Katie and the Mustang, Book 2 (9 page)

BOOK: Katie and the Mustang, Book 2
13.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
I jumped to the ground behind the wagon, then froze. Without the lightning, the night was ink black, and I could only hear the Mustang snorting, his hooves pounding against the earth.
It was Hiram's voice.
“I'm here,” I shouted back to him. There was no rain yet, but a wind was rising.
“Stay away from the horses!” Hiram shouted at me.
The sky lit a second time, the blue-white flash showing me the Mustang back on all fours. The broken lead rope was dangling from his halter. Then everything went dark for a few seconds.
The next cracking sound overhead was louder than any I had ever heard, and I felt my hair prickling. An eye blink later, there was a crashing roar that shook my whole body. I felt a tremor go through the ground beneath my feet. I clapped my hands over my ears and slumped against the wagon, my heart beating so fast I could barely draw a breath.
The Mustang squealed, and I heard what seemed like dim, distant screams. Hiram was suddenly beside me, his hands on my shoulders, shouting into my face.
“Don't touch that horse. You leave him alone until I get back, do you hear me? If he runs, let him go!”
A lesser bolt of lightning lit up his face for a moment, and I saw a fear in his eyes that scared me worse than I already was.
“It struck somewhere,” he was shouting. “Close by—maybe one of the Kylers' wagons!” His grip on my shoulders was painful, and he shook me once, hard. “You stay away from the horse, you hear me? Leave the stock be. I'll be back as soon as I check on Annie.”
Then he was gone.
I stood there in the dark, stunned by the storm, by Hiram's shouting at me, but more than anything by his leaving me alone. Trembling, I balled my hands into fists, furious with him for leaving instead of helping me with the Mustang.
The sky flickered with light, and I bit at my lip. The Mustang needed me. Hiram had no right to order me to do
. He was not my father, and I was not bound to obey him by law or by family ties.
The sky flickered again, and I saw the Mustang, trotting in a circle, bucking, then rearing to strike at the sky with his hooves again. His neck was arched, his thick mane streaming in the wind.
The light winked out with a rumble of thunder. Trembling, I made my way around the front of the wagon, my hands guiding me in the darkness. I stepped over the long hickory-wood wagon tongue, then, guiding myself by touching the singletree, tracing the iron rings where the harness straps fastened, then reaching out to find the wheel hub, I straightened up.
I heard the Mustang squeal again. A second or two later, the sky sparkled, then cracked open, pouring the blue-white light over the earth.
“Easy,” I said, “Easy, easy...” repeating that single word over and over as I walked toward the Mustang, pitching my voice so he could hear me over the sound of the dry wind rushing across the ground.
The sky laced with lightning, then darkened, then lit up again. The thunder was less violent each time; the storm was passing us, rolling fast across the land, holding whatever rain it had inside its clouds high above the earth. It didn't even smell like rain... the wind was kicking up dust.
I used every flash of light to get closer to the Mustang. I knew he was watching me, that he was not afraid of me at all. I could also tell that the storm didn't really scare him either. It had only been that crashing, close strike, with the thunder shaking the ground, that had startled him into rearing.
In the next flash of blue-white light, I reached out and caught the broken lead rope in my hand. The Mustang felt the halter pull, and he turned toward me, nuzzling my face and shoulder, then tossing his head and lashing his tail.
I didn't try to lead him anywhere—there was nowhere better to stand that I could think of. The wind was still rising fast, beating the grass flat, whipping my hair and the stallion's mane. It was then that I first smelled smoke. A fire? Who would be fool enough to light a fire in this wind? Then I knew. No one. The lightning had started the blaze.
In between the bolts of lightning, I stared at the sea of wagons around me. There. An orange glow in the dark that should not have been there. I could hear shouts and screams, scattered and dimmed by the dry, rushing wind.
The smell of smoke got stronger, and I could see the tips of orange flame reaching skyward. The fire got brighter, and I saw the silhouettes of people running, gesturing wildly. I knew they were still shouting, but the wind rose a notch, and I couldn't hear anything above it anymore. I wondered if I should try to lead the Mustang and the rest of the stock farther from it.
I hesitated, squinting, trying to figure out how far away the fire was—there was nothing visible to help me judge the distance. For a long time, I stared, afraid that if I looked away, the fire would rush forward. But it didn't. The orange glow diminished and faded and then, finally, it was gone.
The wind slowed a little, and I could hear shouts again. But they died down fast. Every wagon had a barrel or two of water, every wagon had buckets. People had put the fire out, in spite of the wind. I hoped that no one had been hurt.
I suddenly realized that I was holding a tangled handful of the Mustang's mane in my right hand, and I loosened my fingers to release it. If he had reared again, I might have been dragged under his hooves.
I knew he would never mean to hurt me. He was my friend. Maybe the only real friend I had now. I squinted into the wind, looking for Hiram, but wherever he was, he wasn't worried enough about me to come back and help.
The wind got stronger, coming in gusts, screaming through the grass. I pulled on the Mustang's shortened lead rope, gentling him forward a step or two, then another. I walked him toward the mares, dropping the lead rope as he worked his way up beside them and stood close, lowering his muzzle almost to the ground. Both mares had their heads low, using the wagon as a windbreak.
Then I went around to the other side and crawled beneath the wagon bed again. Uneasy, I waited for the sky to light once more so that I could see the end of the broken lead. I crawled forward just far enough to reach it, then ducked back under the shelter of the wagon.
