Lottie walked beside the wagon, its clanging pots and pans a constant grating serenade as she marched through the desert. The dirt was red and peppered with short, bushy plants for miles. Dust was constantly being kicked up by the oxen, and only the occasional rocky hill broke up the skyline. Twenty wagons followed their own, all pulled through the desert by four oxen each.
“Why can’t we ride in the wagon? My feet are so tired!” Her friend Ethel moaned. Ethel’s hair was brown and she wore a yellow dress. Lottie’s long red braids stretched down to the small of her back and she wore a purple dress and white apron. She had a length of straw in her hand, and was shaping it into a doll. When she finished, she handed it to a little girl walking behind her.
“Thank you!” Said the little girl, pulling the doll to her chest. The girl smiled, and Lottie smiled back. Lottie turned to Ethel.
“It’s too bumpy. Besides, do you want to be closer to the noise? How much longer until we reach water?” Julian rode up on his tall brown horse that had a white diamond shape on its forehead. Julian wore overalls and a straw hat, his shaggy brown hair stopping at his earlobes. He grinned upon seeing Lottie.
“Hello Lottie, Ethel,” He tipped his hat. “It shouldn’t be much farther until we make camp.” He looked at the sun. “It’s about 5 o’ clock, we’ll need to stop and rest soon. But first we have to find a stream. I followed the fur traders here before, it’s close by.” Lottie smiled.
“Thank you Julian.”
“Do you want to ride with me?” He said quickly.
“Oh Julian, are you sure you don’t just want an excuse for me to wrap my arms around you?” Lottie said curiously. Julian turned crimson.
“I-It’s not like that! I just was worried you were getting tired, that’s all. Not that it would be a bad thing if you held onto me…” Julian’s expression of embarrassment and fear was palpable. Lottie smiled.
“I wouldn’t mind.” Julian shakily extended his hand to Lottie, pulling her behind him on his horse. She wrapped her arms around his waist. Ethel smiled at them. Dorothy, Lottie’s mom, walked alongside Ethel.
“Ethel, that boy’s getting a little too friendly with my daughter.” She cocked her gun. “There’s no way I’m letting her marry a farmer’s son. Surely she could be with a blacksmith or a doctor.” Dorothy’s long, dark brown hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail at the top of her head. The soft ribbon keeping it together was in stark contrast to the hardened look in her eyes and the cold steel of the weapon perpetually in her hands. Ethel smiled nervously.
“Lottie’s lucky to have a mother to dote on her the way you do. But Ms. Rosenberg, be careful with that thing, there have been enough rifle accidents on this trip already without you going after Julian.”
“Yeah, I’ve watched some people’s rifles burst when they fired, and I saw Eli accidentally shoot himself in the foot. But this rifle’s never let me down.” Ethel tried to formulate a kind way to frame her discomfort, but suddenly, howling could be heard in the distance.
“Help! Coyote!” Dorothy’s head spun around like an owl.
“I’ve got it!” She dashed into the crowd, leaving Ethel with a bewildered expression as gunfire rang through the desert. Meanwhile, Lottie and Julian were galloping closer to the front of the wagon train.
“So, I’ve seen you make a lot of straw dolls on this trip; you’re getting quite good at it. I bet you can sell them in a shop when we get to California.” Julian said. Lottie blushed.
“You flatter me Julian; I bet we’ll be too busy working the land when we get to California, there won’t be much time to let the children play, hence less need for my handiwork.” Lottie looked sad for a moment. Julian shook his head.
“Someday we’ll be settled enough that we can have fun again. I’ll have my own farm-after we build one-and we can raise sheep and cute little chicks, and…not that I’m implying you’d be on the farm with me…unless you wanted to be.”
“Julian, are you proposing to me? That’s so cute.” Julian blushed and turned his head to look at Lottie.
“I-I.” He stuttered, but he only succeeded in sliding off the saddle, with Lottie grabbing him by the elbow to steady him. Lottie giggled and untangled him, her hand resting on his. His face turned as red as a tomato. But then gasps and shouts came from the front of the wagon, distracting them. Lottie and Julian road towards the commotion.
