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Riding on the WindRiding On The Wind
 Brix McDonald

Chapter One

 Carrie Sutton could barely sit still on the hard wagon seat. Never in her fifteen years of life had a seat felt so rough or had a trip into town taken so long.

 “If you’re going to keep dancing around on the seat like some Indian praying for rain, why don’t you get down and walk like one?”

 Carrie turned to the old man seated beside her and smiled. Hank always tried to sound so gruff but he couldn’t fool her, not after all these years. She and her Pa had met Hank in a gold mining camp up in the Black Hills seven years ago when she was just a muddy-faced little girl dressed like a boy. Now the mud was gone– most of the time–from Carrie’s face and her Pa gone from their lives, but Hank, good ole Hank, was still with her.

 “A real Indian wouldn’t have to walk,” she said. “A real Indian would have his faithful pony to ride. If I had my own horse, a horse like Outlaw, I’d never ride in a wagon again.”

 “You would pick the most contrary of the Express ponies to hanker after.”

 “Maybe that’s because I’m so contrary myself,” Carrie replied. “And besides, isn’t he the most magnificent stallion you’ve ever seen? I’ll never want another horse now that I have Outlaw.”
 Hank looked at Carrie sideways. “He’s not your horse, don’t forget that.”

 “Maybe I could buy him from the Pony Express.” He was the only horse she wanted. Just the thought of Outlaw made her smile. He was as shiny black as the feathers on a crow, with a crooked white blaze that ran from his forehead to his nose and four white stockings that stood out handsomely against his ebony coat. His neck arched proudly and his long tail swished as he pranced around the corral. The best thing about him was his spirit. He was like her, a maverick, with a fiercely independent streak. They named him Outlaw for that reason. He got into trouble with the Express agents the same as she got into trouble almost daily with her stepmother. Outlaw could no more be tamed than she could. She loved him for that. More than a mere mount, he was a noble steed. She wanted him for herself. To own him and ride him freely was her only desire. Every time she looked at him she was thankful their ranch happened to be in the perfect place to be a Pony Express relay station.
 “And just how do you intend to buy that horse, huh?” Hank asked. “I sure didn’t know you were so rich.”

 “I was thinking I’d get a job and save up my money.”

 “Is that right? What kind of job were you thinking of?”

 Carrie could see the corners of the old man’s mouth twitching.

 “I thought I might be a Pony Express rider,” she said, flicking her long braids over her shoulders and lifting her chin. “After all, I’m fifteen and a half, not what you could call a kid. My own mother, as Pa used to always tell me, was only seventeen when they got married. Cal told me Pony riders make a real good wage. Twenty-five dollars a week! I could buy Outlaw in no time and help out with the ranch, too.”

 “And what did Cal say when you told him you wanted to be a rider?”

 “I didn’t tell him. Or Jack. I wanted to tell you first. I thought you’d probably understand better than anyone else. Don’t you think I’d be a good Pony rider? I ride and shoot better than most boys, you’ve said it yourself a hundred times.”

 The look on Hank’s face stopped her. It was the same look he’d worn when she’d been ten and decided she must become an Indian scout after one passed through the mining camp, or the time when her Pa announced that he was going to buy land and become a rancher or, most recently, just two years ago, when Pa made up his mind to marry Anna. It was a doubting look that struggled against the love and loyalty in Hank’s heart.

 “I mean it this time, Hank, I really do, I’m not a child anymore, changing her dreams all the time. I’m practically grown-up.”

 Hank shook his head. “But you’re still dreaming.”

 Maybe she was dreaming, but she could try, couldn’t she? She gazed out over the quiet land of new spring grass, dark green shrubbery and low rocky hills. Behind wispy clouds the sky was blue and clear, freshly washed by the recent rain. It was the country her father had loved, the country where he had begun to turn his dream into reality. He would have made it, too, if he had lived. Wherever he was now, Carrie felt him watching her, believing in her. He’d always said anything was possible and he’d never lied.

 It was a morning in early spring and the weak sun, doing its best to dry the earth after days of rain, seemed to hold a promise of warmer days to come. After a typically long, cold, Wyoming winter, even a hint of warmth was a welcome relief. All the misery of the past year evaporated. Who could be unhappy on a day like this?

 It was, Carrie thought, the perfect day for the start of the Pony Express.

 They arrived in Box Elder at midday, riding into a town gripped by the excitement of the Pony Express.
Box Elder, a fairly new settlement on the western frontier, lay cradled in a valley surrounded by foothills that led to the Laramie mountain range beyond. It was a town of ranchers, farmers, fur trappers, miners and emigrants who had stopped to rest themselves and their animals before pressing on westward. Wagon trains of all sizes camped outside of town: horses tethered to the backs of covered wagons, cattle, and sometimes sheep, kept in tight circles by tired, dirty cowboys; women taking care of domestic chores like the laundry that hung across ropes strung between the wagons. They all had faraway looks in their eyes, eyes that were looking at land as strange and wild as they’d ever seen, knowing they still had many more dangerous miles to go. For Carrie, the wagon trains and their inhabitants were the only interesting things about the town, Until now, until the Pony Express.
 Now Box Elder was part of the Pony Express route. Six fine Express ponies shared the town livery with the miners’ mules and the farmers’ plow horses. A room at the hotel had been set aside to serve as a home station for two Pony riders.

 On this particular day, the third of April, the first Pony rider would set out from St. Joesph, Missouri. Although the mail wouldn’t reach them for another three days, a sense of festivity and anticipation vibrated throughout Box Elder, evident in the banner that reached across the face of the hotel: “WELCOME PONY EXPRESS!” Murphy’s Saloon was doing a booming business, catching Carrie’s attention as the wagon rolled into town and made its way down the muddy road to the Mercantile.
“Hey, Hank, what do you suppose is going on over there?” She stretched her neck to get a better look.

 “Prob’ly something to do with the danged Pony Express.” Hank looked at Carrie. “Whatever it is, you’d best stay away from there.”

 Carrie laughed and jumped from the wagon. “I was just wondering is all.”

 “Now, missy, I see that look in those wicked brown eyes of yours and I’m warning you, stay away from there. That’s no place for a girl.”

 “You know I’m not much on warnings,” she teased.

 “Well I can’t stand and argue with you when I ‘ve supplies to load so’s we can get on home before dark.” Hank glared at her through bushy brows. “I won’t say this again, but you know you shouldn’t be going anywheres near a saloon.”

 Carrie had to suppress a smile at what she thought of as Hank’s “stern face”. “I suppose I’m old enough to know what I should and shouldn’t do.”

  Hank shook his head and disappeared into the dim interior of the Mercantile.
 Carrie was left with a decision to make.