Authors: Audrey Couloumbis
HE PINK STREAK THAT OPENED THE SKY TO MORNING
was never so welcome a sight.
Once I could see her in daylight, Maude looked very fine as a boy. Her thin frame and flat chest had looked a little unfinished for a girl. “If I look half as convincing as you do,” I said, “no one will take us for girls.”
Maude narrowed her eyes at me. If looks could raise hives, I'd've been itching for days.
“I'm only saying, we'll be able to pass,” I told her, but she was not in a forgiving mood.
“Are we going west?” Maude asked grumpily. Probably she believed I'd gotten us lost already.
“I'm trying to stay away from the wagon roads, just in case. But we're headed in the right direction.”
“They might not have looked for us at all if we hadn't stolen these horses,” Maude said. If Maude's heart was honest and true, she made it a point to be kind and good, but she could be sullen too. Sullen was the mood for the day.
“If we didn't have these horses to ride, they wouldn't have
had to look for us. They'd have found us stranded at the Peasleys' gate with all we're carrying.”
“And whose idea was all this stuff?”
“Mine,” I said, and I was proud of it. “We have enough to eat for maybe a week if we stretch it. We may get hungry sometimes, but we have rifles to pop a rabbit and matches to light a fire and blankets against the cold, hard ground.”
I could have gone on and told her that leaving on such short notice hadn't been my idea, but I thought better of it. Maude wasn't the sort to trifle with when she thought she was in the right, and I had to be satisfied with getting in the last word, even if it wasn't the only word. We rode that first day mostly in silence, probably because we were tired.
was tired. We hadn't stopped for more than minutes at a time, and throughout the day our legs grew stiff from sitting the horses. And still we rode. We didn't push the horses hard for speed, but for distance.
“How long do you think this trip will take, Maude?” “Reverend Peasley said at least three hundred miles to Independence. So let's say we make a hundred miles a week. Does that sound about right?”
I tried to remember anything I'd ever read about making distance on a horse. Nothing came to mind. I thought of Wild Woolly's frozen beard. But I was warm enough so far, so I put on a confident face and said, “I believe we can do it.”
Around noon, Maude tore a dishtowel in half to fashion bandannas for our faces, which were already burned red from the wind. The felt hats both fit Maude but were too large for me. A few hours later, I consented to wearing the worst one
and peering at the land through a hole where the brim had torn away from the top.
We were of one mind on the subject of short hair: Boys have it good.
Even if we had tied it back, pieces of long hair would have come loose and whipped our faces and stung our eyes. This way, we wouldn't even have to brush it.
Except, of course, that Maude said we did have to. “You can't go around looking like you're wearing a bird's nest, even if I am the only person who sees you.”
Our one piece of luck was to find a spring where the water ran fast and clean. There was plenty of graze for the horses. We stopped there for our meal, saying a grateful prayer for the cheese and the bread.
One item had slipped my mind entirely: a canteen. “We're going to have to travel with our noses trained on the scent of water,” I said. I did feel a little stupid.
Maude reached over to get a drink. Something jumped out of a patch of weeds and landed on her hand. Maude shrieked and jumped up and all around—swearing loud enough to be heard in Missouri, which was still some distance away—and spooked the horses into jogging a little distance away.
“It's only a toad,” I said when I knew for sure. Startling, I'd give her that, but harmless.
“I thought it was a snake,” Maude shuddered. “Let's eat on the go,” she said, picking up the bread and cheese. Maude disliked snakes something fierce.
A bull snake had once fallen from an overhead beam to land right in her dinner plate, and she had never forgotten the experience. As we walked slowly toward the horses with offerings
of handfuls of grass, I blamed that snake for ruining this meal.
“It wasn't a snake, though. A toad can't do you worse than a wart,” I said. “
it comes back. Let's sit and eat.”
“My appetite is spoiled now,” she said when we had the horses well in hand.
I didn't much want to get back on that horse. Not right away, anyway. But Maude had her ways. She pinched my shoulder. Pulled my hair. Short hair hurt worse than long, I couldn't say why. So we did go.
It might have been easier on the horses if we'd ridden single file, taking turns at breaking the path. But Goldie wouldn't tolerate walking behind Flora, and Maude couldn't tolerate riding behind Goldie. “That horse has a digestive problem,” Maude said, showing some delicacy.
“She does that,” I agreed. So we rode side by side. The hours stretched before us as long as the miles, and we resorted to rushing the horses every now and again to feel that we were making distance. But we couldn't rush them long, nor did we want to, for easy riding was what we did best.
“Hey, you know what I picked up?” I said at the first hint of late afternoon light that set a rosy glow over the land. “That packet of letters that Aunt Ruthie had in her desk.”
“Those could have been Momma's, you know,” Maude said. “It was her desk too.”
“Let's just take a look at them when we stop for the night,” I said.
So we started to watch for a place to camp, but we happened on a well-traveled road bordered by a split-rail fence. “We'd better find a place a little less popular,” Maude said.
We tried, but we found another road shortly and then another. “Awful lot of people must live around here,” I said.
We soon found this was true. We pulled up outside a town. Nothing fancy, no boardwalks. Just eleven or twelve weathered gray buildings scattered about, with hard-worn paths running between them. Even though it was fairly dark by then, suppertime on a Saturday, the town was bustling with wagons and horseback riders.
So many windows were lit it looked welcoming. Or maybe I was just tired of looking at short grass and long horizons. “We need a canteen,” I said.
“We can't just go riding in there. What if the Peasleys had the sheriff telegraph all over the place? What if they're watching for us here?”
“They aren't watching for two boys,” I said. “They aren't watching for one. I'm going to ride in.”
“No, you're not,” Maude said.