“What is it?” Lottie said.
“I don’t know.” Julian replied. Once they were at the front of the wagon train, they realized all the oxen had halted. Harland was there, scratching his head.
“This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. And trust me, I think those buffalo look pretty weird. They’re like puffy goats. Just so freaky.” He turned to stare at a crowd of buffalo in the distance; they were chewing weeds and grunting at each other, sending a shiver though Harland. He faced the settlers.
“But after hours of desert and clumps of grass; this is pretty jarring.” There was a clearing of red dirt, a few scattered bushes, and in the middle of their path lay an enormous magenta flower, nearly tulip-like, but with no stem; its petals seeming to rise from the dirt instead. It was as tall as a horse.
“I’ve never seen a flower that huge. It’s like a tulip bud.” Lottie said. Julian arched an eyebrow.
“Well, it’s very strange, but just about everything out West is strange to us. Maybe huge flowers are normal here?” Harland nodded.
“Yeah, that seems like a likely explanation. We might as well ignore it, the oxen are about ready to collapse, so we can’t go much further. Plus, the stream is right there.” He pointed to a thick, rapidly moving river not far off. “This seems to be the right place to make camp.” Lottie walked up to Harland.
“Dad, are you sure we shouldn’t camp a little further downstream? Stopping in front of a plant we don’t know much about seems a little careless.” As if to emphasize Harland’s point, the oxen in his team collapsed.
“Well, the oxen don’t agree.” Harland said. “All right everyone,” He bellowed to the crowd. “This is where we’ll stop for the night.” So the settlers guided their oxen into a circle and the wagons followed. The large flower was right in the middle. Lottie sighed.
“A little close to the unknown flower aren’t we dad?” Harland shrugged.
“Oh well, I’m sure tired of staring at the same desert bushes for hours, aren’t you? We might as well savor the sight, even if it is weird.” Slowly the pioneers were able to ignore the flower. Lottie and Ethel sat around the fire and shucked corn for dinner. Ethel tore the stalks off the corn with more force than necessary.
“Oh great. Corn again, just like for breakfast, and lunch, and the breakfast and lunch before that.” Lottie shrugged.
“At least we’re by a river.” They heard quick footsteps as Julian approached.
“Look what I found!” Julian thrust his hands into his pockets and pulled out a handful of blackberries. He handed them to Lottie and Ethel. “I’m going to go get some more.” He dashed back behind the wagon circle.
“That’s great!” Lottie said, projecting so Julian could hear her as he excitedly picked more berries. Lottie smiled, “See Ethel,” She gestured to the berries “Something to be happy about!” Ethel scowled. Lottie’s smile dissolved.
“What’s the matter Ethel?” Ethel looked away, staring intently at her feet.
“It’s that sound...I can’t stand it after...what happened.” Lottie looked around for a source of noise; the buffalo grunting, the clanging of pans and the sizzling of the corn in them, people’s hushed conversations and horses snorting, but she couldn’t pinpoint what was upsetting Ethel.
“What do you mean?” She said cautiously. Ethel glared at her.
“My dad and brother were swept away the last time we tried to cross a big river. Guess what we’ll have to try again tomorrow? And there’s no escaping it, this is the only path that’s not blocked by boulders!” She pointed shakily to the stream gurgling in the distance. “There’s nothing to be happy about! This whole trip is a disaster! How could we have thought getting a fresh start at life and having more space to live were things worth sacrificing lives for?” Ethel had become louder and angrier with each word. Lottie put down her berries and leaned over, wrapping Ethel in a hug. Ethel glared at first, but after a moment of being held, her expression softened and she hugged Lottie back.
“I’m sorry for being so insensitive.” Lottie said, “I still have my family with me, and the accident happened so many months ago that I’ve gotten callous about it. I forget how much pain you must be in.” Ethel shrugged, and lightly pulled away from Lottie’s grasp.
“I might not have them with me, but they really believed in coming here, that it would give us a better life. At least they died fighting for something they really wanted. But it just hurts sometimes, not having a family.” Lottie put her hands on Ethel’s shoulders.
