Waltzing with Willa – Cat Cahill

THE WAGON JOLTED HARD over the rocky ground. Willa Rousseau clamped one hand to her hat and the other around the seat as bottles clinked from within the covered wagon bed. A slight wind, chillier than it had been the past several days, ruffled her skirts and threatened to take the hat from her head. Her father glanced toward the sky where a few gray clouds had gathered to the northwest. “Let’s hope this weather holds. It can’t be much farther now.” Willa nodded, and her thoughts turned to her favorite game—imagining the new town they were headed toward. Creede, Colorado. She liked the sound of the name. It had a hard, jagged quality, which seemed to fit the mountains that led up to it. It was a mining town, her father had said. Rough and tumble, but on the verge of becoming reasonably civilized. Willa hoped there might be a mercantile, or perhaps even a dress shop. Papa said she could purchase new clothing for Christmas, provided the show went well and they sold plenty of his elixirs and patent medicines. Willa had no doubt that they would.

After all, Dr. Rousseau’s Miraculous Medicines had done so well in the New Mexico Territory, they’d had to stop for a week just so Papa and Leroy Taunton could mix up some more of the various products they sold. With the weather having been unseasonably warm for early December, Papa had decided to take their wagons north into Colorado. Amos Sterling, the strongman that had traveled with them for years, had confided to her that he worried about traveling north into the mountains this time of year, yet he respected the doctor far too much to question his decision. But within the last couple of days, Willa had begun to worry Amos was right. The temperature had cooled considerably and gray clouds came and went. Willa prayed they would reach Creede before the snow arrived. Papa had bought runners for the wagons some time ago—else they would have been out of business for half the year—but even those couldn’t help if the snow was bad. After another couple of hours with those clouds looming and the temperature slowly dropping, they began to see homes, men on horseback, and a few wagons passing, whose occupants all stared at the medicine show wagons with unabashed curiosity. “Good afternoon!” Papa greeted each one with his friendly, booming voice.

“Come see us in Creede!” The people nodded, fascinated, as they always were. Willa smiled. Not only was her papa an excellent doctor, he had a knack for selling his medicines too. People never walked away from their show feeling as if they’d wasted their time. As they pulled into town, Willa drank in the sights with greedy eyes. It wasn’t completely unlike other towns they’d visited over the years, but something about Creede fed an empty place in her soul. The mountains surrounded most of the town, as if it were nestled in its mother’s arms. People— mostly men—hurried to and fro along the main street, and various businesses stood, inviting folks in from the cold. “So this is Creede,” Papa said as their wagon meandered down the road. He glanced around at the buildings and the people, his face framed by a neat salt-and-pepper beard and black bowler hat.

Willa had always thought him quite handsome, and judging from the way some of the ladies they’d met in various towns reacted to her father, she wasn’t wrong. They stopped in front of the marshal’s office, as was their custom in each new town. Papa said it was best to establish a good relationship with the law not only to ensure they would be allowed to operate, but also in case trouble arose. She held the lines as Papa went inside with Mr. Taunton. Two ladies passed, arm in arm, and looked at her curiously. Willa nodded to them and smiled, and hoped —not for the first time—she might make a friend or two while here. Wouldn’t it be something to remain in a place like this? She could wake up each morning in a bed that was her own, see the beautiful mountains out the window, and then, when she went outside, she’d greet people she knew. But as much as she desired a home of her own and friends with which to converse and visit, she would never leave Papa alone. He had Leroy and Amos, who were as close as family, but he depended upon Willa.

Who else would sell his medicines to customers? Who else could assist him with the show? But Christmas would be here soon. Willa could almost taste it in the cold air. Perhaps Papa would entertain the idea of at least staying until then. It wasn’t what Willa truly wanted, but it would at least be a nice taste of her fondest dream. She was still dreaming of a Christmas tree and holiday services in the little white church they’d passed on their way into town when Papa and Leroy emerged from the marshal’s office. “The marshal said we could set up in front of the empty lot near the livery,” Papa said as he took the lines from Willa. “He was a nice enough fellow. That bodes well, my daughter. I have a good feeling about this town. Plenty of miners here, all with various ailments that need curing!” He coughed, and then whistled as he drove the horses, and Willa smiled.

She hoped he was right. Not that she wished anyone to be sick or injured, but that her father’s skills with medicines would be appreciated. And maybe that they might make enough money for it to be profitable enough for them to remain through Christmas. That hope was so dear, she didn’t dare speak it out loud. Instead, she tucked it into her heart and promised herself that she’d smile even more at the crowds they might draw. And a crowd they drew, almost immediately after beginning to set up. Papa and Amos had only just opened the doors to the rear of the wagons when people began stopping. Leroy stood with his accordion near the small wooden tables they’d set up—and upon which Willa arranged the various elixirs and salves in a pleasing manner. The music drew even more curious folks, and by the time Papa had changed into his nicest suit and top hat, they had the most respectable-sized crowd they’d seen since they first stopped in the New Mexico Territory two months ago. Willa stepped back and clasped her hands to warm them, ready to hold up the bottles or hand them to her father.

