Callahan rode back to the head of the train and gave the signal for everyone to start moving again. Dusty yawned and flicked the reins and the horses tossed their heads and began slowly ambling forward. Once again the stagecoach lumbered its way along the trail, bouncing over stones and bumping into potholes.
"It sure is a hot day, Dusty," said Betsy, attempting to engage the young man in conversation at the same time as retain her balance.
"It sure is, Betsy," was the extent of her friend's reply.
She chanced a good look at him. His hair was in his eyes, his hat pulled low over his head. He really did look tired, and his attention was definitely elsewhere. "Didn't you sleep well last night, Dusty?" she asked, blushing slightly. It wasn't her place to ask a man about his sleeping habits!
"I guess," he said. "The ground was a little hard, though." He yawned widely, only remembering to cover up his mouth at the last minute. "Sorry, Betsy."
"That's okay, Dusty." Betsy looked around, saw the water bottle up against the footrest. "Did you drink any water?"
"Some." He yawned again.
"Well, drink some more. It'll waken you up." She picked up the bottle by the tatty leather strap and prised off the lid, handing it over.
Dusty accepted her offering, though he looked sceptical. Betsy watched him put the neck of the bottle to his mouth and tip it up. She watched his throat move as he swallowed and tried not to look at a trickle of water that ran down his neck, past the chinstrap of his hat and into the collar of his shirt. He put the lid back on the bottle and handed it back to her, dragging the sleeve of his other arm across his mouth. "Thanks, Betsy," he said. "Somehow it tasted better that time."
"Let's just hope it helps you stay awake," Betsy said, putting the bottle back on the floor.
Just as she said that, the stagecoach hit a deep pothole and the whole thing lurched side to side, throwing Betsy hard up against Dusty, almost knocking him off the seat.
"Whoa!" he exclaimed, flicking the reins when it looked as though the horses might respond to his outburst.
"Oh! Dusty, I'm so sorry!" the young woman cried, pushing herself back along the seat as though her friend had burned her. "I didn't mean to bump into you like that!"
"It's okay, Betsy," he said affably, straightening himself up. "After all, you wanted to keep me awake, and that sure woke me up."
Betsy smiled, blushing. "Guess I'd better sit further along," she said, although there wasn't much room either way.
The stagecoach trundled along, creaking on its springs. Betsy looked around at the landscape. It was pretty flat in these parts, but distant hills warned of the trials to come. Meanwhile, the ferocious sun beat down on the top of her head, requiring immediate deployment of Mrs. Brookhaven's parasol. She pointed it outwards and opened it up, thinking that it really wasn't big enough for two people. Luckily Dusty had his ever present hat to keep the worst of the sun off his face.
"What do you think, Dusty? Do I look like a lady of leisure?" Betsy asked, twirling the parasol over her shoulder.
"A lady of what?"
"Leisure, Dusty. A lady who doesn't have to do any work, who just gets looked after all her life."
Dusty scrunched up his face. "No. You don't look like one of those," he said, decisively.
"Oh!" Betsy was disappointed. "Not even in the least little bit?" she posed a little more lazily, twirled the parasol again. "How about now?"
"Now you just look like you've got a bad back," Dusty told her, eyeing her up and down.
"Well, thanks a lot, Dusty," Betsy pouted. She sat up straight again and peered out over the plains.
"I wonder what California's going to be like," she mused. "What do you think, Dusty? Do you think it's going to be heaven on earth?"
Dusty shrugged. "Never gave it much thought," he said. "Just got hired as a stage driver. Guess I was thinking more about what an adventure it'd be, out there in the wilderness away from home and all."
"Were you looking to get away from home?" Betsy asked. "Didn't you like being home?"
"Sure I liked being home," Dusty said, his eyes fixed firmly ahead. "Most of the time."
"Only most of the time?" Betsy didn't want to pry, but Dusty was a fascinating subject. She had decided a while back that deep inside that clownish exterior there was somebody quite serious. This serious person didn't come out very often, but at times like now, when Dusty looked thoughtful, she could tell he wasn't very far below the surface.
Dusty turned his head to look at her, squinting against the sun. "Did you like being home all the time, Betsy?" he asked, testing the waters of this impending conversation.
"Well, I..." Betsy thought for a minute. "I guess we all have our reasons for leaving our homes and heading out West. My reason is to become a schoolteacher. They need teachers out West to educate the native people." Betsy lowered her voice to say 'native people', although again, she wasn't quite sure why. The Brookhavens couldn't possibly hear her over the creaking and groaning of the stagecoach and Dusty was the only other person within earshot.
"And you know what, Betsy? You'll be the best schoolteacher in the whole state," Dusty said, treating her to a big grin.