“That won’t do! You know what Ethel? From now on, you’re officially my sister. So don’t say that you have no family.” Ethel formed a small smile.
“Really? Then I shall call you sister.” Lottie hugged Ethel. Just then, Julian returned with a basket full of blackberries.
“Look at all these blackberries!” He sat down and started eating them. “Hey, is that flower more opened up than when I last saw it?” Julian asked. Lottie stared at it.
“It looks like it. It must bloom at night, like the opposite of a daylily.” As they stared at it, the flower slowly unfolded. Once it did, it began to release a spray of seeds, ones that pelted onto everyone around the fire. Lottie shrieked in surprise, and a seed landed upon her wrist and sprouted vines that wrapped around it like a bracelet. More than half the pioneers had amassed by the flower at this point, curious about the screaming, but after a few moments it stopped. People rose up and brushed the seeds off their clothes and out of their hair, though many possessed seeds that had sprouted and entangled around their wrist like Lottie’s.
“What was that?” Harland arrived at the camp as the commotion had subsided. Dorothy arrived moments later, with a bird corpse in one hand and her rifle in the other.
“Lottie, are you all right?” Lottie was brushing seeds out of her hair with Ethel and Julian making similar motions. But she couldn’t pull off the seed that was wrapped around her arm. Lottie shrugged.
“I think so. That flower just opened up and released seeds everywhere, almost like dandelions do.” Harland sighed.
“It was a mistake to camp by that flower. Let’s just burn it and go to sleep, all right?” Several people nodded. Harland lit a match and set the flower afire. Lottie walked towards the stream, then turned and held out her hand.
“Aren’t you coming, sister?” Ethel smiled and nodded emphatically. “Yes, sister.” She took Lottie’s hand and they went to the river with several other settlers. Lottie washed her hands and her apron, until it was white instead of beige. Ethel did the same. Ethel looked at Lottie.
“That flower was really weird. Do you think those things are normal out West? I mean, most of what we’ve seen have been little bushes, but maybe flowers like that happen every few miles?” Lottie shrugged.
“I don’t know. I wish I did. But at least dad’s burning it, so we don’t have to worry about it doing anything weird like that again.” Lottie ran the seed on her arm through the water, but it wouldn’t come off. Ethel combed her wet hair with her fingers and looked across the river.
“The river crossing’s tomorrow.” She buried her face against her knees. “I don’t want to think about it.” Lottie put her arm around Ethel.
“It’s okay. I’ll protect you. Now come on, it’s time for bed, worry in the morning.” Lottie led Ethel to their wagon, with Ethel falling asleep right away. The inside of the wagon was too dark to see much, but she was pretty sure she was laying her head on a pile of horseshoes. Lottie got up and raised up her hand towards the opening of the wagon and the starlight, inspecting the seed and vines still attached to it. As she thought of the flower that was just brunt down, a flower sprouted from her own hand. She yelped and held the hand away from her face, as though to escape from it. She peered through a mostly closed eyelid at the growth. A green stem with yellow, bell-shaped flowers grew from the seed stuck to her wrist. She waved it around, but it stayed with her. She leaped out of the wagon and raced towards Silas, who was the local doctor. A woman with her own flower growing from her hand was agitatedly talking to him.
“You don’t think I’m dying do you? Is this a symptom of dysentery?” She gasped, “Cholera?” Soon a large clump of people gathered around Silas, half the settlers, in fact. Lottie noticed Julian was pulling at the stem of a chicory flower growing from his hand.
“Please calm down.” Silas yelled. “I will look at each of you.” The crowd was loud.
“There’s a flower growing out of my arm, what if it’s an infection? I can’t work if I need to have it amputated! I’m a farmer!” A man shouted.
“What if it spreads? Do you think we’ll be consumed by flowers?” Ethel had awoken and poked her head out of the wagon, waving the silver cup flower growing from her hand. Lottie felt a slight jolt of relief that she wasn’t the only one with a flower growing on her. Several settlers looked around anxiously. Silas scratched his head.
“Everyone take a deep breath and relax, are any of you in pain from the flower? Are you experiencing any symptoms in addition to the flower, like a fever or sore throat?” Lottie and the others shook their heads. Silas breathed a sigh of relief.
