One evening, we couldn't find a place to camp that was out of earshot of the other wagons. The Mustang jittered all night long. He tried to watch all the strangers, tried to hear every footstep, every voice, turning and shifting his weight, pawing at the ground. It scared me. If something startled him when he was that uneasy...
If he attacked anyone, someone
shoot him, and there would be little I could do about it. When other wagons were close, I stayed near him and warned people away if anyone tried to approach him. I stayed awake late enough to know that no one would come close to the maresâand I got up early enough to get him back on the lead rope before other camps were up and stirring.
I began to think that we should stay away from Council Bluff and anywhere else that was crowdedâmaybe we could set out alone and join a wagon train once we were away from the crowds.
I explained all that to Hiram one evening. “He's calmer than he was,” I said. “But maybe not calm enough to walk through a crowd.”
“Well, no one will ever mistake him for a farm horse,” Hiram answered.
I knew he was right. Other horses looked sleepy and lazy next to the Mustang. He was always alert, always listening and watching. I looked up at Hiram. “Do you think we could strike off a little to the north or to the south and miss the worst of the crowds?”
He was silent. I had expected him to agree. When he didn't, I just waited, unsure what else to say.
“How are we going to cross the Missouri?” Hiram asked finally. His voice was gentle. “The ferries operate where the crowds are.”
“Can't we find a ford like we did with the other rivers?”
He shook his head. “The Missouri is a mile or two wide, Katie.”
A river a mile or more wide? I pulled in a long breath. I had no answer for that.
The next morning it started raining, a cold miserable rain. Hiram and I wore our new woolen hatsâand they soaked through in an hour. The Mustang plodded along like a plow horse, and the mares walked with their muzzles nearly on the ground. Hiram and I barely spoke. I sat in the wagon by the gate, leading the Mustang along, my hands so cold that I kept fumbling the rope, almost dropping it more than once. I finally looped it around my wrist.
We came upon a slough that had standing water in it. Hiram reined in the mares. He got down out of the wagon and stood beside the swampy hollow.
Rain dripping off my nose, I blinked to squeeze the water out of my eyes and looked around. The rain had filled a long, shallow depression in the ground with water. I couldn't see the end of it in either direction.
Hiram set the brake and had me get down out of the wagon. “Get that rope off your wrist,” he scolded. “What if he bolted?”
I nodded, feeling foolish, my teeth chattering.
“Stay here,” Hiram said. “Keep the mares on the road. I'm going to walk that way and see if I can find the end of it.”
I was too shivery-chattery to answer, so I nodded again and watched him go. The Mustang stood quietly beside me, and I could feel warmth rising from his sodden coat. I put my hands beneath his mane and leaned close. He didn't seem to mind, and I was grateful. In a few minutes, my shivers had calmed a little.
“I wish we could just be somewhere warm and dry tonight,” I told the Mustang. He arched his neck and shook the water out of his mane. I stood close again, trying to keep warm.
He lifted his head sharply. I looked past him and saw a group of the big, arch-topped Conestoga wagons sliding and jolting down the track. They came slowly, the oxen picking their way through the muddy ruts. I kept hoping Hiram would turn around and come back before they got too near, but he didn't.
“You alone?” a man called out once they were in earshot.
I shook my head and pointed. “Mr. Weiss went that way, trying to find a route around the slough.”
The man reined in his horses and climbed down. His wagon had a rounded canvas top. It was a prairie schooner, I was sure. I had never seen one, but Mr. Barrett had described them clear enough.
“You need a canvas hat,” he said, walking toward me. I put myself between him and the Mustang.
“I'll have to get one before we start west,” I said. My teeth were chattering again, and I clamped them shut. I didn't want him to feel sorry for me.
“Here comes your pa,” he said, gesturing. I could just see a vague shape that had to be Hiram starting back toward me, stumbling and sliding in the deep mud.
“My guess is he didn't find a way around the slough, and I am inclined to take his word for it, even from here. Our wagons are heavier than yours anyway. I think we'll camp back there a ways until the rain stops at least.”
He pointed at the Mustang. “Where'd that horse come from? He some kind of special breed?”
The question caught me off guard. He stepped forward, and I positioned myself in front of him. “He's a Mustang,” I said. “He's pretty skittish still.”
“A Mustang? Really? This far east?”
“You don't want to sell him, do you?”
“No,” I said quickly.
The man smiled. “I'll ask your pa, but if that's how it is, I won't pester him. I can see you're attached to the animal. Tell him you're welcome to visit us and dry out for a while.”
“Thank you kindly, sir,” I said.
He turned and walked off, calling out for the others to get turned around and go back uphill to camp on higher ground. I counted. There were six wagons, six teams of eight oxenâand there were boys herding other stock out on the grass. I saw a milk cow and thought of Betsy. I hoped Mr. Stevens would sell her to the McCartys so she would have kind people to take care of her. She would love their little girls, especially if they brought her carrots from the garden.
I sighed, remembering the warmth of Mr. Stevens's barn. It took Hiram a long time to walk back. I stood shivering in the rain the whole time, watching the man and his party through the blurry curtain of the downpour as they set up their camp. There were children, all ages, I could see that much. I wanted more than anything to go up the hill and dry out beneath one of the tarps they were stringing up between the wagons. But I had to talk to Hiram and make sure of something first.
“Can't get around,” Hiram called when he got close. He gestured up the hill. “They friendly?”