"Why, thank you, Dusty," Betsy smiled, pleased. "And what about you? What do you want to do once you get out West? What are your plans and ambitions?"
Dusty frowned, then shrugged. "I haven't really thought too much about it," he admitted. "Figured I'd get a job on the stages or lookin' after horses. There's plenty o' jobs for a guy like me. That's what I heard, anyway."
"Well, I imagine they'll need all kinds of builders, and carpenters, and manual labourers, and..." Betsy stopped at the look on Dusty's face. "Not that I'm saying that's all you can do, besides, carpentry is a skilled profession, and..." she trailed off.
"I guess I'll just take what comes along," Dusty replied, fixing his gaze ahead once more.
"Besides," Betsy went on, "don't forget what I said. You can always come along to my school and be my star pupil!"
Dusty grinned. "Yeah, you did say that, Betsy. You said I could sit first row, front seat."
"And you could be slate monitor and everything."
"And maybe, if the other kids got a little unruly, I could make 'em all behave," Dusty went on, squaring his shoulders.
"That's right! You could be slate monitor and class monitor."
"And then, in recess, I could make sure they played fair and none of them got hurt," Dusty continued, warming to his theme.
"Why, that's right, you could be schoolyard monitor as well!"
"All that monitoring. Sure sounds like a great job, Betsy. It's a lot of responsibility, though. Are you sure it's right for me?"
"I couldn't think of anyone else I'd like better for the job," Betsy nodded, twirling her parasol. "In fact, you'd be perfect."
Dusty gave her a sidelong glance. "Does that mean I'm hired?" he asked mischievously.
"Dusty, you're hired," she grinned, holding out her hand and laughing as he shook it up and down with a surprisingly firm grip. "Fifteen cents a day and all the milk and cookies you can eat."
"How about we forget the fifteen cents and throw in some cake?" Dusty grinned back.
"Maybe you can keep the fifteen cents and earn cake as a bonus," Betsy laughed.
"Like for sweeping the yard?"
"Or painting the schoolhouse."
"Or sweeping the schoolhouse and painting the yard. That's most likely what I'd do."
"Whatever you did, Dusty, you'd still get your cake." Betsy leaned over to pat his forearm, but at that moment the stagecoach hit another pothole and her hand ended up on his leg, where for a moment or two it appeared to be stuck like glue. It was enough time for both of them to look down at her fingers spread over his thigh before she retracted her hand with the speed of a bullet leaving a gun.
"I-I'm sorry," she stammered, completely flustered.
"You're sorry," Dusty murmured.
"Dusty, you know I didn't mean to put my hand there."
"No, I didn't mean I'm sorry you put your hand there, I mean I'm sorry you took it away." Only then did he stop and realise what he'd just said. "Whoops."
Betsy blushed furiously. "Dusty, I don't make it a habit to go around...touching men's legs."
"But you didn't touch a man's leg, Betsy, you touched mine," Dusty said, perfectly reasonably.
"And what are you if you're not a man, Dusty? Chopped liver?" Betsy folded her recalcitrant hand firmly in her lap and sat as straight-backed and primly as she could, given the heave-to motions of the lumbering stagecoach.
"Oh, okay. I guess I am a man," Dusty grinned. "But I wasn't offended, Betsy."
"Oh, Dusty. You never get offended by anything. Nothing ever offends you."
"Hey! I'm offended!" Dusty declared.
"What are you offended at?" Betsy asked, puzzled.
"I'm offended at being told that nothing offends me! Plenty offends me. In fact, sometimes I get so offended, I..." he faltered, screwing up his face. "I..."
"You what, Dusty?"
"I don't know. I can't remember when I last got that offended. I know one thing though, it sure wasn't when a pretty girl put her hand on my leg."
Betsy didn't know if it were possible to go any more red than she already was. "Dusty, there's a lady present," she murmured.
"Mrs. Brookhaven can't hear us," he said blithely. "She's inside the stagecoach."
"I meant me, Dusty. I'm a lady."
He scoffed. "Yeah, but you're also the one who put her hand on my leg."
"Can we please forget about the hand on the leg?" Betsy said, her expression pained.
"Oh, that's right, Betsy. You want to put your hand on my leg and then pretend nothing ever happened. You women are all the same."
Betsy stared at Dusty. By the look on his face, she decided that he was joking. "Are you saying there's a queue?" she chanced, bravely.
"Now, see," Dusty replied with a grin, "that's the other reason why I decided to head out West. To get away from all the girls who were crazy about me."
Betsy laughed then, at his droll expression just as much as the words he was saying. "Dusty, it wouldn't surprise me to discover that half the girls in your hometown were after you."
