May 1, 1828. West Bank of the Little Wabash River, Illinois.
"Jesse! Moses!" Mama calls from the cabin. Finish your chores and come quick. Papa has a surprise."
Mama sounds excited. I look up from milking Nettie.
"Moses, did you hear?"
"I'm not deaf." A forkful of hay tumbles from the loft and lands near Nettie's feed box. The cow's tail flicks against my face.
"Whoa, Nettie." I crook my elbow hard against her leg to keep her still. What could the surprise be?
My brother's black boot swings out over my head. His bare foot shows through the worn-out sole. "You have a hole in your boot," I say.
"You have a hole in your head, the way you snuggle up to that cow." Moses clunks down the ladder. "I'm glad milking is girl's work." He says "girl," as if he were chewing one of Mama's pickled turnips.
"Wonder what Papa wants to tell us?" I ask.
Moses scowls at me, then forks hay into the feed boxes. "Nothing good," he says. A mosquito whines near my ear. I aim a stream of milk at the bug, but miss.
"Don't waste milk," Moses says, and stomps out of the barn.
I sigh. Moses and Papa have both been acting strange lately. Yesterday morning, Papa left the plow sitting in a furrow, went off in the wagon, and didn't come home until after dinner. And Moses keeps riding away on Ginger, his mare. He carries Papa's gun but he comes back with no game, and won't tell me where he's been.
I lug the heavy bucket to the cabin, careful not to slop milk on my skirt. What is Papa's surprise? Did he sell Nettie's calf in Shawneetown? Maybe he bought us some pretty calico from a river boat trader. Maybe Mama will help me sew a new dress that doesn't bind my chest and pinch under my arms. Or maybe he bought me some shoes, but I don't dare dream about that.
When I come inside, there are no packages on the table. The pale boards are scrubbed clean. Mama sits at one end, with Louisa perched on her knee. Solomon is on his stool with his thumb in his mouth. Papa's beard is wet and his hair is brushed back as if it was Sunday.
I feel funny. Why is everyone so quiet? I glance around the cabin to see if I've missed something, but it seems the same. Soup bubbles in the big iron kettle over the fire. Mama's herbs are dusty, hanging from the rafters, and the little pool of sun near the open door makes the rest of the room seem gloomy.
"Set the milk down, Jesse," Papa says. "Moses, come sit with the family."
My older brother shakes his head. He's leaning against the wall, his arms folded over his chest. His eyes are as dark as Papa's, but they don't have Papa's warm shine. "I know what you're going to say."
I'm surprised at my brother's rudeness but Papa ignores Moses. He turns to me as I scoot in next to Solomon.
"Jesse," he says. "I have good news. Can you guess?"
I squirm on my stool. "You went to Shawneetown and bought me some shoes?"
Papa looks hurt. "No, Jesse, I'm sorry -- but this might please you even more. It's something you've wanted for a long time."
What could I want more than shoes? I glance at Solomon. His big brown eyes look puzzled. Louisa clutches her doll. Its dried apple face is as pale and puckered as her own. But Mama's wide smile makes my heart trip up into my throat. "We're going home?" I whisper.
Papa nods. "Home to Kentucky?" I screech. "And Grandma?" I jump up, knocking over my stool, and dance a little jig, my bare feet thumping the dirt floor, then grab Mama and squeeze her so tight I knock Louisa off her lap.
Hey! my sister whines, brushing herself off.
"Jesse! Calm yourself." Mama tries to scold me but she hugs me back.
"When?" I ask.
"Soon as the mud dries," Papa says.
"But Papa, you promised!" Moses calls. He's so tall, he has to duck his head in the doorway. His dark eyes plead with Papa. "You said if the Damron family moved again, we'd head west -- where the prairie goes on forever."
We hold our breath, waiting for Papa's reply, but he shakes his head and looks down at his hands.
"Then you'll have to travel without me," Moses says. The door closes, and my brother is gone.
TEXT (c) 1998 LIZA KETCHUM