“Yes, I am,” I said, not wanting to be treated like a child. I would have begged and pleaded, but that didn't sit well with my picture of myself as Sallie March, Range Rider. I had packed us up for this trip almost single-handedly, and I was leading the way to Independence, Missouri. Surely I didn't need Maude's permission to buy a canteen.
Maude said, “You can't go in there windburned and riding bareback like an Indian. People will ask questions.”
I had not thought of this.
Besides, we needed to find a place to settle for the night. And from the looks of things, that wouldn't be an easy place to find.
HE AIR COOLED QUICKLY ONCE THE SUN STARTED TO GO
down. I might have been tempted to wrap a blanket around my shoulders and travel on, but Maude looked weary, and I figured we shouldn't push the horses any harder unless we had to.
Besides, I wanted a look at those letters.
We found a stand of cottonwood and willow trees for shelter. If it proved to be a horrible cold night, at least the wind wouldn't get at us so bad. We ate bread and cheese again, being afraid to draw attention with a campfire so close to town.
All day long I'd been thinking admiring thoughts about the heroes in my dime novels, about the real men who rode like this day in and day out. No one ever wrote about how sore their heroes' butts were, or how their feet swelled after hanging at the side of a horse for hours. Jumping down from the buggy pony sent sharp pains shooting up my legs.
I tethered the horses to a branch, but Maude wouldn't rest until she'd cut another tether rope from the clothesline
and tied Flora to her ankle. She insisted I do the same with Goldie.
“I don't know that I want this pony tied to my ankle. If she decides to run, she could drag me for miles,” I pointed out.
“You just told me they weren't going to get loose,” Maude said to me.
“They aren't, but you want them tied to our ankles in case they do. So I'm just saying what would happen if they do. What mine would do. I grant you, that old plow horse isn't going anywhere.”
Maude got a stubborn look. “I can't rest till I know we aren't going to lose these horses. If we don't hang on to them, we'll die out here.”
I wasn't sure this was true. Not till we got further from civilization anyway. But in the interest of peace and quiet, I tied Goldie to my ankle. I gave her a long lead so she could graze over some distance without bothering me.
I dug those letters out from the bottom of the sack. “There are only five, but they're all addressed to Aunt Ruthie,” I said.
“Let me see,” Maude said, so I handed her one after I looked to see if it had a return address. It did not, and neither did the next letter. I opened it anyway and looked to see who it was from.
“Signed 'A.' No return address in here anywhere,” Maude said as I was finding the same thing. She went on reading while I went through the letters.
“Here it is,” I said, unable to hide my excitement. “This one has the earliest date, and it's from Uncle Arlen. I think this postmark says 'Independence.' ”
“Give it to me,” Maude said, but I threw her the rest of the packet. This was
find. “He says,
'Hope this letter finds you and the girls well. Have finally found someone I can work for and may not get shot up in the course of the day. You were right, as you often are, no one gets rich here without working.'
There was more, but I skipped to the bottom where it was signed,
“Your brother, Arlen.”
“Doesn't that sound like he wanted Aunt Ruthie to come along with him?”
“I wonder if he wanted her to bring us along,” Maude said.
“He asked after us.”
“Yes, and here, this one says he has enclosed money to help pay down the house.” Maude glanced at me. “He sounds like a nice enough fellow to me.”
We hurried through the remaining letters because it was getting too dark to make them out easily. In one, we found bad news. Maude read, “
'I cannot say exactly where I shall end up, but will write to you once it is decided. I would write more often if I thought you welcomed my letters. Do not worry about me, for I am more of a man than you remember.'
He sounds sad, doesn't he?” Maude said.
To my ears, he sounded like a man about to move on, and I didn't like the sound of that at all. I slumped into a position best suited for staring into the darkness, when it came on full.
Opening the last letter, Maude said, “Here he says he got shot full of arrows.”
I sat up straight. “Let me see that.” Sure enough, he wrote:
“The Indians have been rough around here. Last week I took six arrows in the back and would've died but for the fact that an army patrol rode over the hill in time to run off my attackers.”
“Not much to go on,” Maude said as I skimmed through the rest of the letter. There was not so much as a hint of where this happened.
“It has the same postmark,” I said, inspecting the envelope. I could just barely make it out.
“But then at the bottom of the letter he says someone is going to mail it for him, as he isn't moving around much just yet. They could have carried a letter back to Independence to be mailed, couldn't they?”
“I'm too tired to wonder,” I told Maude.
I found rocks in my mattress when I stretched out, so I knew it was going to be a poor night's sleep. I wondered why the likes of Joe Harden never complained about bruises. But then, that's what made them heroes, I figured.
“Sallie,” Maude said. She lay beside me, and the horses munched steadily, making a soothing sound. “We'll be fine, even if we don't find Uncle Arlen. But somehow I think we will.”
“You don't have to treat me like a child,” I said.
“I'm not. I'm telling you I have faith in what we're doing. That we'll be okay, no matter what.”
“All right, then.” I wished I felt some of the same faith, but mainly I felt cold and uncomfortable.
“You're really good at this,” Maude said, somewhat reluctantly. “I want you to know I see that.”
Before I could think of the right thing to say back, something humble but in full agreement all the same, she said, “We have to find Uncle Arlen. We have to.”
“We will,” I said, realizing she felt miserable too.
“You think so?”
“Yes,” I said very surely. Maude didn't say anything right back, and she didn't say anything for a while and neither did I, waiting to hear what it would be if she did.
She began to snore.
I wished I could sleep so easily. In sleep I wouldn't still notice how hard and full of small stones this soft-looking grazing land had turned out to be. But I lay awake for a time. It was a lucky thing I did because that buggy pony did act up. Instead of lulling us to sleep with the sound of steady chewing, both horses acted some bothered, and started blowing through their noses, and brought Maude and me quickly to sitting up.