“They all say that,” Andrew said quietly. His brothers Charles and Ralph were nodding as I stepped into the circle of light from their cook fire and wagon lanterns. Not one person noticed me. This was a serious talk. I stood close to one of the wagons and listened.
Mr. Kyler shrugged. “So do the guidebooks. It's true. We're almost ten days behind what we meant to be.”
“If you like him, Pa,” Andrew said, “I think we should go. Waiting is foolish if Annie can travel now.”
At that, everyone turned, and I followed their eyes. Annie was sitting next to Hiram on a blanket near a second campfire. She smiled, but she didn't speak.
Mr. Kyler looked at his sons. “Andrew? Charles? Ralph? You think we should go?”
They all nodded. Mr. Kyler looked across the fire at his daughter and her husband. “Henry, you think we should?” His son-in-law nodded and murmured in agreement. Then he looked at Hiram.
“I can be ready,” Hiram said.“Katie has kept the stock in grand shape, and she's got the wagon packed.”
Mr. Kyler looked at his wife last. “Mary?”
She made a shooing motion with her hand. “I'm ready. Or nearly. We aren't the ones to ask. It's up to Annie.”
All the eyes went back to Annie, and she smiled again and nodded this time. Hiram rested one hand on her shoulder for an instant, and she looked up at him. Her skin was the color of the moon, still. I saw her leaning on Hiram's arm.
“Tomorrow, then,” Mr. Kyler said. “I'll go tell Mr. Teal he has seven more wagons.”
Andrew whooped, and a ragged cheer rose from the men. The whole Kyler family was celebrating the decision. I kept quiet, but I was as excited as anyone else. The sooner I got to Oregon, the sooner I could celebrate with my own family.
The little one makes sounds I cannot understand.
I know she needs me to stand close,and so I do. Sometimes
that is the only thing that can be doneâto make sure
that no one stands alone in the wind or the dark.
packed, repacked, checked everything in the wagon, and made sure the harness and ox yokes were stacked without tangles. I went to bed beneath our little wagon that night feeling better than I had since the night of the fire. Everything was going to be all right after all. Annie was doing better. She would have a hard time at first on the trail, I was sure. But her mother and her family would all take care of her. Hiram would tend her in the evenings. I would help any way I could.
I sighed and rolled over in my blankets. I was excited and scared and relievedâso many feelings were jostling inside me that I lay awake for a long time. Finally, the throbbing of the crickets put me to sleep.
“What?” I rolled over when Hiram said my name. I peered out from under the wagon, blinking, surprised to see him outlined against a grayish sky. The night had passed. The sun would be up in an hour.
“We're all ready,” I told him, yawning.
He was shaking his head. “Katie, get up and get dressed. I need you to come with me for a few minutes.”
He turned his back while I pulled my dress on over my camisole and found my shoes. I crawled out from under the wagon and glanced at the Mustang. He was awake, watching me, but his head was lowered, and the mares were still asleep.
“He'll be fine, Katie,” Hiram said.
Shivering a little in the morning chill, I followed Hiram as he walked toward the Kylers' camp. He walked fast.
“What's wrong?” I asked, running to catch up. Hiram didn't answer. He just pointed.
I looked past him. The campfire was barely burning. No one else was up and about yet, but Annie was sitting in a chair set beside her parents' wagon. Her hands were wrapped in balls of white cloth. She was slumped over until she saw us. Then she sat up straight and smiled at meâa soft, apologetic smile.
Hiram took my hand and led me forward. I could feel my heart beating inside my chest. Annie's face was tight with pain.
“Katie,” she began as soon as I was close,“I hope you will forgive me.” Her voice was almost a whisperâshe was trying not to wake anyone else this early.
She hesitated then. My mind raced ahead of her words. Maybe she and Hiram had decided to marry as soon as she was better, and she was about to explain that they had decided they didn't want to raise an orphan girl. Maybe Hiram had found some local boardinghouse woman who needed a girl to help out.
I was scaredâand I was angry. It was so mean to tell me at the last possible minute. “I won't stay here,” I whispered back, without meaning to speak at all. “You can't make me stay. I have worked hard and Iâ”
Hiram gestured at me to be quiet, and Annie's eyes widened.
“Even if you think someone is nice and wants to take me in, I won't stay here,” I went on. “I'm going west with you no matter what.”
Hiram cleared his throat. “Katie.”
I glanced up at him, and he shook his head slightly, his face full of unhappiness.
“It's not you who has to stay, Katie,” Annie said quietly. “It's me.” She held up her bandaged hands. “It hurts so much, Katie. I can't sleep, I can't eat or work; I can't help with
. I can't even wash myself or feed myself or...” She began to cry. Hiram stood closer to her then, stroking her hair as she wept.
“Her family will all stay behind with her,” Hiram said. He looked up at the gray sky, then back at me. “Unless I do.”
I let out a long breath, understanding why he had gotten me up, why the decision was last minute. They had probably been talking half the night with her brothers and her parents.
“And you want to stay with her,” I said, just so he wouldn't have to say it.
He smiled. “I do. I have asked Annie if she will marry me.”
Annie lifted her head and looked at me through her tears. “Katie, I am so sorry to make things harder for you. I know you want to go, but if you decide to stay with us, you are most welcome. Hiram thinks the world of you.”
“Thank you kindly,” I said, trying to gather my scattered thoughts.
