"Rachel! Be quiet! Do you hear that?"
Rachel Berry graced her companion with her most unladylike scowl, then stopped and caught her breath at the sound. "A… a carriage! Coming this way!"
Emma Pillsbury-Howell clambered up from her seat on her very uncomfortable portmanteau and stood on the dirt-stained toes of her kid slippers and saw the unmistakable cloud of trail dust flying up behind a carriage being quickly pulled by two horses. Turning to the younger girl, she bit her lip, but desperation outweighed her hesitance. "Rachel, please. Let me do the talking if they stop. We have no idea where we are, and how far it is to Lima."
"Mrs. Pillsbury-Howell, really! As if it were my fault that barbarian stagecoach driver couldn't take a few slight criticisms!"
If the situation were funny at all, Emma would've laughed. "A few slight criticisms, Rachel? You insulted the man, and most of the other passengers, and incited them enough that they threw us off the carriage in the middle of nowhere!"
Rachel bit her lip and looked away. Perhaps Mrs. Pillsbury-Howell had a point; after all, the schoolteachers back in St. Louis had always told her that she wasn't the most… tactful person. But, really, they shouldn't have taught her "honesty is the best policy" if they didn't want her to use said honesty. Shaking off her uncharacteristic moment of self-doubt, Rachel beamed a smile at the other woman. "Nonsense, Mrs. Pillsbury-Howell! And regardless, this situation appears as though it may turn out favorably after all."
As the rumbling cloud of dust came closer, Rachel prepared herself by holding a linen handkerchief over her face, and using her other arm to wave wildly. "Over here! Over here!"
Noah "Puck" Puckerman had had a grueling day, and as a blacksmith, that was not uncommon. However, this particular day, his fatigue was not brought about by the iron and fire of the forge, but by the most daunting of all tasks: customer relations. The long trip into Houston had been profitable for him and his partner, but there was nothing Puck hated more than kowtowing to a bunch of men who all looked down their noses at the blacksmith. The one silver lining was that, however bad Puck needed their money, they needed his wares just as bad. He was by far the most reliable and talented blacksmith in East Texas, and the work of the larger smithies in Houston couldn't compare to what Puck was capable of. So it was with that small satisfaction, a pocketful of cash, and a surly disposition that Puck headed back to his hometown of Lima.
He wouldn't have noticed them at all if it hadn't been for the flickering of his mares' ears. Puck knew from many nights out that that particular motion was a foreboding of trouble, so he instantly slowed their pace and cast a wary eye around. And it was then he saw them: two women, one standing still, one waving like a lunatic, obviously stranded.
He snorted to himself. Yep, this would definitely be trouble.
For a moment, Rachel had sincere doubts that the man was going to stop, but almost through the sheer force of her will (which, to be quite honest, was formidable) he seemed to slow and finally notice them. With the smallest tug to this team, he was slowing even more and now coming in their direction. As his carriage came to a stop and his mares snorted and caught their breath, he lifted a hand their way.
"Hello, ladies," he called, his voice deep and smooth. "You need some help?"
Rachel wanted to roll her eyes – they obviously needed help – but resisted the urge and tried a charming smile instead. "Good day, sir. We're on our way to Lima, when we were callously abandoned by our stagecoach. Are you by any chance heading in that direction and willing to take on a few passengers? I assure you, once we get to Lima, my father will be more than happy to compensate you for your time. My name is Rachel Berry, and this is my companion, Mrs. Pillsbury-Howell, and we're travelling from St. Louis. Luckily, the driver also took the time to toss out our belongings after us, so we do have our portmanteaus to come along as well, which I hope that additional burden will not cause any undue stress on your cattle. The rest of our belongings are following behind-"
"Good God, woman!" The man jumped down from his perch, and walked over to grab the first portmanteau, Rachel's, and throw it on the flat bed behind the carriage. "The whole matter could have been handled in six words instead of six paragraphs. Now get in, and, for the love of all that is holy, stop that prattling. We've got a couple of hours until Lima, but I'll be more than happy to make you walk 'em."
