Hoofbeats: Katie and the Mustang #1by Kathleen Duey
Orphaned at age six and taken in by a heartless couple, nine-year-old Katie Rose spends her days doing chores and dreaming of going west to find her Uncle Jack. Then Mr. Stevens brings home an unbroken Mustang, and Katie's world changes. Katie is drawn to the horse's wildness, and he seems to sense her need for companionship. So when Katie learns that the Stevenses plan to join the expansion West&150without her or the Mustang&150she makes a desperate decision to go on her own. And she will not leave the Mustang behind.
Read an Excerpt
Katie and the Mustang
by KATHLEEN DUEY
My childhood memories are set to hoofbeats: a fog-softened gallop on a lonely morning; the joyous clatter of friends pounding down the Canal Road; a measured, hollow clop of a miles-to-go July afternoon; the snow-muffled hoofbeats of wintertime; the squelching rhythm of a close race with a rainstorm. These books are for my dear friends, the horses of my childhood—Buck, Ginger, Steve, and Cherokee Star.
Thank you all.
Table of Contents
The stinkweed made me sick. The two-leggeds who drove me from my herd and my home starved me a long time before I would eat it, but, in the end, I had no choice. I am too sick and too weak to fight the ropes. But the sickness will not last. . . .
I was hiding from Mrs. Stevens that day. It was cold in the barn, though not bitter, not too bad for early February. We’d had one warm snap that hatched a few flies, then it had stormed again. There were dirty banks of snow along the roads.
I pulled my jacket tighter around my shoulders. It was too big—it was a castoff from Mr. Stevens—but my dress was getting too small. It was about worn-out. The blue homespun was faded and stained, and one sleeve had a long, mended tear. I didn’t care about any of that as much as the way it pulled across my back.
It was just past sunrise. I had done my early chores—the milk was poured into the cooling can, the milk bucket washed. Mrs. Stevens insisted on that, every day. The minute the milk was poured out, the bucket had to be scrubbed with soap in the tin basin. Every two days, I had to change the wash water.
I sighed. I knew I should go back to the house and begin the real work of the day. I just didn’t want to.
“My uncle Jack hasn’t written me,” I explained to Betsy. “But people say it can take a year or more.” I smiled, remembering my tall, handsome Uncle Jack with his dark hair and light blue eyes—and his grin.
I took a long breath, and my dress rubbed against the welts on my back. They weren’t that bad; in a few days they’d be gone. But they hurt. My throat ached, and then, all of a sudden, my eyes stung. I pressed my lips together, hard. I did not want to cry. No amount of tear shedding was going to change Mrs. Stevens’s temperament.
She had willow-switched me the day before . . . she was convinced I’d taken a spoon from her mother’s silver service set. I hadn’t. What would I want with a spoon?
Hiram Weiss was the only other possible suspect, though, and no one would ever think he had taken it. I liked Hiram. He didn’t talk very much, but he always nodded and smiled at me. He was from back east somewhere. Mrs. Stevens had told me he’d had some bad luck back there. She hadn’t said more. I think she didn’t know anything more. Hiram was tight-lipped. But everyone liked him; no one bothered him. He was as big as they come—broad and tall and heavy—plenty old enough to have a wife and children, but didn’t have either. Mrs. Stevens always complained of the amount he ate at her table—but not to his face. Good farmhands were not so easy to find with everyone at loose ends deciding to pick up and go west.
“I’m sure Mrs. Stevens lost her own ding-dang spoon,” I said. I took a breath and opened my mouth to tell Betsy more about it, to tell her how Mrs. Stevens had scowled at me when I insisted I hadn’t taken anything of hers, how she had sent me down to the creek to cut the willow switch. But that wasn’t what came out. What came out was this:
“It was all over in three weeks.”
Betsy wasn’t looking at me as I spoke. She never did. I cleared my throat. “The fever was wildfire fast. Everyone says so.”
I paused while the familiar pain in my throat got worse. I couldn’t even whisper the rest of it, about the fever that had taken Mama and Pa and Tess. It had been almost three years ago, and I could still barely even think it. I longed to wake up one morning and have it not be true. But every morning I woke up—and it was.
Betsy shifted her weight. She turned her head to look at me, chewing her cud. Then she switched her ropy tail and stamped one hind hoof. A half-dozen chilly flies rose an inch from the straw, then settled again. They were too cold to fly any farther. I pulled in a long, slow breath of barn dust and hay smell.
“On the funeral day,” I said quietly, “I just sat in the parlor while neighbor women fussed over the food.”
I stopped to breathe in and out slowly, long enough to keep myself from crying. Then I went on. “Mrs. O’Reilly, Mrs. Gleason, and Mrs. Wittmann came from their farms. I hated the smell of their cooking in Mama’s kitchen. I just hated them for being in there at all.” I tacked the last part on in a near whisper.
I had been six years old when the fever hit. Mrs. O’Reilly, Mrs. Gleason, and Mrs. Wittmann: I could barely picture their faces now—nor the faces of their children—even though I had gone to church with all of them. I hadn’t seen any of them even once since that day. The Stevenses were not Irish nor Catholic—they weren’t anything at all. So we never went to the little church that had no priest but still held prayer meetings.
I looked out the big double doors at the shade tree outside and sighed. I was twenty miles or more from my parents’ farm in Cedar County. I had never asked to go back, and Mr. Stevens had never offered to take me. But Mama and Pa and Tess were buried on a ridge behind the house my father had built. So maybe the farm I had been born on still belonged to my family. In a way, maybe it was still my real home.
I cried a little. I was used to crying. But then I hushed so I could listen for the sound of the front door. If Mrs. Stevens caught me idling, she’d make me scrub down her porch floors with sand, or lime the privy, or something just as bad.
