In the meantime, I present to you:
The (Illustrated) Journey West to Ransom Springs of Miss Marta Berge
Fields of wheat and corn flashed by the windows, flickering glimpses of houses and barns and lonely homesteads stranded like tiny islands floating amongst the endless crops. The sky, clear blue with only the occasional white specks of cloud, hurt Marta's eyes if she stared at it for too long; it was too bright, too clear, compared to the gray skies with which she had grown up. The man who had sat across from her until St. Louis said the sky was not always this blue, that she should take it while she could get it before the snows started. Marta had smiled politely and nodded, not trusting enough to her English to want to reply.
Now she turned her gaze from the passing fields to her hands, clasped tightly in her lap, and made a conscious effort to loosen her fingers. Her dress was wrinkled and grimy already from days of continuous travel; there was no need to make it worse by worrying the fabric unnecessarily.
The clacking of the wheels against the tracks sounded against her skull like a constant measure of time, like someone counting down the seconds of her life. Counting down the seconds of her old life, counting down the seconds to her new one. Clackety-clack. Clackety-clack. Clackety-clack. Over and over and over again. The sound had become such a constant in her life that Marta felt as though she would never be rid of it.
It took her a moment to realize that the man who collected the tickets - he was called a conductor, she must remember these things - had paused beside her seat and was clearing his throat. She lifted her head and looked up at him inquiringly.
"We're comin' up on Ransom Springs, miss," he said, "which if I'm recallin' correctly is the stop you'll be wantin'."
She nodded and smiled without parting her lips. The man hesitated and then said, pointing to her trunk, "You understand, miss? This is where you get off."
"Yes," she said. "Ransom Springs. I get off."
He smiled with some relief and went on his way, having fulfilled his duty to the strange foreign passenger. Marta, for her part, was simply curious to see what sort of place Ransom Springs would be. She had not liked St. Louis at all, having been forced to spend the night there while waiting for her next train, and sincerely hoped that Ransom Springs would be nothing like the big city. From what she understood of this country, St. Louis was a much larger place than most anywhere else she was likely to be, especially this far west.
The clattering of the wheels was beginning to slow, a sign that Marta recognized as meaning that they must be approaching a station. Sure enough, a few minutes later, as the train slowed even more, she heard the whistle blow, and, if she had craned her head to see out the window, she would have seen the thick plume of smoke flying back over the top of the carriage. When she had first begun her journey, she had been fascinated with every aspect of the train, with its movement, with watching the world passing outside. Now, after over a week of near-constant travel, the wonder had worn off, replaced by the constant feel of ash in her eyelashes and grit in her hair, the knowledge that her skin was a shade or two darker than it had been when she had departed, and that if she smiled in a mirror she would see fine black powder caught in the crevices between her teeth. There was no escaping the dirt on the train.
With a shudder, the train ground to a halt and Marta peered through the grimy window for her first glimpse of Ransom Springs. The station was small, but neat enough, though she was slightly concerned as she could see no one waiting on the platform.
The conductor opened the door at the end of the car and leaned in. "Miss?" he called.
She nodded at him and slowly stood, patting her hair into some semblance of order and settling her hat onto her head. She wished she had some way of freshening up before getting off, but there was no way to do so, and there was nothing for it but to pretend that it did not matter that she looked like a beggar. As she took a step forward she grimaced, for the floor was sticky with the dirt and spit and bits of food that had accumulated over god knew how many journeys back and forth across the country, and the bottoms of her plain shoes felt as though they wanted to stay adhered to that floor forever. But at last she pulled free and stepped into the aisle. A little black boy came running up to pull her trunk from overhead and carry it out onto the platform for her, where he waited until she stepped off the train before holding out his hand and giving her a gap-toothed grin. It took her a moment before she remembered, and another moment before she could find a coin buried deep in the folds of her purse, one of the few remaining to her (not that she had left home with many in the first place). The boy flipped the coin in the air, tipped his hat to her, and swung back onto the train as it began to move laboriously out of the station.
Marta stood uncomfortably on the platform, clutching her valise close to her skirts, her trunk at her feet. Aside from an elderly man sweeping refuse, there was no one else on the platform. Uncertain, she left her trunk and crossed to the interior of the station, where a younger man leaned against the counter, reading a newspaper. She went to him and waited; when he failed to notice her, she finally tapped the back of the paper.
He put the paper down, looking irritated until he saw Marta's face. "What can I do you for?"
"I am wondering," she said, "Mr. Raymond Geelbert, ees he here?"
"I ain't seen Gil in weeks," the man replied. "Who's askin'?"
Marta folded her hands over the handle of her valise. "I am Marta Berge. Mr. Geelbert say he will be here when I come."
"Fred Nelson," he said, sticking out a hand. Marta looked at it for a moment, and then carefully put her hand in his. "Why you here t'see Gil?"
She tilted her head. "Geel is Mr. Geelbert?"
Fred folded his newspaper and leaned forward on the counter. "Oh, sure," he said. "Everybody calls him that. What's your business with him?"
"I not think Mr. - Geel - want me to discuss matter," she said.
The sound of hooves and the clatter of wagon wheels outside cut short any reply Fred might have thought of making. He banged his hand down on the counter, making Marta jump, and said instead,
"Betcha that'll be Gil, then. Can tell from the squeak on that ol' wagon of his. Oughter get the damn thing fixed."
"I am hoping it ees. I am pleased to meet you," Marta added, with a polite smile to Fred, before turning and walking stiffly back out onto the platform.
She was not entirely certain what she was expecting, but the young man tying up his horses to the hitching post was a pleasant surprise. Some of her time on the train had been spent in an attempt to reconcile herself to the fact that Raymond Gilbert likely had a squint, or hunched shoulders, or perhaps some sort of disfiguring scars left behind from a bout of chicken pox as a child. The man who straightened up and turned to face her, though he would hardly qualify as the most handsome man in the state, was certainly pleasing enough to the eye - he lacked any hint of a squint, his shoulders suggested he worked for a living, and if he had a few faint scars along his right temple, well, no man was perfect.