“Chances are, it could be a superficial growth. Then it only needs to be removed.” Lottie looked away from the doctor and stared at the charred remains of the giant tulip. Looking above the remains, she saw a boy with blue hair in the distance and what appeared to be short branches sticking out of his back like wings. She started walking towards him and he bolted. She chased after him. Weeks of walking alongside the wagon had tired Lottie, so she knew she had to grab him before her energy ran out. The landscape was made up of dusty ground and thorny brush with the wide, starry sky melting into a yellow sunrise and stretching out for miles uninterrupted above them. She tripped over a thorny bush that caught onto the hem of her dress like skeleton fingers, but she tore the thin fabric a bit to dislodge the branch quickly, and dashed after the boy. He was sliding down a short incline in the dirt when Lottie tackled him.
“Who are you?” She said, breathing hard. “And what do you have to do with that flower?” Since he was facedown, Lottie only heard incoherent mumbling until she moved off him, but she grabbed his arm to keep him in place. Once he caught his breath, he said, “You’re quite rude.” She glared.
“What was with that flower? You showed up when it did, how are you connected to it?” The boy sighed.
“Fine, I planted the flower and infused it with my magic so that it’d launch all those seeds. You should be happy I gave you and your human friends a great gift.” Lottie’s eyes narrowed.
“What kind of gift?” The boy motioned towards Lottie’s arm where the flower grew.
“You can control that flower now, and grow new ones in its place; the seed gives you dryad magic as long as it’s attached to you.” Lottie inspected the flower on her wrist. She tried to pull it off, but another sprouted in its place immediately.
“Ah!” She screamed. The boy smiled.
“You’ll be able to control it in no time. You’re part dryad now.” Lottie looked at the boy like he was crazy.
“Who are you? And what’s a dryad? And why would you do this to us?” The boy sat up in the dirt and Lottie sat across from him, her arms wrapped around her legs and expression guarded.
“I am Vari. I’ve lived in the desert for a few weeks now on a mission to increase dryadkind’s presence around humans. We mostly grow from trees in forested areas, but if I use the Gigaflora-you know, the big flower-I can give humans dryad plant manipulation abilities. In a way, it makes you into dryads and expands our population. You see most dryads are a part of trees, so we can’t move around much, but you humans can. We can shift into human form for a short while, but we always go back to being trees. You humans can move around more. In fact, I’m shocked you finally showed up. I’ve been spying on your wagon train for weeks, and I knew you’d have to come down this path eventually because there’s a river here, the only one for a while. So I planted the Gigaflora, and as luck would have it, you all parked your wagons right where I hoped you would!” Lottie stared at the boy in confusion for a moment.
“And you need us to be dryads, why?” Vari shrugged.
“Humans cut down a lot of dryads thinking they were trees, to make boats and wagons and houses. And while some dryads can sprout out of their tree like I did, not all of them can. With our population threatened, I figured the only way to preserve our kind was to make you into us.” Vari looked lost in thought for a moment. “Unless of course, you start cutting down each other.” Lottie sighed.
“So you thought it was logical to turn a bunch of random passerby into dryads-people who would have no idea what was happening to them or why-just because lots of humans cut down trees lately?” Vari nodded.
“Continuing the dryad legacy is important to me. You should be thankful-now you can manipulate flowers.” Lottie looked at the flower growing out of her hand in distaste. It didn’t hurt, but the sight of it made her uncomfortable.
“I can’t believe anyone would see this as a good thing!” She shouted, lashing out her hand, trying to detach the flower from her wrist, but instead it extended like a whip and struck Vari in the face. Lottie rose quickly and pressed her sleeve against the bleeding cut.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.” She said, baffled more than anything. Vari smirked.
“No, I surely deserved it, I should have explained my methods to all of you first. But I thank you for participating in my plan.” Lottie pulled away from Vari.
“You mean unwillingly getting tricked by a mythical creature? I didn’t ask for that.” Vari cringed.
“Sorry. We dryads are fae, and fae are well known for toying with humans, it’s in our nature. But I’ve perhaps gone too far. Although I admire your determination, running after me like that.” Lottie blushed.
