Every day we traveled, the Mustang would get skittish at times. His head would go up, and he would scent the wind, and I could see a wildness come into his eyes. He would half rear and kick his heels, and I would hang on desperately, talking to him in as calm a voice as I could manage. On the sixth day a coyote startled us, running across the road. The Mustang reared and jerked the rope, and the blisters on my hands broke. It stung like fire, but after a few sore days, my palms hardened into calluses.
“You all right back there?” Hiram called out when he heard the Mustang's hoofbeats clatter.
“I'm fine,” I called back. I always told him that, even if it wasn't quite true. I didn't want him to decide that the Mustang was too much trouble, or get worried about me getting hurt.
“You sure you got a real good hold on that animal?” Hiram shouted back to me one warm afternoon. His voice broke hours of silence, and I was startled out of my thoughts.
“I do,” I answered.
“Can you hold him tight, you think?”
“I can,” I answered, my heart speeding up. “Why?”
He clucked at the team, then turned and spoke over his shoulder again. “We've got a pretty good creek to cross up ahead.”
I reached up to lay my hand on the Mustang's neck. Some horses hated to cross water. “You must have crossed lots of creeks and rivers back on your home range,” I whispered.
He lifted his head and flared his nostrils, and I wondered if he was just then scenting the water. I pressed the palm of my hand on his neck. If I couldn't get him across, what would Hiram do? What would
“You going to wade, Katie? Or sit on the wagon gate?” Hiram asked.
I didn't answer because I wasn't sure. I couldn't see around the wagon, and I didn't want to lead the Mustang to the side so that I could. He might bolt if the wagon wasn't squarely in front of us.
I tried to think. Would the Mustang try to pull free if I were bouncing along on the back of the wagon? He wasn't what anyone would call halter-brokeânot in any real way. He was following me because he liked me and because he was grateful to be out of the stall that had been his prison. He didn't imagine for one second that I was strong enough to hold him if he tried to bolt. Neither did I.
“He's used to me walking close,” I told Hiram. “How high is the water?”
“Never more than a foot or two along here,” he called back.“Been a wet winter down south, though, Barrett said. Folks headed to Independence might hit swollen creeks.”
I didn't want to think about that. The clip-clopping of the horses' hooves, the sunlight on the world of grass, Hiram talking about weather farther south, nothing seemed quite real to me except the creek just ahead. I touched the Mustang's neck again. His head was still high, his ears stiffly forward.
“I'll wade,” I called to Hiram.
“Fine with me,” he called back. “I'll get the team across first. You wait on this side until I can get down to help if you need it.”
As he said it, the road began to slope downward. I eased the Mustang a little by slowing my own pace. The wagon rolled on ahead of us, the gap widening gradually. As the sound of the wheels grinding against the gritty road lessened, I could hear the creek.
The Mustang lifted his head and tossed his mane. He nickered, and I patted his neck, talking to him. Then one of the wagon team mares whinnied, and I realized something. The Mustang did like me, and he did trust me. But he was following the horses.
“Slow up!” I shouted to Hiram.
He reined in and turned around on the driver's bench.
“It scares him to get separated from the mares.”
Hiram nodded. “He's used to a herd.”
The Mustang tossed his head so high that it pulled me off my feet for an instant. “I think I should sit on the wagon gate, after all, Hiram.”
“I'll hold 'em still,” he promised.
I loosened the lead rope and quickened my step until we were right behind the wagon again. I scrambled over the wagon gate and braced myself. “Start slow, please.”
“You shout, we'll stop,” Hiram said.
I held the lead rope as tightly as I could. The Mustang came forward at the first tug, and he kept up as the wagon rolled toward the creek. I let out a little slack when I heard the team wading in so the Mustang would be able to lower his head and pick his way.
At the water's edge he balked, and my arms were jerked out straight. Then he crow-hopped forward, catching up in one leap. I heard Hiram say something, but I couldn't understand him over the splashing.
“We're fine!” I called, figuring that was what he wanted to know. And we were fine. The Mustang wasn't a bit scared of the water, I could tell. He followed the wagon up the far bank without pulling the rope even once more.
“Maybe this'll work after all,” Hiram called back to me. “I had my doubts.”
I scrambled down from the wagon gate and reached out to pat the Mustang's forehead. The sun was bright overhead, and the day was silent except for the wagon wheels and the sound of the wind in the grass. It was strange to be so scared and so happy, all at once.
I did not mind walking with the small one holding
the rope. I knew I could pull it free if I needed to. But
I didn't. She never led me into danger.
few days later, we saw other people on the road ahead of us. They had oxen, and we passed them about noon.
The men touched their hats, and I saw a girl about my age peeking out of the wagon bed. I waved at her, but she ducked back down like I had shouted something mean at her. I wondered why.
“Maybe they're Mormon folks,” Hiram said.
I took long steps to catch up. The Mustang stayed beside me. “Why would that make her so shy and scaredy?”
“There's been some kind of trouble. I don't know what it's all about, but they're mostly leaving the United States and going westward across the great desert, from what I've heard. No one seems to know where they are headed.”
“What's Mormon mean?” I asked this time.
