Life at a Pony Express station in 1860 is filled with danger-especially after someone poisons Annie's favorite pony!
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Hoofbeats of Danger
By Holly Hughes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2009 Holly Hughes
All rights reserved.
THE MAIL MUST GO THROUGH
Lying on her back in the willow thicket, eleven-year-old Annie Dawson stared up at the clouds scudding eastward across the vast blue sky. Those same clouds came over the Continental Divide only a few hours ago, Annie thought to herself. They'll coast over the Great Plains next—maybe make it all the way east to the Mississippi River before they drop their rain.
Annie absentmindedly brushed her cheek with the tip of one of her long, silver-blond braids. She'd crossed the Mississippi River once herself, but she'd only been an infant then. She was born in the back of her parents' covered wagon, somewhere in Indiana on their way west from Vermont. That was in 1849, the year thousands of other fortune seekers had gone to California dreaming of gold.
"Someday I'll see what's east of the Mississippi," Annie murmured to herself. "Someday I'll ride a steam locomotive, or even a paddle wheel boat. I'll see the world, or my name ain't Annie Dawson."
Her thoughts were interrupted by a noisy woodpecker, drilling for bugs in the trunk of an alder tree. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Annie tipped her head back, hoping to catch a glimpse of his bright red crown. Nearby, autumn sunlight glinted on the bright leaves of a cottonwood, already shining gold for fall.
Just then, the trailing branches above her quivered and swayed. Annie held her breath. Was that the breeze, or had the ground trembled slightly? Listening, she thought she heard a low rumble, far away. "Davy, you hear that?"
Her six-year-old brother sat nearby, dreamily leafing through the worn McGuffey's Reader Annie had been using for his reading lessons. Dappled sunlight shone on his bowl-cut hair, straw-colored just like Annie's. "Hear what?" he asked.
"Hoofbeats," Annie declared, sitting up. She cocked her head to hear the faint sound echo off the mountain face. "It's the Pony Express rider, coming from the west." She scrambled to her feet. "That means it's Billy!"
Annie hiked up the skirt of her faded calico dress so she could run better. She dashed through the curtain of trailing willow branches and eyed the steep slope up from the river. Grabbing onto roots and tufts of hardy grass, she hauled herself rapidly up to the Red Buttes Station buildings on the rocky bluff above.
Annie hurried around the corner of the log station house, set on the highest vantage point of the bluff. A wide dirt yard sloped down from the station house to a low-slung log barn. A split-rail corral, empty at this time of day, stood to one side of the barn. A mass of pine scrub and sagebrush crowded up the eastern side of the bluff, as if the wilderness were hungry to reclaim this spot from civilization. But to the north and west, the bluff towered over a stark landscape of flat, rock-strewn plains. In the distance, three flat-topped buttes of rust-colored earth loomed above the land. It was these clay formations that had given Red Buttes Station its name.
The next Express rider, Tom Ward, came striding out of the station house. He had been waiting for several hours, knowing that the rider from the west was due any time. He shrugged his shoulders into a fringed buckskin jacket, holding a piece of fried cornbread between his teeth.
Annie's mother stood in the doorway behind him. "Won't do to leave without finishing your vittles, Tom," she said. "Not with a hard seventy-five-mile ride ahead of you."
Tom waved as he sprinted across the dirt yard to the barn. A moment later, he led out a tough little Appaloosa. Like many western horses, it had begun life in a herd of wild mustangs, then was caught by Indians and traded to white settlers, who'd broken it to the saddle.
The horse had been saddled up an hour ago, ready to set off whenever the relay rider arrived. The pony tossed his head, eager for a fast and furious run.
The hoofbeats were drumming closer now. Annie hurried to the spot where the hardpacked trail crested the bluff. Plucking a berry from a juniper bush, she gazed down the trail. The incoming horse and rider were hidden behind a cloud of dust.
Then Annie's heart leaped. There was Billy Cody all right, his wiry figure standing high in the stirrups. And underneath him was Annie's favorite pony, Magpie.
Annie danced impatiently from foot to foot. The black-and-white mustang lifted her head, spotting the girl, and surged up the bluff with one last burst of speed. Magpie galloped into the station yard, her hooves raising a cloud of dust.
Clinging to Magpie's neck, Billy Cody rolled out of the saddle. Before his boots had hit ground, he'd unhitched the mochila, a flat leather saddle cover with a mail pouch at each corner. Inside each of those four locked pockets were the precious letters to be delivered coast to coast in ten days by the new Pony Express mail service. To get this top-speed service, people paid top price—one dollar per half ounce of mail.