"Except they weren't." Dusty flicked the reins at a horsefly that had settled on the rump of one of the horses. "Only girls who chased me were Augusta Mayhew and Francine Carmichael, and that was only so's they could fill my britches with dirt or make me eat disgusting stuff they tried to bake."
Betsy laughed, then studied the handle of the parasol thoughtfully. "But you must have had girlfriends, though?"
"I had one," Dusty admitted. "Well, okay, maybe two. Not at the same time though," he added quickly.
Betsy toyed with the parasol handle. "And did you leave anyone behind?"
"Mom and dad," he said. "My little sister. And Sparky. He was my dog. But they said they'd take care of him for me. I didn't want him to come all the way out here just so's he could get bitten by a snake."
"I'm sure Sparky would be grateful for the sentiment," Betsy smiled. "But I meant someone close. Someone maybe that you were very fond of. Like maybe a girlfriend." She studied the parasol handle again. It was surprising how fascinating a parasol handle could be.
Dusty shrugged. "I didn't really tell anyone else I was leaving. Just mom and dad."
"What about your friends?"
He shrugged again.
"Surely you had friends, Dusty?"
Dusty shifted on the seat, turned towards her. "Hey, how about I ask you a few questions, Betsy?" he said defensively, although his tone stayed mild.
"Oh, Dusty, I'm sorry. I'm prying. It's just that...well, Mr. Callahan wanted me to keep you awake, and the only way I can do that is by talking, and I don't know what kind of things you like to talk about."
"Yeah. I like to talk about steaks. Big, fat, juicy steaks sizzling on the grill." Dusty closed his eyes and went into raptures, rubbing his belly and licking his lips. "I could happily talk about steaks all day."
Betsy laughed. "All right then, steaks. We'll talk about steaks."
"Mmm," Dusty said, ecstatically. "A whole mountain of steaks, all piled up on top of each other."
"Sounds horrible," Betsy admitted. "I think I'd much rather have a nice piece of grandma's meatloaf."
"Oh, man! Meatloaf!" Dusty was in heaven at the thought. "Right on the top of that mountain of steaks. A big piece of Betsy's grandma's meatloaf."
"And after that, a thick slice of her home made apple pie," Betsy grinned. "all nice and warm from the oven."
"Betsy, stop, you're making me so hungry," Dusty moaned, wiping his hand over his face.
"You started it, talking about steaks!"
"I know! What was I thinking?" Dusty looked at her with comic despair. "I'll admit it, Betsy. Sometimes I'm my own worst enemy!"
"And if Mr. Callahan were here, he'd say that the rest of the time you're everybody else's!" Betsy giggled, then swiftly clamped her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide. "Oh, dear!" she giggled even more. "That wasn't very nice of me, was it?"
Dusty grinned goodnaturedly. "it's true, though. That's just what Mr. Callahan would say."
He had leaned forward in his seat but was looking back at her with such an air of self-deprecation that it was all Betsy could do not to lean forward and kiss him right then and there. She had no idea where that sudden startling thought had come from! She bit the inside of her lip and looked away from him, out across the plain, concentrating on anything that would distract her from what she was thinking. A buzzard circling high up in the distance. That would do. Buzzards were singularly unattractive things, ugly and squawking and vile.
Unlike Dusty, who was cute and goofy and...
Stop it right now, Betsy. Mr. Callahan gave you a job to do. You weren't meant to start enjoying it!
Betsy smiled to herself. Oh, who was she kidding! She'd jumped at the chance to sit with Dusty and keep him awake. Why, she'd almost cheered out loud when Lulu had refused to help!
"Now you got me thinking about pie," Dusty said forlornly. "I think I preferred it when I was asleep."
"I don't think Mr. and Mrs. Brookhaven preferred it when you were asleep," Betsy giggled, then before she could stop herself she scooted over and sat right up next to him. "There," she said with a cheeky smile that was uncharacteristically brave for her. "Isn't this cosy?"
"Betsy, not that I'm complaining, but I thought you were a lady?"
"Even ladies need to have a bit of fun now and again, Dusty. Wouldn't you say?" Betsy leaned against him and gave him a playful nudge. "Besides, we're friends, aren't we? There's nothing we can to to offend each other."
Dusty grinned, nudged her back. "Nope, nothing."
"Although I'm not sure about putting my hand on your leg. Although it did happen accidentally. And it is a bumpy ride."
"Betsy," said Dusty, straight faced. "I don't think that parasol's working. I think the sun's gone to your head."
She laughed, and sat happily shoulder to shoulder with him as the stagecoach bounced along.
"That's okay then, Dusty. If anyone says anything, we'll just blame heatstroke."
THE END...or is it?