“It's their religion. People say some of them were shot over it back in Illinois or somewhere. They want to get away far enough to live in peace and build their own church, I expect.”
“They don't look any different than the Methodists back home,” I said.
I scuffed a foot in the dust. “You know what I mean.”
He nodded. “I do. People all want the sameâenough to eat, their families safe, their faith and their opinions respected. I was raised a Presbyterian.”
I stared at him. I had never known a Presbyterian. Or a Mormon. It was clear that the world was full of people and things I knew nothing about. It scared me a little, to think that.
Hiram looked at me sidelong and smiled. “I am glad, so far, that I decided to leave. You?”
I smiled back at him. “Oh, yes. I hated Mr. and Mrs....” I trailed off because it sounded too disrespectful. It was the kind of thing my own father would have punished me for.
“I apologize,” I said.
He didn't answer. He looked straight ahead at the road for a while. The Mustang tugged at his lead rope, and I turned to pat his neck and scratch his jaw beneath the halter.
“I didn't like them either,” Hiram said quietly. “But they fed you, and they paid me fair and let me use the shed. I had nowhere else.”
I pulled gently at the Mustang's forelock, and he tossed his head. “I didn't either.”
“So we should just be grateful,” he said.
I nodded. “But we are glad we left,” I said, hoping it would make him smile. It did.
“We are,” he agreed. He gestured at the Mustang. “So is he.”
I patted the Mustang's neck. “He surely is.”
Hiram glanced at me. “I wish he could talk. Then he could tell us about the country we'll be crossing.”
The Mustang tossed his head to drive off a biting fly. It looked like he was nodding. I grinned, and Hiram laughed.
I dropped back and looked into the wagon bed as we walked. Hiram had brought two iron pots and a coffee pan. He had ten tins of biscuits and some salt pork, as well as twenty pounds of beans and some oats. He had bought a box of last year's apples from Mr. Svensenâa neighbor who had planted ten apple trees not far from my parents' old place. The root-cellar apples were nearly gone, and the biscuits were thinning out fast.
He looked back and saw me looking at the food stores.
“We'll buy more as we go along,” he told me. “I saved up most of my wagesâdidn't cost me anything living in that pig shed and eating at Mrs. Stevens's table.”
The nights were still cold. Hiram loaned me one of his blankets the first night, and he told me to keep it. We formed habits as we went. I slept in the wagon bed, and he slept beneath it, with a folded tarp between him and the damp ground.
From the second night onward, Hiram hobbled the wagon team every night instead of tethering them. The mares were good at the crabbed, shortened stride the hobbles forced them to use. With the soft cotton rope loosely tying their front legs together, they could wander and graze; they just couldn't gallop.
At night, the Mustang was tethered on a long rope tied to an iron stake Hiram drove into the ground with a heavy mallet. The first few nights I had lain awake, worried and listening, but the Mustang tolerated the staking rope until it began to get lightâor until the mares wandered too far away. Then he snorted and paced in a circle until I woke.
Shivering out from beneath my blanket, I untied the tether line to walk him closer so he could graze with the mares. Then I'd lead him back to the stake, slowly, pausing for him to graze, and the mares would follow.
I wished the Mustang could be free to move around, too, but I was afraid to try hobbling him. I rarely tried to touch him anywhere but his head and his neck. When I did, he shied away from me. I was certain he wouldn't let me touch his legs, much less fasten rope hobbles around his pasterns.
One morning a whistle behind us made Hiram and me both turn. A group of heavy wagons was coming up behind us. Hiram pulled the team off the rutted road and reined them in. I followed, leading the Mustang.
“Better to let them go past,” Hiram said. “I don't want to push the mares to stay ahead of them.”
I watched the people approaching. The men were whipping up the horses, keeping them at a smart trot in spite of the heavy-looking wagons. They had twenty or so spare horses running loose, herded along by young men riding saddle mounts.
They looked like one family, all sandy-haired and dark-eyed. The girls were pretty. A few of them waved, and I waved back, wondering if we would see any of them at Council Bluff.
One of their wagons was the oddest-looking rig I had ever seen, shaped like a boat and made out of leather. I wanted to ask them about it, but no one paused to talkâthey were all walking fast to keep up with the wagons.
“How far is it to Oregon?” I asked Hiram once they had passed us.
“Over two thousand miles.”
I turned, astonished. “That far?”
“What will we do without more horses?” I asked him. “What if one goes lame or gets away from us?”
“I think we should use oxen,” he said as we got ourselves back onto the rutted road.
I began to think about all the things that could go wrong on a journey that longâor as best as I could imagine it. The wagon wasn't very big or anything near as stout as what Mr. Barrett had recommended. I was silent so long that Hiram began to whistle a tune, very softly, in time to the mares' hoofbeats. After a while had passed, he turned and looked at me. “People say there are animals for sale from people deciding at the last moment not to go, having to turn back, all kinds of reasons.”
I opened my mouth, meaning to tell him that I would work hard to earn my keep, but that wasn't what came out. What I said was this: “Two thousand miles?”
Hiram didn't answer. He just pulled his hat a little lower on his forehead and settled himself on the wagon seat.