Katie and the Mustang, Book 2 (5 page)

BOOK: Katie and the Mustang, Book 2
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I felt silly. I was shivering and nervous and half worried about the Mustang, and it felt like my mouth wanted to keep going, no matter how foolish I made myself sound.
Mrs. Kyler just laughed, the warm kind of laugh that says it is all right if you laugh, too. So I did. Then I took another long sip of the sweet coffee. The sharp smell of kindling smoke made me turn. The young women had a big cookfire going. I moved to stand closer, and no one seemed to mind.
There was another young woman with a baby in her lap, sitting on a wagon step at the edge of the tarp shelter. She was smiling, playing peekaboo. The baby was laughing, a sound like a clear, swift creek.
“I can have Annie find a dry dress for you,” Mrs. Kyler said, gesturing to a fair-haired woman standing nearby. She looked eighteen or nineteen to me. “Annie's the only one we haven't married off, so she's the only one with time on her hands,” Mrs. Kyler joked. Annie smiled good-naturedly, and I saw her glance at Hiram. He met her eyes for a second, then they both looked away.
Mrs. Kyler was still smiling at me, waiting for an answer. I thought about it. A clean dress would be heavenly. It was noisy and comfortable beneath the tarps the Kylers had strung between their wagons. I could hear children laughing, a baby crying, and the sound of men's voices—all muted by the sound of the rain. It was a big family. Wash days must have included a mountain of soiled clothes for these women. “You are very kind,” I said, “but I'll dry out fine, ma'am.” I pressed my lips together. I was not going to stammer my way through calling her Mary and Mrs. Kyler and ma'am again, and I was not going to take favors I couldn't pay back. It was bad enough how much I had taken from Hiram.
Hiram came to stand beside me by the fire. Annie moved over to make room for him.
“You two are welcome to bed down here tonight,” Mr. Kyler said. We'll find a dry spot for you some-wheres.”
I looked at Hiram and shook my head, a tiny motion that I hoped no one else noticed. I couldn't leave the Mustang alone all night. All we had meant to do was visit long enough to dry out.
“We'll be fine,” he said. “We'll bunk beneath the wagon bed to stay dry if we have to.” He looked out from beneath the tarp. “Rain will probably stop before long anyway.”
Mr. Kyler walked over then, warming himself at the fire. I sipped at my coffee to avoid his eyes—and everyone else's. It was strange, being around so many people at once.
“What do you do for a living, Mr. Weiss?”
Hiram blew at his steaming coffee, then sipped it before he answered. “I was working as a plow hand. But I have other trades.”
Mr. Kyler nodded without speaking and waited for Hiram to get another sip of the hot coffee.
Hiram winked at me, then looked at Mr. Kyler. “I can lay brick, build a dry stone wall; I'm a fair carpenter and a sawyer. I learned to shoe horses, and I am a fair hand at training them as well. I can dress leather and sew harness, and I'm a fair shot at hunt. I built boats with my father. I can swim like a fish. I am good with numbers. I can figure sums in my head, work percentages and so on. My pa was death on laziness. We worked the farm and went to school both.”
I blinked, staring at him. I had never heard him string together more than a dozen words at a time. Annie was smiling, looking as amazed as I felt.
“A good man to have around out west,” Mr. Kyler said. Annie smiled wider.
I took a drink of coffee and kept glancing at Hiram as if I had just met him. He sounded like a one-man homestead builder. I wondered if Mr. Stevens had known he could do all those things. I surely hadn't.
“Do you have kin or friends to meet in Council Bluffs?” Mrs. Kyler asked Hiram.
He shook his head. “The girl and I had plans, but the other folks disappointed us both, so we struck out on our own.”
“You ever been married?”
Hiram nodded. “I'm a widower, ma'am.”
I stared at him again. I had suspected it, but he had never told me. I saw his eyes meet Annie's for a split second, and then he looked square at Mr. Kyler again.
“You intend to join a wagon party in Council Bluffs?” Annie asked.
Hiram nodded. “Thought we'd just meet a few folks and see who needed a farrier or a carpenter.”
I listened, still amazed at how much Hiram was talking lately.
The noisy sizzle of bacon grease made me turn around so fast I nearly spilled my coffee. I guess my reaction looked funny because a girl with long dark braids made a face, and they all giggled. One of them was carrying a white cat. It was as relaxed as a doll in her arms.
I looked away from the skillet, blushing, wishing I hadn't seemed so greedy for food. I was wolfish hungry, but I didn't want to be a rude guest.
“You hoping to marry again?” Mrs. Kyler was asking Hiram.
“Mary!” her husband chided. “You'll run him off if you don't stop prying.”
Hiram laughed easily. “I've never had better coffee and never wanted it worse. I'm not going anywhere just yet.”
Mr. Kyler chuckled at that, and I glanced back at the girls. They were still staring at me. The girl with long dark braids leaned close to a tall girl to whisper.
I turned away quickly. I knew we might end up traveling with these folks, and I hated the idea of wondering what the Kyler girls were saying about me all the way to Oregon.
It stopped raining about half an hour later, and we walked back down the hill to hobble the mares and settle in. The ground was soaked, and Hiram made me sleep up in the wagon bed, laying our driest piece of canvas beneath his bedroll.
When the stars came out, they looked like ice scattered across the sky. I finally stopped shivering and slept.
CHAPTER FIVE
How many of the two-leggeds are there?
Every day we see more of them. They do not attack, or
even approach too near. But they worry me. Out of so
many, there will be a few who are dangerous.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
I
t rained again before noon the next day. Then the sun came out, and the men walked the long slough, testing the bottom with long sticks.