Rachel snapped her mouth closed and sniffed, and turned a glare on Mrs. Pillsbury-Howell when the woman had the audacity to giggle quietly. "Very well. I'll silence myself and graciously accept your assistance, Mr…"
He grunted as he threw the last bag up, then offered Mrs. Pillsbury-Howell a hand onto the single bench, and finally turned back to Rachel. "Just call me Puck," he said with a smirk, holding out his work-roughened hand to hers. Rachel set her kid glove in it, and took a good look at his face for the first time. Laughing hazel-green eyes looked back at her from a wickedly handsome tanned face that was all hard edges, and she felt color fill her cheeks.
Taking a deep breath, she sent him a cool smile. "Puck. How charming," she said, placing her hand in his and allowing him to assist her into his conveyance. Settling her skirts, she took her seat next to Mrs. Pillsbury-Howell, who still looked amused. "I'm glad you're enjoying this," Rachel muttered watching the man pat his mares' necks as he rounded the front and made his way to the other side of the bench.
Quickly, he seemed to realize how far to the left the women's skirts pushed his own position. "Ladies, I think I'll need to sit between you if we don't want the horses going in a circle."
Mrs. Pillsbury-Howell immediately jumped to shift away, a fact that was not lost on Rachel, and she shot her companion a telling look, and tried to hide the quick pang in her chest. Her entire life Rachel had known that she was… difficult. She was honest, talkative, ambitious, driven, and sometimes a little critical. As such, she wasn't blessed with a plethora of friendships like the other girls at the boarding school. But that was all right, because she had at least one very good friend back in Houston with whom she maintained a lively correspondence. And, at one point, she thought she'd had even more with… But that was neither here nor there, she told herself firmly, pushing the painful memories away.
Her father had packed up his business and home and made a fresh start in the small town of Lima, and that was exactly what Rachel planned to do as well.
The man, Puck (a distasteful nickname, Rachel decided), put the horses into motion without saying another word to either woman. After what was surely an hour (or perhaps just ten minutes) Rachel could no longer stand the silence. "So… Puck, are you familiar with Lima?"
He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, then back to their path. "Yep."
Rachel waited for him to elaborate for a few minutes, then let out a disgruntled sigh. "What's it like?"
He hitched up one broad shoulder. "S'okay."
Irked, Rachel decided to play his game. If he thought his reticent ways would discourage her from speaking, he had another thing coming. "I'm originally from Houston, but I've been in St. Louis for the last ten years at a boarding school. My father moved to Lima last year, so although technically it's my home now, since I've never seen it, it doesn't feel like home. My very best friend Mercedes and her father moved with my father. Mr. Jones is my father's most loyal employee, since my father gave him his first job as a free man. It was my mother's idea, of course. She always had a lot of empathy since our people were slaves, too. At least that's what my father tells me, I don't remember my mother. She died when I was a little girl, during childbirth. My sister died, too. Do you have a sister? I always wanted one, or a brother. Although what good it would have done me at a boarding school, I don't know. But still, having-"
Rachel stared up at her rescuer with wide, guileless eyes. "Is something wrong? Puck."
He finally took his eyes of the road long enough to glare at her, and Rachel could see that his already hard jaw was tightened even further with annoyance. "Woman, the Union Army didn't even realize that the greatest weapon they could've used was you, talking the Confederacy into submission. I have never heard a person use so many words in so short a time." He shook his head in amazement, and turned to address Mrs. Pillsbury-Howell. "Is she always like this?" he asked, tilting his head towards Rachel.
Rachel jumped in before her companion could. "Honestly, sir, I'm just trying to make conversation, a nicety you obviously lack the social skills to handle given your uncivilized one-word answers to my inquiries."
"Duchess, you're lucky you even get that out of me today." He turned back to her and smirked. "Let me make this real clear for you, Rachel Berry: I am doing you a favor, and unless you want your sweet little behind left behind on the side of the trail again, I highly recommend you keep your mouth shut for the remainder of our ride. Do you understand?"