“You’re toying with my emotions now too, complimenting me, thinking I’ll just let you go.” Lottie clasped Vari’s arm again. “But I’m not that easily swayed; you’re coming back to the wagon train with me to answer for your crime!” Vari laughed.
“How would you classify my crime? Making you all stronger and more capable?” Lottie kept dragging Vari, trying to get him to come with her.
“The crime of changing us without our permission!” Vari rolled his eyes.
“You put horse shoes on horses and that changes them without their permission.” Lottie glared.
“That’s fine, they’re animals, and horses need the horseshoe for traction and to keep their hooves from wearing down.” Vari casually put his arm around Lottie’s shoulders.
“To the fae, humans are like horses-pretty, useful creatures, but we use them as we see fit. You’re part fae now, so you should feel free to use humans too.” Lottie glared at Vari.
“I’m not going to use anybody.” Vari shrugged.
“Except the horses and oxen who came with you on your journey and carry you and your heavy stuff.” Lottie tried to pull Vari with her, but he released a flowery vine from his hand that wrapped her up and she fell to the ground. Vari walked away as Lottie tried to disentangle herself, but by the time she had, he was gone. Fuming, Lottie returned to the wagon train.
Back at camp, many folks were trying to remove the flower attached to them. Ethel was crouched next to a wagon, hand propped up on a crate, sawing the flower stem off with a paring knife. She flinched when she cut it off but it regrew instantly. Lottie walked up to her and grabbed the knife before she could try again.
“Ethel, if you just think about it going back into the seed on your wrist, it will, see?” Lottie showed off her own wrist, which was back to normal except for the seed still attached to it. She then looked over at the campfire centered in front of the giant flower, only to watch Julian singe the chicory flower growing from his hand in the flames. Lottie dashed over and grabbed his wrist, careful not to touch the flames, and lowered it into a horse’s watering trough. The horse snorted at her.
“Sorry.” She said quickly before peering at Julian’s minor burn. He squirmed in discomfort.
“I was just trying to get it to go away.” Julian grabbed her hand in his. “Hey, that flower’s not stuck to you.” Lottie nodded, walking away from Julian and standing on a wagon bench. She shouted over the commotion.
“Everyone, calm down! The flowers growing on us are revenge from a vindictive fae for cutting down trees, not witchcraft, or a disease!” Harland swept by and picked up Lottie, depositing her on the ground.
“Honey, that’s ridiculous.” But many settlers were looking towards Lottie now. She calmly explained all that Vari had told her. Harland sighed.
“It figures we’re all just dolls being controlled by some crazy entity. As if I didn’t feel powerless enough, what with all the storms and floods and wagon malfunctions we’ve had on this trip.” Harland sat on their wagon bench and Lottie patted him on the shoulder. Dorothy sat next to him and ruffled his hair.
“It’s just a flower growing out of her hand. She’s still my daughter.” Dorothy hugged Lottie without looking at her, but it was brief hug and her arm trembled ever so slightly, worrying Lottie. “Don’t you agree Harland?” Harland climbed into the wagon and leaned on top of one of the supply boxes.
“I don’t know about all this, it’s just too much.” Dorothy looked back to Lottie.
“He’ll come around.” She said, forcing a smile. Lottie did too, unsure if they would come to accept her. Julian walked up and took Lottie’s hand in his. He showed off his blue flower.
“Hey, don’t worry about it. We can both be weird flower-people together.” Lottie embraced Julian tightly.
“Thank you.” Once she let go, she looked over at Ethel, who was sitting on a wagon bench and shucking corn with more force than necessary. Lottie and Julian sat on either side of her.
“What’s wrong Ethel?” Lottie said. Ethel peered into the distance.
“Can’t you hear it? The river, it’s not far from here. We could all be swept away by it when we cross it today.” A haunted look came over her, and Lottie put her arm around Ethel.
“We’ll do everything we can to protect you Ethel.” Ethel shook her head.