"Hey there, Tom!" Billy sent the mochila sailing through the air.
Tom grabbed it with one hand and swiftly slung it in place over his own saddle. In a flash, he swung up on the Appaloosa. "See you next week, Billy!" He tugged quickly on the reins and tapped the pony with his spurs. The Appaloosa wheeled and took off toward the east, where the trail dipped into the pine scrub.
Billy grinned, his teeth shining white in the middle of his dust-grimed face. "A right quick handoff that time," he declared, sounding pleased. "And one of my fastest relays ever. Magpie done herself proud."
Annie skipped over to take Magpie's reins from Billy. Her sides still heaving, the mare whickered and nudged Annie with her soft pink muzzle. Annie laid her cheek against the pony's shoulder, feeling the mare's hot sweat sting her own skin. She could hear Magpie's heart hammering away inside her rib cage.
"It sure is good to see you again, girl," Annie said softly. It had been a week and a half since Magpie had galloped westward with another relay rider. A half dozen horses came in and out of Red Buttes regularly on Pony Express runs, but Annie yearned for the times when Magpie would be here, resting up for her next relay.
Magpie seemed to know it, too. She lifted her head expectantly Annie, smiling, reached up to tug on the single white streak in Magpie's black mane, just behind her ears. Magpie closed her eyes as Annie scratched her black neck right at the base of the streak. Her long lashes—white on the left eye, black on the right—fluttered happily as she felt Annie's fingers rub her in that special place.
Billy Cody threw his lanky figure on the wooden bench outside the station house. He shoved his dusty hat back on his head, revealing a surprising band of clean forehead up near his sandy-colored hair. "I brought her home to you, Annie," he said with a playful smile. "Now don't you go spoiling her again. Magpie's a working girl—ain't you, Maggie?"
The mustang gave a little snort, for all the world as if she understood Billy's words. Annie and Billy laughed together.
Annie began to walk Magpie slowly around the station yard to cool her off after her hard run. "I'll groom her and feed her, Billy," she offered.
"That'd be right kind of you, Annie," Billy said. He stretched his arms wide and arched his back. Rising to his feet, he sauntered over to the water barrel near the stationhouse door. He took the tin scoop hanging beside it and filled it with cold well water. He drank thirstily, then took off his hat and poured a second scoop over his head.
With a satisfied sigh, Billy dropped back onto the bench. Davy, who'd wandered up from the river, came edging around the corner of the house. Billy winked at Davy, then set his hands on his knees.
"It weren't an easy ride, I can tell you," he began.
Annie and Davy traded delighted glances. They loved it when Billy launched into one of his tales. "I had to drag myself out of bed at Three Crossings before sunup. Ate my breakfast in the saddle—just hardtack and a hunk of cold salt pork. Didn't even get coffee. Then I ran into a flash flood—clean washed out a gully back in the Granite Range."
"How'd you get across, Billy?" Davy wondered.
"Talked the horse into jumping over," Billy replied. "He's a real whirlwind, a shaggy black gelding. You can't beat these mountain ponies for nerve. 'Course, I got stuck with an awful poky horse when I changed at Devil's Gate—lost some time there. Made up for it after Willow Springs when I got on Magpie. Lucky for me, 'cause when we hit the Rattlesnake Hills, we got set on by a pack of Indians."
Crooking an eyebrow, Annie turned to Billy. "Indians? Were they friendly?"
"I just said they set on me, didn't I?" Billy looked annoyed at her for spoiling the drama of his story. "It was a buffalo hunting party, braves armed to the teeth. Could've been Blackfeet."
Annie twisted her mouth skeptically. Magpie pawed at a few jagged rocks scattered at the edge of the yard, as if she too doubted Billy's word. "Those ain't Blackfoot lands, that far west," Annie said. "How were they dressed?" She knew as well as Billy did that there were several tribes in this vast Nebraska Territory, many of them peaceful. Why, just up the mountain lived a half-Shoshone girl named Redbird Wilson. There were few young people around these deserted badlands, and the two girls had quickly become friends. Annie knew that Redbird's mother's people, the Shoshones, had always been friendly to white settlers.
"I bet they was Blackfeet. Blackfeet are the fiercest of all," Davy said. His face shone with admiration for Billy. "Weren't you scairt?"
"Naw, I'm never scared," Billy said, tousling Davy's fair hair. "But I sure enough felt a couple arrows whistle past my ears."