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen!” Papa’s voice boomed across the crowd, his breath leaving clouds in the cold air. “I am Dr. George Rousseau. I hail from the great state of Missouri, and I have come here to you in Creede today to be of help to you and yours!” Willa smiled at the crowd. They were of all sorts—rough-looking miners, a few cowboys and other working men, a gentleman or two, and a few ladies. All eyes were on her father as he held up his hands to introduce Amos. “Please give your attention to Mr. Amos Sterling, the strongest man you’ll find in all of Colorado! Why, back a ways, he lifted an ox to free a man who’d been trapped underfoot. And even more impressive, back in Santa Fe, he lifted the corner of a house so a little girl could fetch a doll.” That sent murmurs throughout the crowd as Amos stood with his fists curled near Papa.

Willa scrunched up her forehead. She didn’t remember Amos lifting a house. He had cleared a large pile of stones in Santa Fe for a mother who’d feared her son had been buried under them—perhaps that was what Papa meant to say. He did that from time to time—mixing up facts with things that had never happened. When Willa had asked him about it, concerned his memory might be failing him, he’d brushed her off, saying it was the intention that mattered. She kept the smile on her face as Amos demonstrated feats of strength for the people, lifting the rear of one of the wagons and then one of the horses. Amos had told her before that he was glad he never had to speak when they set up to sell the medicines. He said the crowds made him nervous, and he was more than happy to leave the talking to her father and Leroy. He contributed to their team by showing off the strength that Dr. Rousseau’s Miracle Elixir had given him, by caring for the horses when they traveled, and by guarding the wagons at night in town.

The people in the crowd clapped as Amos set the horse down. Papa started speaking again, and eyes went to him, but Willa watched as Amos whispered into the horse’s ear, as he always did. He said the horses didn’t much care for people picking them up, so he felt the need to apologize each time. “Was Mr. Sterling born with this inhuman amount of strength?” Papa asked the crowd before immediately answering his own question. “No, he was not! In fact, Amos was born a sickly child. His illnesses impeded his growth, and as a man, he was but a weakling. He thought he might never have the strength of a normal, healthy man until one day—ladies and gentlemen! Until one day, he found my Miracle Elixir.” Willa handed her father a bottle of the medicine and watched the people before them. This was usually when she could begin to see who needed Papa’s medicines.

Their eyes would widen and their faces would fill with hope. It always made her happy to know they were helping people. She only wished they could stay and continue to help them, but as Papa always said, there were more people in other towns who needed them too. Papa went on to proclaim the benefits of his Miracle Elixir, and then Leroy showed off his shooting skills. Men hollered and ladies gasped when he struck various small targets, one after the other. Unlike Amos, Leroy enjoyed the attention. He swooped down in a bow and flashed the audience a broad smile. Papa liked to joke that one day Leroy would leave them to pursue a career on the stage. Papa then told the crowd about the poor eyesight and lack of coordination Leroy once possessed. But upon imbibing Dr.

Rousseau’s Miracle Elixir, Leroy was cured of his ailments. The crowd clapped and some looked at the medicines displayed on the table with interest. Soon, Willa would be selling the Miracle Elixir and Papa’s other patent medicines and salves to everyone who came to the table while Papa answered their questions. As Papa wrapped up his pitch, Willa smiled at the people. A few nodded at her, although most still had their attention focused on Papa. Her eyes stopped on a man near the edge of the crowd. Tall, dark-haired, and finely dressed, he frowned at her. Willa swallowed, her smile faltering. She immediately averted her gaze away from the man. But curiosity stole away her sense, and she found herself seeking him out again.

The man’s sharp blue eyes were still watching her, the disapproving look still upon his face. Willa placed a hand against her stomach, uncertain why it was so difficult suddenly to breathe. A split second later, and the man’s gaze had moved to her father. Willa drew in a deep breath, wondering if she might need some of Papa’s Vapors of Life to correct the lightheadedness that seemed to have come from nowhere. Papa finished with a flourish, and many in the crowd surged forward to the little table. Willa collected money from a lady in a dress so blue it reminded her of the disapproving gentleman’s eyes. She glanced up to where he’d stood—but he was nowhere to be seen. Willa turned back to the people before her, smiling and taking money. Yet she couldn’t seem to shake the strange disappointment she felt that the curious man wasn’t among her customers.

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