“They invited us to join their camp and wait out the rain,” I said.
He wiped rain from his face and squinted at me. “That what you want to do?”
“Yes,” I told him,“but he thinks you're my pa, and he wants to know if the Mustang is for sale.”
Hiram grinned, rainwater running down his face across his teeth, it was raining that hard. “You told him not unless he wants to trade the whole state of Oregon?”
I didn't laugh. “I told him no, but he's going to ask you, too.”
“Because he thinks I'm your pa.”
Hiram wiped water off his face again. “You want him to think that?”
I hesitated. In a way, it'd be easier. The boys in Des Moines had assumed it. Probably just about everyone would. But it felt wrong. I had a pa, a wonderful, good pa. Just because the fever had taken him didn't mean I didn't have a pa.
“I'll tell him the horse stays with you, and you can think the rest of it through later, all right?” Hiram said. “They have tarps and tents it looks like, and covered wagons. Let's go visit long enough to get dry.”
The rain is cold. At least the mares are here to stand
beside. The little one and her companion seem even more
miserable than we are. Why do they not seek shelter?
Don't they know where the forests are? They must not.
The small one would take us if she knew.
e didn't even bother to hobble the mares. They were standing with their heads so low I knew they wouldn't even try to graze in the downpour. They barely moved when we got the harness off. The Mustang stood watch a little way off as always, peering into the rain to make sure no danger was near. None of them seemed to much notice our leaving.
Hiram and I walked up the hill, staying to the grass beside the road to avoid sliding into the rutsâsome were three feet deep, running with the rainwater like miniature rivers.
The man who had talked to me was Benton Kyler. He welcomed Hiram and me, then turned to a stout woman with the bluest eyes I had ever seen.
“Mary? We need hot coffee quick as anyone can get it. They're soaked through.”
“Hiram Weiss,” Hiram said, and put out his hand. Mr. Kyler shook it and led us to a tarp they'd strung up like an awning. The rainwater cascaded off the low end. There was an older man digging a trench to carry it away from the little shelter.
We came under the canvas. I was still cold and shivering, and my hair was soaked, but it was a pure delight to be out of the pouring rain. I blinked the rain out of my eyes and looked around. Everyone in the party was working at some chore.
Several young women were working to start a fire. They had made a little platform out of three flat rocks, and they were stacking kindling on them.
“You have any other clothes?” Mr. Kyler asked Hiram.
Hiram shrugged. “A few. Not enough to change just for being wet.” He looked at me. “We'll have to get a tent.”
Mr. Kyler was watching us closely. I could tell he was wondering what we were doing with no tent, no covered wagon, our belongings adding up to less than half a small wagonload.
“We have plenty enough to share breakfast with you if you will join us,” he said.
“I ought to tell you right off the horse is not for sale,” Hiram said in a mild voice. I knew what he was doing, honest man that he was. If Mr. Kyler's hospitality was aimed at getting the Mustang, Hiram didn't want to accept it.
“I thought as much,” Mr. Kyler said, “from your daughter's reaction.” He took off his hat and slapped it against his thigh. Rainwater spattered. “I intend to ranch horses in Oregon,” he added as he settled his hat. “If you decide to sell, I'd buy him.”
Hiram nodded and cast me a look. “It'd be her decision.”
Mr. Kyler raised his eyebrows.
Hiram shot me a second glance. Mr. Kyler was clearly surprised that Hiram didn't have final say over the Mustang. Hiram was wondering if we should set it straight about him not being my pa. If we were going to do it, now was the time.
I took a deep breath. “Hiram and I are traveling together because I'm an... because I'm... because I...” My voice stuck, and I couldn't force the word
out of my mouth. I had never said it before, aloud or in my thoughts, and it just lodged sideways and stuck.
“She lost her whole family in the fever up around Eldridge a few years back,” Hiram explained for me. “A lot of Scott County families lost folks.”
“I've heard that families all over Iowa and Illinois lost kin,” Mr. Kyler said.
“It was the same in New York State,” Hiram said. I turned to look at him. His voice had sounded heavy, sad.
Mr. Kyler adjusted his hat. “That where you're from?”
Hiram nodded, his face expressionless. “Grew up there.”
I hadn't known that. I wondered what else had happened to him in New York.
“Here's your coffee,” the woman sang out as she came toward us, ducking under the tarp.
The tin cups were hot enough to warm my hands. When I took the first sip, I tasted bitter coffee, but I also tasted sugar! I glanced up and saw the woman looking at me.
“Thank you very kindly, ma'am.”
She smiled. “Call me Mary.”
I lowered my eyes. I was not used to calling adults by their given names. My pa would have been irritated with my calling Hiram anything but Mr. Weiss, even though he had been a hired hand at the Stevens farm all three years I had lived there and he wasn't all that old. Pa would be furious if I extended that familiarity to a complete stranger who wasn't hired help. I heard a soft, motherly chuckle, and I looked up.
“All right, you can call me Mrs. Kyler. But if you do, you'll get several different women answering every time you shout.”
I took off my soaked hat and smiled at her. My mother had liked making jokes.
“And you are...?” she prompted me.
“I'm Katie Rose, and I apologize, ma'am,” I said, ashamed of my manners. Then I remembered. “Mary,” I added, but it felt wrong to call her that. “Mrs. Kyler,” I tacked on. Then, like I couldn't manage to end the sentence, I said, “Ma'am.”