Annie halted in her tracks. "Oh, Billy! You didn't get hit, did you?"
Billy drew a deep sigh. "Had to ride like the wind, but I got away. I kept my scalp—this time."
Just then Mrs. Dawson stuck her head out of the station-house doorway. "Bill Cody," she said dryly, "is that you bragging out there?"
Billy gave Annie and Davy a guilty grimace and hopped to his feet. "Yes, ma'am."
Mrs. Dawson set her hands, rough from hard work, on her hips. She narrowed her hazel eyes. "Why, I can hardly recognize you for all the mud and dust," she scolded Billy lightly. "You give yourself a good scrubbing, hear? I took the liberty of washing your other shirt while you was away, but I won't let you have it 'til you're clean."
Billy made an exaggerated bow. "Yes, ma'am."
"Don't give me any of your sass now, boy," she replied. "And you, Annie—soon as you've tended to that horse, haul me some water from the river." She turned and went back inside the dim, cool cabin.
"I better scoot down to the hay meadow and pick a nosegay for your ma," Billy said, nudging Annie with his elbow. "Don't want to be getting on her bad side. Mrs. Moore at Three Crossings don't do my laundry for me. Her cooking ain't near as good as your ma's, either."
Annie smiled, remembering what her mother had said just this morning. I never can tell whether to treat that Billy Cody like a boy or a man, she'd said. From her joshing tone, Annie could tell how much Mrs. Dawson liked Billy, in spite of all his mischief. A good thing, too, with Billy staying here every few days, waiting to ride the next relay back to Three Crossings.
Billy started to stroll down the trail he'd just ridden up. Annie knew he was heading for the meadow by the river, where the station's stablehand, Jeremiah, was harvesting the tall grass for hay. A ragged patch of wildflowers always grew at the edge of the meadow—sweet vetch, prairie-star, saxifrage, roseroot. Davy trailed behind Billy, idly whipping with a willow frond at the bushes beside the trail.
Annie turned her attention back to Magpie. Laying a hand on the mare's side, Annie could feel that her breathing and heartbeat had eased. She leaned against Magpie's powerful flanks, fitting the hollow of her temple against the familiar place where the mare's hipbone curved outward. Magpie shifted her weight to press gently against Annie, too. Close up, Annie studied the way the black hairs grew in round whorls on the mare's barrel.
Annie sighed and shook herself. She had to remember that Magpie—like all the other horses in the Red Buttes barn—belonged to the Overland Express company, not to her. She'd better cover Magpie with a blanket before her sweaty coat got cold. She clucked softly and turned the horse's head toward the barn.
A trail of smoke rose from the chimney pipe of the forge, a wooden shed set to one side of the barn. Back in the California gold-mining camps, Annie's father had set himself to learn the blacksmith's trade when he'd wearily begun to give up his dreams of finding gold. That skill had helped him get hired as a stationmaster almost a year ago.
Though few white settlers lived on these bleak plains, this track was the main route west through the Rockies. The North Platte River ran particularly shallow below this rocky rise, and pioneers had long used it as a fording place. A couple of years ago, the Overland Express company had taken over a meager trading post on the bluff to serve various Overland enterprises. The Pony Express, with twice-a-week relays in each direction, was the Overland's newest service. Two weekly Overland stagecoaches also rumbled through the station—one eastbound, one westbound. Mule-drawn wagon trains of freight rolled in from time to time, too, and in the summer there were occasional wagons of settlers, bound for Oregon or California. There was always plenty of blacksmithing for Mr. Dawson.
Now Annie's father stood in the forge doorway, wiping his large, strong hands on a dirty cloth. He was a stocky, silent man with a dark beard. Annie could feel his eyes on her as she walked Magpie past.
"Annie!" he barked.
Annie jumped. What had she done wrong now?
Mr. Dawson stepped forward with a worried scowl. "What's wrong with that horse?" he demanded.CHAPTER 2
WATCHING AND WORRYING
Annie froze. Something wrong with Magpie? "What do you mean—" she began.
Mr. Dawson's eyebrows met in one dark line. "Can't you see she's favoring her left hind foot?"
He strode quickly across the yard and picked up the mare's back leg, steadying her flank with his other hand. Magpie, taken by surprise, jerked her head up, then lowered it. Annie cradled the mare's trembling head against her chest. She ran her fingertips gently over Magpie's hard cheekbones, feeling the horse's muscles gradually uncoil, trusting human hands.