When I had first come, she had often twisted a strand of my hair around her finger and smiled, saying it was the color of fresh field corn. But things had changed within a month. I had never been able to figure out why. Maybe she had thought I would think of her as my mother—she had no children of her own. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. My mother had laughed all the time. She had enjoyed sunrise and making bread and playing with my sister and me.
After that first month, Mrs. Stevens seemed angry with me most of the time. It was even worse now. After my last bath she had all but pulled my tangled curls out of my scalp, she had brushed my hair that hard.
“I was so relieved when Mr. Stevens said he’d take me in,” I whispered to Betsy. “I was so afraid no one would—all the closest neighbors had big families they could barely feed. I know they all thought this was best for me, but now . . .”
The old cow flopped her ears and stared at nothing, her jaw working steadily. She was a Jersey milker and she had a simple life. Daytime was for eating, nights were for sleeping. She stood still when I milked her morning and evening. She was glad to see me when her bag was full and heavy. In between, she paid less attention to me than a tree stump would have. Sometimes I envied her.
I sighed. The horses were more polite about listening, but they were all out of the barn this morning. Mr. Stevens had hitched Delia and Midnight to the buggy and gone to town, and Hiram had the draft horses dragging the sledge over the half-frozen ground down by the creek.
Last year’s cornstalks were still standing, dried and brown—Mr. Stevens had let them go last fall because of an early wet spell. Hiram Weiss had said once that Mr. Stevens hated farming. He surely wasn’t very good at it. Yet he always seemed to have money, and I wondered more than once where it came from.
Hiram was a grand farmer, but he didn’t have his own farm any more than I did. He told me once that New York City, where he’d lived for a while, was full of people who couldn’t find enough work to eat and that Scott County, Iowa, was a paradise compared to what was going on back there.
I liked Hiram. He had first come around asking for work the year before the fever took my family. He reminded me a little of my father, but younger. Pa was quiet, but he liked to hear other people talk about when to plant and how to store grain and everything in between. My mother had liked cooking for guests when we had enough to go around. So we’d had neighbors sitting on our porch once or twice a month—whenever anyone came by our place on their way to Davenport for dry goods or salt or to visit the courthouse.
Mrs. Stevens almost never had a caller. Mr. Stevens got in the buggy and went visiting on his own whenever he needed a conversation—sometimes he went all the way to Davenport—but he almost never took his wife. And I was sure he never once thought about taking me along, even though he knew I had written five letters to my uncle Jack over the past year and desperately wanted an answer to arrive at the Davenport post office. Mr. Stevens barely noticed me unless I did something wrong.
“I’ll milk early tonight if I can,” I said to Betsy. She flicked one floppy funnel-shaped ear.
I heard a familiar mewling behind me as I picked up the milk bucket. I glanced over my shoulder and made my voice sound like I was astonished. “Tiger? What do you want? Milk?” Tiger didn’t understand the joke.
The cat stretched, arching her back and her long tail. She listened to me sometimes, but only so long as I scratched her ears. If I stopped, she would stalk away, her knees stiff and her tail twitching.
I jumped, my heart slamming at my ribs.
Mrs. Stevens has a voice like a branch scraping a tin roof when she raises it to shout—and she sounded close. She was coming up the barn path. Why hadn’t I heard the front door shut?
I smoothed my dress where it hung below my coat, trying to think what excuse I might give. I had finished hanging the laundry and had split stove-wood for the next day an hour quicker than usual just to warm myself up. But that wouldn’t matter. Here I was, sitting idle and with nowhere to hide.
I stood up and ran three steps to snatch a pitchfork from its wall hooks. It was a silly ruse. Hiram kept the stalls clean and the aisles swept. What chore could I pretend to be doing with a pitchfork?
But then the door swung wide; I blinked at the sudden glare. There was an old, spreading ash tree outside, but the shade was broken by a shaft of early morning sunlight. With the sun behind her, Mrs. Stevens looked golden, like an angel. Then she stepped inside the dim barn, and she was a pinch-mouthed farmwife again.
“Katie! Whatever do you do out here?”
I knew better than to answer. Any explanation would be the wrong one, especially the truth. Talking to a cow?
“I asked you a question.” Mrs. Stevens put her hands on her hips.
I just stood there, my eyes down.
Mrs. Stevens sighed. “Daydreaming and mooning again? Do you think that’ll get the chores done? Perhaps a few hours of real work would cure you of idleness. Or maybe a long stand in the corner.”
My whole body went stiff. I hated standing in the corner worse than extra chores or even getting a whipping. She knew it.
Mrs. Stevens suddenly tilted her head. “Oh my,” she breathed. “He’s early.”
Then I heard it, too: faint hoofbeats and the distant grating of metal-shod cartwheels. Mr. Stevens was coming home.
Mrs. Stevens had turned to face the barn door. Now she spun around and made a motion like she was shooing hens. “Hurry!”
I almost smiled. I was afraid of her. But she was afraid of him. Mr. Stevens never struck his wife, but he shouted and cursed sometimes if he saw her idle. And he took pride in her never talking back to him, ever. I had heard him brag about it to Hiram. When he shouted at Mrs. Stevens, she would shrink in on herself for days afterward. But she never seemed angry at him, only at herself—and me.
“Sssst!” Mrs. Stevens hissed again, glaring. “Come on, girl, come on!”
Meet the Author
Kathleen Duey is the author of many books for young readers, including books in the American Diaries and Survivors series, the Unicorn's Secret and Faeries' Promise series and the National Book Award finalist Skin Hunger. Originally from Colorado, she now lives in Fallbrook, California.
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