“Mom and dad…didn’t have any protection before.” Lottie and Julian already knew this. Lottie had not seen it at the time; their wagon had been further across the stream than the one belonging to Ethel’s family. But when the current dipped into the wagon, it capsized, and Ethel had crawled out the other side just in time for Julian to reach in the wagon cover and pull Ethel out. Lottie had been surprised, seeing Ethel drenched and shivering, clinging to Julian. She remembered Ethel looking so small, like a child again, and it had been painful to watch. Lottie hugged Ethel, hoping her sympathy could be transmitted through the action, but feeling it was an empty gesture in the weight of what Ethel had suffered. Ethel pulled away after a moment.
“Dad was a blacksmith. He was so big and strong from all those years of hammering metal. But even he got swept away by the water. So what chance do I have?” Julian shook his head.
“Lottie and I won’t let anything happen to you.” Once Ethel had calmed down, Lottie went around their camp and explained to the settlers how to make the flowers disappear with their thoughts. After that, many settlers figured they had been cured and went about their daily tasks. Harland called to them;
“I’m going to prep the wagons now. If anyone wants to get out of here, I suggest they either help me or start packing up.” Everyone dispersed. After a while they had deconstructed their camp, attached the oxen to the wagons, and went to the river.
Lottie and Dorothy were both applying the wax to the wagon. Lottie looked around the riverbank; many of the oxen were laying down and several folks were tying their pots and pans to their wagon more tightly to keep them secure. By now they were only few feet away from the water and the ground was wet and clay-like where they were standing.
Lottie saw movement out of the corner of her eye and followed it. Julian noticed her leaving and went with her. Across the clay ground before them was a large rock and behind it, a tuft of blue hair.
“Oh, you think you’re so clever.” Lottie said, walking right over to the hair and pulling it upward, revealing Vari, who was holding his hands up in surrender.
“Okay, you found me. Let me go now.” He said playfully. Lottie didn’t release him. He struggled lightly to get away.
“Hello, part-human. I never did get your name, dear.” Vari said, smiling at Lottie. She released Vari and crossed her arms.
“My name’s Lottie, this is Julian.” Julian waved, but seemed to have lost his words upon seeing the branches sticking out of Vari’s back. Lottie shook him by the shoulder a little.
“Oh sorry.” Julian said. “We’re not going to grow branch wings at some point, are we?” Julian held onto Lottie’s arm for support, still surprised. Vari shook his head.
“No, the seeds would only grow on your arm or your hand, I designed them that way, so only they turn into flowerbeds. If you were normal dryads, you’d have a lot of leaves or flowers growing in your hair though. It’s kind of sad to see you two without it.” Julian whispered to Lottie.
“This guy’s crazy.” Lottie took Julian by the hand.
“So Vari, besides spying on us, what do you want?” Vari smiled.
“To impart valuable knowledge upon you of course. That little flower you can grow out of your hand, it’s not for hiding; it’s for using. Don’t cut it off like it’s a disease. It’s disgraceful.” Lottie shrugged.
“Use it for what?” Lottie said. Vari sighed.
“I don’t know, fighting? Staying alive? All you little humans were supposed to be the continuation of dryadkind, but you can’t even be grateful for what you have.” Vari’s branch wings extended further out of his back and propped him up like stilts, and he was able to pass through the desert much more quickly on them. Lottie raised an eyebrow, turning to Julian.
“So. That was Vari, the dryad who made us this way using that big flower. Weird, isn’t he?” Julian nodded. Noticing his grip, he pulled away from Lottie.
“Sorry.” Julian said. Lottie smiled.
“It’s okay if you’re scared Julian, you don’t have to hide it from me.” Julian nodded, embarrassed.
“But I don’t want to be afraid.” He said. “I want to be stronger, for you.” Lottie blushed, unsure how to respond. They walked back to the wagons.
“It seems our former attempts to calm Ethel must have been in vain.” Lottie said, looking at Ethel, who paced quickly and ran her hands through her hair nervously over and over again.
“Poor Ethel.” Julian said. By the time Ethel had worn a deep path in the soft dirt, Lottie put her hand gently against Ethel’s back and led her to the wagon.
