“You're afraid to race him, then?”
I nodded, then I shook my head. “No one has ever ridden him that I know about. I don't think he'd stand for it.”
He looked thoughtful. “My name is Andrew. I'm the youngest Kyler boy.”
I almost laughed. He had a blond beard, and he looked like a grown man to me.
“Hannah is my wife. The one with little Rachel; she's our first baby.”
I nodded. I remembered Hannah laughing and singing.
“We're just starting out,” he said.
I nodded again, reaching out to pat the Mustang's neck. He was nervous, tossing his head. I had no idea why Andrew was telling me all about his family, but I wished he would move farther away.
“A stallion like that could build a good herd in a few years,” he said wistfullyâand then I understood his friendliness.
“He isn't for sale,” I said quickly. “He'll never be for sale.”
“What good is a horse you can't ride?” he asked politely.
“He isn't for sale, mister,” I repeated, amazed at how rude and unfriendly I sounded.
Andrew Kyler nodded and doffed his hat. Then he walked away. I led the Mustang back to the wagon. Hiram watched me as we got close.
“He want to buy the stallion?”
“People have never seen anything like him. That won't be the last offer.”
I heard an odd tone in his voice, and I turned to look at him squarely. My throat was tight. “You think I should sell him.”
“Maybe you ought to consider it, if you meet someone you think would take good care of him,” Hiram said. “He will never make a girl's mountâmaybe not even a man's horse. He'll never pull a wagon.”
“Just think about it,” he said. “You can't get a decent night's rest for guarding him, and you can't leave him even for a few minutes without worrying if he's going to hurt someone. This isn't like bringing a pet like the Kyler girls' white cat.”
“He isn't for sale, Hiram,” I said flatly, starting to feel angry with him. If anyone should understand how much the Mustang meant to me, it was Hiram.
Hiram turned to face the road. “All right, Katie,” he said over his shoulder. “All right, then.”
The sky was open and wide, and the grass
was growing and endless. Somewhere under this sky
there were forests and meadows and the grasslands
I remembered. Not close, but... somewhere.
ate one afternoon, we saw Council Bluff for the first time. Hiram reined in and got down off the wagon to look down at the Missouri River and the town of Kanesville.
Mr. Kyler pointed. “Trader's Point is down that way. Colonel Sarpy's new ferry is running a gold mine business, we were told. Best get there early.”
We made our camp. I did my chores, then led the Mustang closer to the edge of the bluff and stood in the twilight watching the light change the color of the river below.
The Missouri ran between huge bluffs, and there were camps and settlements on both sides. The river was swift, muddy, and wider than I could have imagined. The sunset turned it the color of old copper.
The next morning, we all drove the wagons down the steep road into the town of Kanesville, the men pulling on the brake handles all the way down to keep the wagons from rolling too fast. The river seemed bigger with every step we took.
Hiram glanced back at the Kyler's first wagon. The oxen were plodding steadily toward us. “What do you think? You want to travel with them to Oregon?”
I nodded. I had thought about it. “I like them.”
Hiram nodded. “So be it, then. We'll need more, of course. Barrett said any party under thirty wagons was too small.”
“Thirty,” I echoed, tightening my hand on the Mustang's lead rope. “How will we meet that many people?”
Hiram gestured at the sea of wagons and settlements below. “How can we avoid it?”
I bit at my lip.
“The Mustang will be all right,” Hiram said. “He's smart, and he isn't as wild as you think he is anymore. If you'd let people come closerâ”
“I just don't want anyone to get hurt,” I interrupted, surprised at how angry I felt at his telling me how to handle the Mustang.
Hiram reached out and brushed the top of my head with the palm of his hand the way he had done now and then when Mrs. Stevens had scolded me. “Are you sure it's the horse that's afraid?”
I looked at him. “What do you mean?”
Before he could answer, two of the Kyler girls came running up the road toward us. It was the one with dark braids and the taller, thin girl who was usually with her. They were both around my age, I was pretty sure.
Watching them, I realized that I didn't know their names. I walked the Mustang off to one side, then looked back. They told Hiram something, then ran back toward the Kylers' wagons.
“What are their names?” I asked Hiram once they were too far away to hear.
He nodded. “Julia with the braids. The other one is Polly. I'm not quite sure who their parents are yet. I think Julia belongs to Ralph and Ellen. Ralph's the tall man with the black hat.” He shrugged. “Benton sent them. He wants to go straight on downriver now, and get in line at the ferry landing. I expect he's right.”
Hiram got the mares moving, and I led the Mustang back onto the road. The Kylers' wagons made a long line when we all stopped to wait for a turn on the ferry. There were fifteen or twenty wagons lined up in front of us, and the sounds of children and chickens and bawling oxen and voices were scaring the Mustang.
I kept a tight hold on the lead rope and walked him back and forth and up and down, then around and back around.... He was so fidgety. I knew that if I tried to make him stand still, he would only get worse.
I was pretty nervous, too. The ferry was a creaking flatboat that held two wagons and a dozen or so people at a time. The ferrymen had long poles, and they shoved at the river bottom, moving the ferry along until they hit the deepest water in the middle of the river.
Once they got that far, two men on the far side turned a crank that reeled in a long cable attached to the front of the ferry and dragged it through the strong current in the middle of the river. They used the poles again once it was back in the shallows.