Rachel glared up at him, fuming over his nerve. She stiffly turned forward, and glanced away from him, silently submitting to his will.
And if there was a little hurt beneath the anger, well, at least she was the only one who'd know.
Puck had never been so happy to see the tiny town of Lima in all his life. He'd expected the ride to be bearable once the yapping girl had finally left off. However, with every mile that passed in silence, his guilt grew and left him feeling like an ass.
She was just a girl, hardly bigger than a whisper, who was nervous about her new hometown. And, honestly, her voice hadn't been that hard to listen to once he blocked out the content of her conversation. It was almost melodic. That thought immediately made him uncomfortable, so he turned his thoughts to apologizing. After all, Lima was a small town and if they were both going to live there, they'd need to come to terms with each other.
But, shit, he didn't want to give her the idea that he wanted her following him around yammering at him. Maybe he wouldn't mind shutting her up in other ways, he considered, thinking about her pouting lips and tiny waist and snapping brown eyes. No, that seemed like a strategy he could fully get behind. There weren't too many unattached women in Lima, and a man could only avail himself of the local saloon girl for so long until he began to look pathetic. Puck knew before long, his mother was going to get serious about her talk of him finding a nice Jewish woman to settle down with. He'd always figured that when the day came, far off in the future, he'd start nosing around Houston's Jewish community, one of the oldest in Texas.
But if Rachel Berry was the daughter of David Berry, maybe it wouldn't come to that. Of course, him getting married was years away, so the idea that this girl would stay available until that point was laughable.
And, of course, it was also contingent on whether or not he could get through a few hours with her without wanting to set himself on fire.
As he pulled into town, he glanced at Rachel. "Welcome to Lima," he murmured, catching her eye.
She sprang upright on her seat and cast a curious glance around. He could practically hear the questions forming in her mind, and knew she was biting them back due to his dictate. He grimaced and nearly told her to go ahead, when he spotted her friend Mercedes Jones and her father on the sidewalk in front of the bank.
So did she. "Mercedes!" she cried out, turning in her seat to wave at her friend. "Oh, please stop," she begged, turning back to Puck with tears in her eyes and placing her small hands on his arm. "Please, please stop."
He was already pulling back to halt his mares. No sooner had they came to a halt, then she was over the side. "Damn it, woman," he bit out, feeling his heart drop into his stomach. She was just a little slip of a thing. She was going to hurt herself if she went throwing herself out of carriages.
She didn't hear him, though, as she ran back to her friend and they tossed their arms around each other, and cried. Puck glanced away uneasily, then turned to her companion, who he realized with a start, he'd largely ignored the entire way. "Just one moment, Mrs. Pillsbury-Howell, and I'll help you down."
At her soft murmur of agreement, Puck slid off the other side of the bench and went to greet Mr. Franklin Jones. Shaking the black man's hand, Puck gestured to his carriage. "I've got their bags. Do you think David would want them taken to the house or to the shop?"
"The shop!" Rachel and Mercedes answered at once, hugging and laughing once more.
Franklin looked down at his daughter and her friend with fondness, and nodded. "Let's just take it to the shop. He can deal with it when he's done fussing over Miss Rachel."
The two girls set off, arm in arm, leaving Puck standing there with the carriage in bewilderment. She wasn't even going to say anything to him before she walked away? Frowning, he helped Franklin unload the bags, then assisted Mrs. Pillsbury-Howell down from the carriage and introduced her to Franklin. After that was done, Puck shot one last look at Berry's storefront.
He felt a hand on his arm, and looked down into the porcelain face of Mrs. Pillsbury-Howell. "Thank you so much for helping us, sir," she said timidly. "I know Rachel can be a little hard to handle sometimes, but-"
Puck grinned a little. "Nah, she's not so bad. Welcome to Lima," he said before jumping back onto his rig and heading over to the smithy.