“Okay Ethel, we’re just going to sit in the wagon. You don’t have to worry.” Lottie sat with Ethel on one side and Dorothy on the other, with Harland beside Dorothy. Harland gripped the oxen’s reins too tightly, his hands shaking. Lottie took her free hand and dug her nails into the wood bench under her, trying to feel sturdier against the solid wood. Lottie was shaking. Ethel was clearly falling apart, and Lottie didn’t know any magic words she could say to make her pain go away. Lottie’s dad hadn’t spoken to her since shortly after a flower grew out of her hand, and although her mother assured her she was okay with what had happened to her, Lottie didn’t believe her.
She felt alone with these three people next to her, the three people she was closest to. It suddenly felt hard to breathe, like the walls of the wagon would smother her. Arriving in California, starting a new life, these goals seemed so far away and empty to her now, and if Vari could manipulate them to this extent, what about other fae? And would they torment them in California too?
“Hey, Lottie.” Julian said, riding up on his horse. “I’ll see you on the other side, okay? Stay safe.” Lottie nodded faintly, her doubts cut in half at the thought of being with Julian and her family on the other side.
“See you there.” She said. The oxen walked forward, propelling them into the water.
“All right everyone! Go forward!” Harland shouted, and the wagons followed his. Of the twenty wagons in their train, five went in first, while the others waited on shore until there was more room to cross. When the bottom of the wagon touched the rapid water, all the pots and pans clanged loudly, even though they’d been tied down as tightly as possible, and Lottie could hear horses whinny and oxen grunt. Screams and yells were nearby, and wood split, but she was unsure if this indicated a wagon toppling over or lumber falling from a wagon. Lottie’s own wagon veered sharply to the right. Dorothy had one arm around Lottie and another clutching her gun. She was shaking even more than Lottie. The shock of this stopped Lottie’s own tremors.
“Mom, are you okay?” She shouted over the violent current. Dorothy looked away from her.
“W-water. I don’t like it, okay? I never got the hang of swimming.” Lottie looked into the rapid water with a sense of dread gnawing at the pit of her stomach. Some oxen from other wagons tried to turn back, away from the river, and Lottie could see many wagon contents spilling into the water; a plow, a bag of flower, and a basket all zipped past her. She heard several screams which were overshadowed by a horse’s whinny of fear and she poked her head out of the wagon cover, with Dorothy and Ethel clinging to her in attempts to keep her seated. The brown horse with a white diamond shape on its forehead swept past her in the water. Lottie screamed and looked into the current.
“Julian!” She said, seeking him out. She plunged her arms into the water, yet felt nothing but the harsh swells assaulting her. She looked over to see Julian clinging to a large sheet of wood that appeared to be the dismembered bottom of a wagon. All the air escaped her lungs at once as her heart clenched painfully. Holding out her hand as if she could catch him, a stream of morning gold flowers shot though the seed on her wrist and launched in Julian’s direction. Just as he was out of sight, Lottie felt a tug on the line and pulled, thankful the flowers were stronger than average ones and able to stay attached. She pulled as hard as she could, though the current thrust her out of the wagon, and Ethel leaped up and wrapped her arms around her waist to keep her steady.
“Ethel, pull!” Lottie begged, but neither of them were strong enough to stay in the wagon, and they were ripped from it, landing harshly in the cold water. Ethel and Lottie quickly wrapped their arms around one another to keep from separating, and they were dragged in Julian’s direction.
“My babies!” Dorothy yelled, still inside the wagon, but her voice was drowned out as water filled their ears. Lottie and Ethel were barely able to keep their heads above water, and their attempts to cling to the unforgivably slick riverbank proved useless, making Lottie’s movements more frantic. There were no trees to grasp onto, with the landscape being mostly short bushes and dirt for miles. Lottie had one arm around Ethel and a hand gripping her line to Julian, so Ethel used her free hand to produce a flowery vine to skim the riverbank for an anchor. Her vine clattered into the dry brush, ripping it from its roots effortlessly, but not finding purchase.