Mr. Dawson grunted. "Loose shoe." He set down Magpie's leg. "Who rode this horse in?"
"Bill Cody," Annie answered in a small voice.
Mr. Dawson shook his head. "I should have known. Where's he gone to?"
Annie's throat tightened. She gestured silently toward the hay meadow.
Her father set his jaw, his mouth disappearing in the bearlike beard. He strode toward the meadow, bellowing, "Cody!"
Annie hunched her shoulders, feeling somehow responsible for getting Billy in trouble. When things around the station went wrong, her father always seemed to overreact like this. She'd seen him be so gentle with animals; why didn't he realize that the same kind manner worked best with people, too? Miserably, she gathered Magpie's reins and led her inside the wooden barn.
The scent of hay and horses hung heavy in the dimness. Annie tethered Magpie beside the tack room, near the barn door. The surrounding stalls were full of the soothing sounds of horses munching, sighing, and stamping. But as she began to unsaddle Magpie, loud voices entering the station yard outside cut into the barn's calm.
"How can I believe you?" her father was saying angrily. "It ain't the first time you've been careless with the horses. Just last week you saddled Surefoot over a crumpled saddle blanket. He got a sore on his withers from it."
Billy's voice rose in protest. "But Magpie's hoof was fine, honest. She must have knocked it loose after—"
Mr. Dawson cut him off. "The Overland Express paid top dollar to buy the best horseflesh in the West. These little nags run their hearts out for the Overland Express. How else could they get mail from St. Joe to Sacramento in ten days? You riders—you're just the weight in the saddle. You haven't got the right to mistreat the company's animals."
Annie felt tears spring to her eyes as she flung a coarse wool blanket over the mare's back. She knew exactly how Billy must be feeling. Just like Billy, she all too often did the wrong thing in front of her pa. She wanted so much to please him, but when he got that anxious look in his eyes, she immediately became tense, clumsy, and forgetful.
His stocky shape loomed suddenly in the barn doorway. Annie jumped, as if he'd read her thoughts. "You done with that horse?" he asked. Annie nodded. "Then bring her 'round to the forge."
As he began to step away, Annie cleared her throat. "Pa? You know, Magpie wasn't limping when she first arrived. I saw her run in and she was perfectly fine. But later she was pawing at some rocks in the yard—"
Mr. Dawson turned, still frowning. "Riders like Billy—they only want to be adventure heroes," he grumbled. "They ain't got responsibility to the Overland Express owners. But I do."
Excerpted from Hoofbeats of Danger by Holly Hughes. Copyright © 2009 Holly Hughes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This is a good book about and 11-year-old girl who loves horses. Her family, Ma, Pa, Davy, and her, all live at the pony express station and one day Annie's favorite horse, Magpie, has gone crazy. She is sure that Magpie hasn't gone loco, wild, but she can't find out what happened. With the help of her half white half indian friend, Redbird Wilson, and her other friend, a REAL pony expressrider, Bill Cody, she finds out what has happened! I loved this story! It is my favorite! I also love history! I did a speech on pioneers because I love history So much! If you Love it too these books are perfect for you! PLEASE buy these books they are worth every penny! This is my fav. history Mystories book but I also REALLY liked Whistler In the Dark #16, Danger at the Wild West Show #19, Smuggler's Treasure #1, and Circle of Fire#14! This book is #2! I LOVE LOVE LOVED this book! In fact it's not only my fav. history Mystories book but it's my all time fav.!!!
It was great, I recommmend it to all the readers out in the world. I think it was one of the best books I have ever read!! It had alot of suspence, I really love books with alot of suspence.
This book is well written, but is another horse story. There are just sooooo many horse stories that it get's wicked annoying. Even though I'm not a big fan of horse stories, I did enjoy this book. I would recomand this book for girls 10-12 and horselovers.
really brings you in the old days, great for rainy days!
I was pleasently surprised at how good this book was. I would reccomend it to anyone who can read!!!!!!
This book shows us all that we all have things to be happy for in life. But when these things are jeporadized we should do the best we can. Annine was brave and loyal and willing to try and help her favorite pony. I would be that way too. The book pulled me in from the begginning. I finished it in an hour and a half. The book has a certain ring abouted or maybe it is more like being hypnotized. This book brought me happiness, worry, anger, puzzlement, nail-biting-anxiousness and more feelings than could be explained.The book shows reality and fiction. Just let it take you to this wonderful mystery.