Holding it loosely, I sat beneath the wagon, cross-legged, glad to have Hiram's bedding between me and the dirt, listening to the storm. The worst of it was already past—I could hear thunder in the distance, and, after a few more minutes, the wind brought the faint smell of distant rain.
It was Hiram's voice. I called back to him, but I knew he hadn't heard me because he shouted again. I didn't answer a second time, because I didn't want to startle the horses. Instead, I released the lead rope and scrambled out from beneath the wagon.
“I'm fine!” I called, and waited for him to get closer so I could ask him if the Kylers were all right and find out what he knew about the fire. But he didn't come closer.
“Good!” he yelled.“I'll be back as quick as I can!” And then he was gone again.
I dragged my pallet out of the wagon bed and wrestled the wind for my blankets. I hauled them beneath the wagon and made a bed of sorts next to Hiram's empty blankets, curling myself up, my back to the wind, the lead rope held loosely in one hand.
The Mustang's lowered muzzle was close enough to touch, and I reached toward him slowly, letting him smell my hand before I dared to brush my fingers across his velvety muzzle. He nibbled at my fingers, licking salt from my skin like an old plow mare.
I closed my eyes and pretended my parents were asleep in the wagon bed above me, my little sister lying between them to keep warm. And somehow, I drifted off to sleep.
The light in the sky struck earth, and something
burned. It scared the little one. I stood close. All the
two-leggeds must understand this. Fire in high wind
terrifies all that live. This fear we all share.

atie?” It was a woman's voice.
I opened my eyes and felt for the lead rope, then sat up too fast and banged my head on the underside of the wagon bed.
“Be careful.”
“I'm all right,” I answered, wriggling out from beneath the wagon. The world was still. The wind had gone.
“We thought you might be hungry.”
It was Hannah, Andrew's wife. I couldn't remember ever really talking to her; she was usually busy with their baby. “I came to offer you breakfast,” she said.
“Is Hiram all right?” I asked, suddenly worried.
Hannah nodded. “I think he dozed off. He stayed up most the night with Annie.”
“Is she hurt?” I asked, finally understanding why Hiram hadn't come back—but if Annie had sprained an ankle jumping from a wagon gate or something, she had more than a dozen people to take care of her. I didn't have another except Hiram.
I saw a worried look come into Hannah's eyes. “Her hands are burned badly. She ran to help with the fire. I'm not sure yet how it happened, but I know four wagons just upwind from ours burned to ashes.”
I swallowed hard, feeling guilty. “Whose wagons?”
“Three belonged to the family from Philadelphia. I don't know the other people—they weren't part of our party, but the sparks flew in a wind gust and...”
Hannah trailed off, her voice heavy with weariness and worry. I glanced at the Mustang. He was half dozing, his weight on three legs. The mares were calm and still. Their tether lines were tied to the wagon. The oxen were asleep.
“Will you come?” Hannah asked me again.
The whole camp was pretty quiet. Not many people were awake yet. It made sense. Most of them had probably barely slept the whole night long; they would rise a little later than usual.
“I can't be gone too long,” I told Hannah.
She nodded. “Just long enough to eat. My mother promised Hiram she'd look after you.”
I walked beside Hannah as we started off, trying to smooth my dirty dress a little, but the cloth was creased from sleeping in it.
“We all look pretty dirty today,” Hannah said. “No one will notice.”
I glanced at her. She was smiling at me. I tried to smile back, but I couldn't. One storm had changed everything.
“Annie is in her parents' wagon,” Hannah said. She pointed, then smiled a little. “Mary is the one cooking this morning—she sent me after you.”
A few seconds after she said it, I could smell the bacon, and my mouth watered. My stomach suddenly caved in, and I realized how hungry I was.
I let Hannah lead the way as we threaded a path through the wagons and the stock, making our way back down the line. I nodded politely to anyone I saw up and about, trying to remember the names Hiram had told me, but the wind had blown them away along with everything else.
I caught a glimpse of the burned wagons on the flat, trampled ground. People circled the ashes aimlessly, as though they still could not believe what had happened. My heart ached for them. Everything they owned was gone, and I had no idea what they would do. I only hoped no one else had been hurt.
Mrs. Kyler was bent over a cook fire. She straightened up to press one hand against the small of her back and saw me coming. “Hello, Katie.”
“Where's Hiram?” I asked. Then I realized how rude I was being. “Thank you for inviting me to breakfast, ma'am,” I said politely. I raked one hand back through my hair and had to pull my fingers free from the tangles.
“We can all use a hairbrush this morning,” she said when she saw me blushing. “I'll loan you mine after you eat.”
I nodded and thanked her again.
“Hiram fell asleep watching over Annie. She's in our wagon—two back down the line.” She sighed heavily and wiped at her eyes. I could tell she was trying not to weep. “I thought I'd cook up here,” she added, “spare Annie some of the noise and commotion... maybe she can rest better.”
I had no idea what to say. I hadn't wanted to ask her how bad Annie's burns were, and now I wouldn't have to. I could tell from Mrs. Kyler's voice that she was really worried.
I heard girls' voices and saw curly dark hair through the keyhole-shaped opening in a wagon cover. It was one of the little girls—Hope? Maybe. I saw Julia's long dark braids for an instant, then they all moved away from the opening.
I exhaled, my own weariness settling on my shoulders. I still couldn't keep most of the Kyler cousins straight. I heard a round of shushing and whispering inside the wagon, and I wished I
know all their names, that I knew them better. But they played with one another, not with me.
BOOK: Katie and the Mustang, Book 2
13.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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