More and more water filled Lottie’s lungs as she fought for consciousness. It was then that Ethel’s flower snagged onto something, and she and Lottie were jerked backward, with Lottie barely able to keep clinging to Julian’s line, as slippery as it was. Ethel grabbed the flower stem and pulled forward as hard as she could, until they were tugged from the water, and they fell to the rocky surface, coughing and spitting until only air filled their lungs. Lottie looked up to see a bizarre sight, for Ethel had grasped onto a tree that had Vari’s face. Lottie nearly fell back into the river, though Ethel steadied her.
“Hi Lottie.” Vari-the-tree said, clasping Julian in one of his branches and dropping him beside them on the shore. Lottie collapsed, gasping for breath and relieved to see the three of them unharmed.
“What…what’s with this?” She finally said, gesturing to Vari’s tree body. He chuckled.
“Well, I figured you’d need something to grab onto, so I turned back into my tree form. Aren’t I regal-looking?” Lottie thought he was weird instead of terrifying, certainly not regal-but since he had saved her life, she agreed with him wholeheartedly.
“You look magnificent. Did you follow us all the way down this stream?” Vari waved his branches.
“You would not believe how fast I had to jump on my wing-stilts to follow you. But I can’t let my new dryads go to waste. It’s not that easy making a huge flower that can create dryad magic, that’s for sure. So I intend to keep as many of you safe as I can.” He looked to Ethel and Lottie’s hands, which still had flowers growing out of them, though they were lopsided and damp.
“And you both used your magic! I’m so proud of you!” The roots of Vari’s tree pulled into his legs and the branches into his arms until he looked more human than tree, and he threw his arms around Lottie and Ethel.
“Great job you two! Now let’s go find your family.” Lottie, Ethel and Julian exchanged a look of exhaustion as they traveled to rejoin their wagon train.
“Vari, I’m sorry I was mean to you before. Thank you for saving us. Is there any way I can repay you?” Lottie said. Vari laughed.
“Just embrace your dryad-ness.” Lottie nodded. Julian put his arm around her.
“Makes sense.” Vari waved goodbye to them and they walked all the way back to their wagon train. When Ethel and Vari had pulled them ashore, they were on the side of the river where most of the other settlers were still trying to cross it, and they hopped in a former neighbor’s wagon for another ride. They crossed the river and rejoined their families, with Julian going to his parents. Dorothy and Harland gave Lottie and Ethel a big hug.
“I thought I would never see you again!” Harland exclaimed. Lottie nodded. Harland looked seriously at Lottie.
“I don’t care what kind of magic powers you have, or how weird it is, I just know I never want to lose you like that again!” Lottie returned the hug. “Though I must know, how did you survive the river?” Lottie gestured to Ethel.
“We were rescued thanks to Ethel’s bravery and the bizarre luck of Vari following us around.” Harland raised an eyebrow.
“The dryad who gave you magic powers? That’s weird. Good job Ethel, I’m proud of you.” Harland said. Ethel beamed. Dorothy had her arms around Lottie and Ethel.
“I’ll never let you two go again. No matter what! I’ll be ever-vigilant!” Lottie patted her mom on the shoulder.
“You’re always vigilant mom, it’s not your fault.” Dorothy pulled away.
“Yes, but we lost travelers and oxen and so many supplies.” Harland reached into his pocket and pulled out the map.
“Well, that’s true, but according to this, it’s only a day’s travel to get to California. I think we can make it! And from there, we can work and trade for supplies.” Julian walked up to Lottie, holding her hand.
“So, are you okay Lottie? No broken bones?” Dorothy glared at their joined hands.
“Okay boy, you can let go now.” Julian released her hand and stepped away. But then Dorothy smiled. “You’d better be a good husband to her for the rest of your lives if you’re going to repay her for saving you.” Julian smiled.
“I wouldn’t let you down when it comes to Lottie!” And he picked her up and twirled her around, with Lottie giggling. Lottie wrapped her arms around him.
“Why Julian, are you going to carry me all the way to California?” Julian nodded.
“Well, you didn’t let me go in the river, so I’m not going to let you go.” Lottie kissed him. Instead of panicking, Julian smiled and held her close.
Ethel walked up beside them, and they separated, with Lottie taking Julian by the hand and holding Ethel’s in the other. Together they walked onward until they reach a forest where they would make their new homes.