I stayed with the Mustang, close to our wagon. He was grazing peacefully with the mares, but I was afraid to leave him alone with so many people around. A shout, a rifle shot at a rabbit in the grass, a baby screaming—anything might startle him.
I took the hobble off the mares, then kissed the Mustang's velvety muzzle and told him I knew he would protect them. By midmorning, some of the younger Kyler men had come down the hill to talk to Hiram. Mr. Kyler joined them, carrying his tin cup of coffee. None of their womenfolk had left the camp.
Hiram kept them all away from the Mustang, and I was grateful to him. I stood off to one side, listening.
“Every delay matters,” Mr. Kyler kept saying.
“It can,” Hiram agreed.
“Three days here could mean three days in snow-storms next fall in the Northwest Territory,” one of the younger men put in. I had noticed him the night before, standing beside a woman so tiny she looked like a young girl.
Everyone was nodding. “Weather like that can kill a baby,” another man said. I knew from the worry in his voice—he was the baby's father.
Hiram shaded his eyes, staring at the water still standing in the slough.
Mr. Kyler narrowed his eyes. “Hiram? You see a way to get us over it?”
Hiram was silent. He knelt and pushed his fingers into the matted grass. He straightened. “Do you have sod knives?”
Mr. Kyler nodded. “One of the books said we should bring them, so we did, even though we all intend to settle in timber country.”
Hiram looked thoughtful. “It could take all day,” he began. “But if we cut lengths of the sod and layered it in the shallowest place, the grass mat would support the wagons, I think.”
I head a murmur of admiration go through the men. I smiled, remembering Hiram tapping his forehead.
“Let's get to it then, boys,” Mr. Kyler said.
The younger men started back up the hill, talking among themselves.
“They all your sons?” Hiram asked him.
Mr. Kyler glanced at them. “Three are, Charles, Andrew, and Ralph. The other one is Henry, married to Christina, my daughter. We left three married daughters behind. Couldn't talk them into it. It about killed Mary to leave them.”
Hiram stared off into the distance. I didn't know what he was thinking, but I could guess. He was wishing that his own wife had lived, that he had sons. I wished the same thing in my own way. I wanted my family back. One day it might have been like this one, big and friendly, with laughter around the campfires every night.
Hiram bent to poke at the tangled mat of prairie grass again, then straightened. “You are a fortunate man,” he said quietly.
Mr. Kyler nodded awkwardly, concentrating on his coffee cup. Then he looked up. “We're jumping off at Council Bluff.”
Hiram nodded. “As are we.”
Mr. Kyler smiled. “May as well travel that far together, I suppose.”
Hiram squinted into the sun. “I think tomorrow we'll hit the old Fort Kearny Road.”
Mr. Kyler looked thoughtful. “I've been thinking we'd find it every day for a week. Ought to be soon.”
Hiram turned away and spotted me for the first time. “Katie? Will you do your best at drying anything you can while we're at this?”
I nodded and started back down toward our wagon, feeling almost happy. Hiram
asked
me to do things, instead of telling me. He was kind and smart, and he would get us to Oregon. And there, I would find my uncle Jack one way or another, no matter how long it took.
As I spread out our blankets and tarps on the steaming prairie grass, I imagined doing the work with two or three cousins to help me. We would laugh and sing rounds to make the work go faster.
The sun got stronger as the day passed. The blankets were close to dry by the time the men had cut the wet sod and dragged the pieces into the slough, laying them on top of one another until they had built what amounted to a sod bridge.
Our wagon was lightest, so we went first.
The Mustang was so used to following the wagon that he barely hesitated, picking up his hooves like he was prancing in a pasture when he came to the soft sod. The mares were steady as always.
The Kylers burst into a cheer when we drove off the sod bridge and back onto the muddy road on the far side. Hiram pulled the mares to a halt and set the brake.
We watched the Kylers' wagons—all six of them—wobble and sway as they came across. Their oxen were far heavier than our horses, too, and they went more slowly, picking their way. The sod was rutted by the time the last wagon came over, but it held. We all cheered again.
Then we set off. Hiram and I went first, the horses being faster than the oxen—and our wagon so light. We bogged down midafternoon, and the Kyler men came plodding through the mud to push us free.
The Mustang shied as they came closer, and I led him off a little way. He stood with his head held high, his nostrils flared.
“It's all right,” I told him over and over. “They're good people, they know you're mine. Hiram and I told them that.” He snorted and circled, always coming back to face the wagon with the crowd of strangers shoving at the gate while the mares strained against the harness.
When the wheels finally came loose, there was a squelching sound and the mares stumbled forward, surprised when the wagon finally rolled free. Hiram drove them along a distance of a few rods, just far enough to be well clear of the softest mud, then he reined in and set the brake. He got out to knock the worst of the mud off the wheel hubs.
I walked the Mustang closer, ready to fall in behind the wagon when the Kylers left.
“He's a fine animal,” one of the younger men called as they started the trek back through the mire to their own wagons. He stopped to look at the Mustang, shading his eyes from the slanting afternoon sun.
I nodded politely.
He took off his hat and slicked his hair back, then put it on again. “My pa says you aren't interested in selling him?”
“That's right,” I called back.
“Is he fast?”
I didn't know what to say. “I've never raced him,” I finally told him.
He started toward me, and I felt my stomach tighten. “Don't come another step,” I said, raising my voice.
He stopped, looking puzzled. “I mean you no harm at all. I apologize if I've frightened you.”
I shook my head. “Not me, the Mustang. He doesn't trust people.”
BOOK: Katie and the Mustang, Book 2
3.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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