“If you want to go,” Annie added,“my folks will see you safely to Oregon.” Her eyes were round with tears and pain, and she lifted her arm to wipe her face on her sleeve and winced in agony. It was such an awkward gesture, so clumsy because of her bandaged hands,that I was ashamed for being angry. She wanted to go west with her family. She couldn't.
Hiram was looking at me. “Annie didn't decide until about a half hour ago. It has been very hard for her. We woke you early to give you some time to think at least. To decide for yourself.”
I felt almost light-headed. The night was still and dark, and none of this felt quite real to me. “I need a little time alone,” I told them both. I dragged in a long breath and felt myself trembling. “Thank you both,” I managed. “Annie, you know I wish you and Hiram well.” I looked at him. “Hiram, I am so happy you are...” I trailed off because I had no idea how to say what I meant.
He smiled and finished for me. “In love. I am in love again.”
I nodded. Then I turned and made my way back to the wagon. I saw a few people peek out of the Kylers' wagons as I passed. I ran the last little way and saw the Mustang watching me, his head up and his eyes alert.
I slowed enough not to startle him, then walked closer to put my arms around his neck, pressing my face against his coat. He shook his mane, and it cascaded down, covering my face and my shoulder. I closed my eyes. I wanted to keep them closed, to never move, to hide forever.
For the longest time, I stood there, just leaning on the Mustang, wishing I could disappear and never have to decide anything ever again.
When I finally stepped back, I began to talk to the Mustang, explaining everything that had happened. “I want to go,” I finished. “But the Kylers all have their own families, and none of the girls like me. And I'll have to sleep in or near their wagons and see them all the time andâ”
The sound of someone softly clearing his throat made me whirl around. It was Hiram.
The sky was getting lighter. I could see the strain on his face. He was exhausted, and he wanted desperately to have things turn out as well as they could. He cared about me. He loved Annie, but he cared about me, too.
“Annie asked me to tell you that everyone just wants you to do what you feel is right,” he said.
“I want to go.” The words just came out of my mouth, and I knew they were true. I had to find my real family. I
to find them.
Hiram nodded. “Then you should. You can take most of the supplies. The Kylers will fit in the bacon and the rest.” He looked into my face. “Are you sure?”
The Mustang tossed his head, then rubbed his cheek on my shoulder. I tangled my fingers in his mane. I felt so lost. It wasn't like I was leaving my home again. I had no home, not in any real way. But I was leaving Hiram. Annie was right. He was a good man. But the only family I had was in Oregon, and I had to find them or my whole life would be like this... leaving places that weren't really home. The idea of never belonging anywhere terrified me.
“I'm going,” I said quietly. Then I cleared my throat and said it more clearly.
Hiram didn't answer for a moment. When he did, his voice was kind. “I'll tell them all. You need to get your things moved. Teal is starting to line up the wagons.”
“I'll make it quick,” I promised.
And I did. Hiram helped me. It took less than ten minutes to get my share of the foodstuffs to the Kylers' wagon. My blanket bundle fit beneath a pile of Mrs. Kyler's quilts. I washed my face and hands from our barrel of water, then led the mares over to Andrew. He was holding the stock, letting them mill in circles, grazing on the beaten grass of the clearing.
Hiram hitched up the oxen and moved the wagon over toward the line, but not too close. He found a spot beneath a cottonwood tree.
Two of Annie's brothers formed a chair by joining arms. Annie sat in it, an arm around each of their shoulders as they carried her across the grass to the little wagon. Andrew came behind, bringing her chair. Once she was seated comfortably where she could watch her family depart, Hiram and her brothers moved her things from the Kylers' wagon into Hiram's.
The camp buzzed like a kicked beehive as the Kylers prepared to leave. Mrs. Kyler ran to give Annie another quilt and began another long, tearful good-bye. Hannah, Ellen, and the rest took turns hugging her. Her brothers kept finding reasons to ask her something, to stand beside her and touch her hair. They were all afraid of the same thing, I knew. Few people undertook the risk of this journey twice. They might never see Annie again.
I stood near the Kylers' wagon, waiting, trying to stay out of the way. Then Hiram found me, and I walked the Mustang over to our little wagon for the last time. “I will be proud if Annie and I ever have a daughter as strong and brave as you are, Katie,” he said.
I tried not to cry. I hugged Hiram, and Annie tipped her head so I could kiss her on her cheek. “I promise to repay you one day for the provisions and everything else,” I told Hiram.
He took my hands in his and looked into my face. “Katie, you have given me back everything that ever mattered to me. You thawed my heart.” I stood very still and watched him step back to place his hand on Annie's shoulder.
“And I will always be grateful for that,” Annie whispered.
At that instant, the sun broke over the horizon, spreading yellow-gold light across the grass.
The Mustang nuzzled at my shoulder, and I squared my shoulders. “I have to go,” I told Hiram and Annie.
We all held back tears as they wished me well, then I led the Mustang back toward the wagons. He whinnied once, a shrill, piercing call. The mares answered him from where they stood in Andrew Kyler's herd of stock.
I followed the Kylers' wagons heading toward the line that was forming. The Mustang pranced along beside me, never pulling on the lead rope, but dancing sideways, then back, his neck arched. The ox teams plodded forward slowly, deliberately, as though they were alone in understanding what two thousand miles really meant.