Katie and the Mustang, Book 2 (7 page)

BOOK: Katie and the Mustang, Book 2
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Hiram set the brake and climbed down to pat the mares as the ferrymen set their poles in the muddy bottom and pushed away from the shore.
The Mustang snorted and shook his mane when the boat began to move. I forced myself to sound calm as I talked to him and rubbed his neck with the palm of my hand. I tugged at his mane. He blew out a whuffling breath and switched his tail even though there weren't any flies to speak of.
“How long has this ferry been here, sir?” Hiram asked the men.
“Not long, sir,” one of them called back without looking. “Colonel Sarpy got the cables set less than a year ago.”
They were bending their backs now, poling in long glides that sent us farther from the bank every second. I looked at the surface of the water and saw shapes just beneath it. Fallen trees? Sunken ferryboats? The shapes slid past, and I couldn't see them anymore.
I felt the current pushing sideways at the boat as the water deepened beneath us. The Mustang felt it, too. He tossed his head, and I could feel him trembling. I reached to pat his neck, rubbing my hand hard against his coat.
“You fellas need a hand?” Hiram asked.
“You paid your three dollars,” one of them answered, grinning. “You earned the ride, mister.”
I caught my breath. “Three
dollars
?” I whispered, just loudly enough for Hiram to hear. For a few seconds I forgot about the endless brown water beneath us.
Hiram nodded. “Think what it'll cost the Kylers to come across. They charge more for bigger wagons, for each person afoot....”
I shook my head, unable to believe that anyone dared charge so much.
“People have to get across,” Hiram said. “I think the Kyler boys might swim a lot of their stock over. I heard them talking about it. Some have done it, I guess.”
A little bump against the bottom of the boat startled me. The Mustang threw his head high and backed up.
“Stand easy,” I said in the calmest voice I could manage. “It's all right.” I rubbed at his neck again, and, after a long moment, I felt his rigid muscles loosen a little.
“What was that?” I asked Hiram.
“Probably just a drowned tree washed down in some storm, waterlogged and sunk beneath the surface.” He smiled at me and climbed back up. He pretended to be driving the team, his hands high, swaying back and forth like we were on a bumpy road.
I laughed; I couldn't help it.
“How's that wild horse of yours doing?” Hiram asked after a few more minutes had passed.
“Better,” I said. “It was just that little jolt that spooked him.”
“We're about halfway,” Hiram said. “Just keep talking to him and don't get yourself worried. Look.”
I glanced up to follow his gesture. He was pointing at the far shore.
“That's the beginning of everything, Katie. This is the first day of our journey west.”
“I keep thinking that most people will start coming back,” the ferryman said, overhearing us. “I half expect there to be a longer line on the west side than the east side every morning.”
“Why?” Hiram asked him.
The man shrugged. “It all sounds too good. I don't see how it could be real. A man told me yesterday that a married couple can claim a square mile in Oregon. He said the land is rich and the timber is high. Is that true?”
“So they say. You should go,” Hiram said.“You're young.”
The ferryman shrugged. “My mother is a widow, and I'm the only one left to care for her.”
I watched Hiram trying to think of something to say to that. He couldn't. Finally, he lifted his head and looked down stream.
“Katie?” He jutted his chin to the south. “The Kylers are putting their stock across. Horses and mules it looks like.”
A long way down the river I could see a milling band of animals and four mounted men behind them whooping and slapping their hats against their legs, trying to herd them into the water. For a long moment, it looked like the stock was going to refuse to go, then the first horse plunged in.
“They'll lose a few,” the ferryman said.
Hiram shook his head. “I don't think so.”
I watched, holding my breath, hoping all the Kyler menfolk and their horses made it across without any accident.
The Mustang heard the distant whinnying and turned his head sharply, his ears straight up and his eyes wide.
“It's all right,” I told him. His nostrils were wide and his breath was quick. “Just a few more minutes, and we'll be back on land,” I promised.
“Could be worse,” Hiram said gently, and it took me a second to realize he was talking to the Mustang, not to me. “Could be much worse. At least this time you're headed back west.”
I patted the Mustang's neck and held tight to the lead rope. There was a jolt when the cable stopped pulling and the men picked up their poles again.
“Stand easy,” I told the Mustang. “We're almost there.”
I kept looking downriver at the Kylers—they had picked a narrower place—but that meant the water was deeper. The horses were really drifting downstream as they swam.
Hiram was watching me, and when I looked up, he pointed back at the far shore. I turned, looking straight across, and caught my breath. We had drifted a long ways, too, in spite of the cables.
The ferry scraped over another submerged log or something; it was hard enough to really shake the boat hard this time. The Mustang reared reflexively, just barely lifting his front hooves from the planks, then settling again. He shook his mane and fixed his eyes on the shore. I patted him and talked quietly, willing the ferrymen to pole faster. Finally, finally, the ferry bumped against the dock, and the ferrymen let down the rails.
Hiram shook the reins and the mares stepped forward slowly as though they didn't quite trust the planks to hold them. The Mustang clattered forward, pulling me along. Once he felt soft earth beneath his hooves again, he slowed, turning his head to make sure I was all right. I looked back across the river. The brown water slid past, endless and quiet. It looked even wider from this side.
When I looked forward again, Hiram was gesturing at the sea of shacks, wagons, and tents. “I want to sell the mares and buy oxen,” he said over his shoulder, raising his voice so I could hear him. “People say horses can't pull the weight and live on the prairie grass near as well as the work cattle can.”