They just turned the whole process around to bring the ferry back. Mostly, it was empty coming back, but twice there were families with farm wagons on it. One group was dressed up like they were going to a wedding. The other family had a wagonload of provisions to sell.
People surrounded them as soon as they made it plain that they had goods for sale. I saw Hiram walking toward them, his step quick and sure.
I looked back out as the next two wagons on our side were moving up the ramp onto the deck of the ferry. The horses were tossing their heads, eyes circled in white, switching their tails. The rails around the ferry made it look like a stallâbut no stall had ever shifted and swayed beneath their hooves before.
I walked the Mustang up the street again, trying to calm him down. Hiram was carrying an oaken water barrel when he met me coming back. “How's he doing?”
“I don't think he'll let me lead him onto the boat. Hiram, the farm horses look fit to come undone riding like that, with the boat swaying and bobbing beneath them.”
“You ever been on a boat?”
I shook my head.
“Can you swim?”
I shook my head.
“You afraid?” he asked me.
I let out a long whooshing breath. “Maybe.”
He smiled at me. “If you are, he will be. He trusts you. If you act like it's too dangerous, he'll believe you.”
I looked at the Mustang. He was holding his head so high, I had to crane my neck. I reached up and touched his muzzle. The instant he felt my hand, he lowered his head and pushed his forehead against my chest.
I glanced at Hiram.
“See? He's depending on you.”
I scratched the Mustang's ears gently. “We've watched it go back and forth all morning,” I told him. “Nothing has happened. We'll be fine.”
Hiram hoisted the barrel to his shoulder and grinned at me. “Keep walking himâthat will help. I want to buy whatever else I can before our turn comes up. Things are expensive hereâbut even worse on the other side, people say. I am glad we got the bacon in Des Moines at least. Katie?”
“I'll teach you to swim. No reason why girls shouldn't know how to swim.”
I nodded, then started back up the road. As I walked, the Mustang followed me closely, easily. I almost never had to tug at the rope anymore, I realized. He kept an eye on me, and if I changed direction, he did, too.
I knew Hiram was right. The Mustang was depending on me to take care of him in this jumble of wagons and people. I rested my hand on his neck as we walked.
On the way back down the road, I saw the Kylers sorting out their stock. Polly and Julia and some of the younger girls were standing still, side by side, on one side of the oxen to keep them from wandering, it looked like. There were two older boys helping Andrew and the other Kyler men move the horses slowly away from the line of wagons.
None of the girls smiled at me, though they all watched closely as I walked past on the road. I hadn't been too friendly with them, I knew. But it seemed like they had no use for me at all. I had heard the younger ones' names. There was a Mary May, probably named after her grandmother, and a Patience and a Hope. I knew this because their mothers were calling them constantly.
There were two or three more, too, little girls who stayed close to their parents. I didn't know their names except for Rachel, Andrew and Hannah's baby daughter.
I glanced back toward the ferry landing. Hiram had walked our wagon to one side. So the Kylers were going first. I exhaled slowly. It'd take two or three trips across just to carry their animals, I realizedâthey had twenty or thirty horses and a bunch of mules, and all the ox teams, too. And then their six wagons...
I felt my stomach loosen; it'd be hours before we went. I patted the Mustang and combed his mane with my fingers. I liked the idea of learning to swim. I couldn't think of a single girl I knew about who couldâand not that many boys, either. I imagined walking up to my uncle Jack's door and meeting my cousins for the first time. I would tell them I knew how to swim in a careless way, like it was nothing at all.
It was a shout. I turned and spotted Mr. Kyler, hands cupped around his mouth.
“Yes, sir?” I called back.
“Hiram says to tell you he wants to go over first load,” he yelled.
“Yes, sir!” I shouted back, and my stomach tightened right back up as I started down the hill. I stared out at the river. The ferry was halfway back.
As I got closer, I saw Hiram climbing back up on the driver's bench. Our goods were neatly arranged in the back of the wagon. The mares were standing quietly, their hips sloped. They were both resting one back leg.
“Sorry to surprise you,” Hiram said as I came closer. The man down at the ferry said prices are better once you get acrossâthere are so many over there they compete with one another more.”
He looked at me intently for a moment. “You be steady and he will.”
The ferry was sliding toward the planked dock. The men poled it in fairly straight. It only took them a minute or two to get it lined up with the ramp.
Hiram clucked at the mares, and the wagon wheels turned. I stepped forward, keeping our distance behind the wagon the same as it was when we were going down a road.
The mares balked a little, and I caught my breath, slowing the Mustang down. Then they set their hooves on the ramp and Hiram popped the whip once to let them know they had to do this, that he wouldn't let them argue about it.
The ferry sank a few inches under the weight of the wagon and the team, then bobbed up level again when the Mustang and I faced it. I forced myself to step right onto the planks, knowing that Hiram was right. If I hesitated, the Mustang would know how uneasy I was.
I followed the wagon just as we had been following it for weeks, and the Mustang followed me. I felt him hesitate for a second once his forehooves were on the swaying deck, but then he came forward, lifting his hooves high as though he was walking in a bog. When Hiram reined in the team, I stopped and held the Mustang steady. He stood still, his head high and his eyes flickering from the boatmen to the mares, then out over the brown water.