I hesitated, then nodded. I was fond of the mares, and the Mustang would hate it if they were gone, but I knew Hiram was probably right. “You all right?” Hiram called from the wagon.
“Fine!” I shouted back.
But it wasn't quite true. I was scared. Something about crossing the river had made it all much more real to me. We were setting off into a wilderness. “Two thousand miles,” I whispered to myself.
CHAPTER SEVEN
The small one led me across the wide river in a
way no horse could ever manage alone. The mares are so
calm about the two-leggeds' ways. I will never be.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
B
y late afternoon the Kylers' wagons were safely across and their stock had been regathered on the west side of the river. In our first hour on the west shore of the Missouri River, Hiram bought a little tent, more provisions, a saw, and two beautiful splotch-colored oxen—but no one wanted to buy our mares.
Hundreds of horses had been sold here already—and sold cheap. A lot of people who crossed every morning were selling wagon teams and buying oxen or mules.
The oxen
were
beautiful, if such a heavy animal can be thought of that way. They were Ayrshires, Hiram had been told, from the farm of a man named Mr. James Brodie of Rural Hill, New York. They were an uncommon breed.
“The man said they are livelier than most kinds of work cattle, and stronger,” Hiram said. “He sold them to me instead of another man because I promised I'd either keep them or find them a kind, careful owner once I got to Oregon.”
I nodded, staring at the pair of huge beasts.
“He says they weigh around two thousand pounds apiece,” Hiram told me.
I smiled. “Two thousand miles, two thousand pounds.”
Hiram laughed.
That evening, while I sat and read my mother's book by firelight, Hiram sought out Andrew Kyler and came back with enough money to buy us spare shoes, more blankets, and a number of other things we needed.
“He bought both mares,” Hiram told me. “He'll herd them all day and the stallion, too, if you want,” Hiram explained. “You can go catch them up every evening and bring them back to the wagon so the Mustang won't have to be hobbled or tethered at night.”
I let out a relieved breath and grinned at him. This was the best possible solution and one I had never expected. “Andrew Kyler is a good-hearted man,” I said fervently.
Hiram chuckled. “Andrew Kyler is hoping the Mustang will take a mare to mate and she'll have a foal next spring.”
“Oh.” I blushed, feeling slow-witted not to have figured that out for myself.
Hiram reached out to pat my head. “We'll get mares once we're in Oregon, and you can raise a few colts yourself if you want to. I'll teach you what I know about horse training, but you can learn even more from the Kylers. Annie Kyler told me that her brother is the best horseman she's ever seen.”
Hiram was smiling. “Annie is quite a horse-woman herself, her father says.”
I smiled back at him, thinking about it. He liked Annie a lot, I could tell—he liked all the Kylers. Maybe he envied their big happy family the way I did.
What if Hiram and I could have a horse ranch somewhere near them? The Mustang would sire beautiful colts. I would grow up to be a lady horse trainer. No one would believe it until they saw my beautiful horses.
It was so much fun to imagine it, to pretend it could come true. I laid down on my pallet that night, daring to imagine a horse ranch of my own. I knew it was impossible. Who ever heard of a girl owning anything? It was against the law, I was pretty sure. No woman I had ever heard of owned land or anything else. I sighed. Maybe my uncle Jack would want to raise horses....
In the morning, the menfolk went off for a few hours. I took a long time packing the provisions Hiram had bought, wrapping the flour in tight-woven canvas to keep the meal moths from laying their eggs in it. I made sure the top of the water barrel was greased and tight to keep the trail dust out. Then I brushed the Mustang—he still didn't like the feel of the currycomb, but he stood for it.
I finally fed the oxen a little dried corn so they would start to like me. They had sweet breath and mile-deep eyes, and they reminded me of Betsy, except for their size—and their color. I had never seen any kind of cow with such splashy-looking blotches of white and brown.
The Mustang was wary of them being so close.
“Do they remind you of buffalo?” I asked him. “Mr. Barrett said buffalo herds make the ground shake when they stampede. Is that so?”
I patted his neck, reaching beneath his mane to thread my fingers through the long coarse hair on the crest of his neck. I wished he could talk to me. Some people thought that buffalo weren't real—or at least that the stories people told about them were exaggerated.
“Katie!”
I looked up. Hiram was almost running toward me, his face full of excitement. “Mr. Kyler's found a good guide, I think.”
I listened, feeling breathless, as Hiram told me about Mr. Wilkins. Like a lot of the guides, he had been a trapper. He had been west three times with groups of wagons, and he seemed to know a lot about the different routes and shortcuts. “He seems very sensible,” Hiram explained. “Mr. Kyler ran across him. He listened a while, then rounded up the rest of us to hear him out. There'll be just twenty wagons in the party, counting us, if we go.”
“How many wagons?” I asked him.
Hiram looked thoughtful. “Wilkins likes a smaller party. He says everyone has a few problems somewhere along the way, and the bigger the party, the more chance of bad delays. It makes sense, I guess. They leave in the morning.”
I had been listening intently, but when he said we'd be leaving the next day, I caught my breath. Hiram didn't notice.
He slapped dust from his hat. “I'll find salt today and dried apples, if I can, and more canvas to make a wagon top for rain—and a canvas hat for you. People say to save back money to pay for restocking and blacksmith work and whatnot at the forts as we go. Things are even more expensive there.”
BOOK: Katie and the Mustang, Book 2
11.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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