THE STORY SO FAR: Jesse Damron's family is moving back to Kentucky, but her older brother Moses doesn't want to leave.

May 4, 1828. West Bank of the Little Wabash River, Illinois.

I startle awake in the night, hearing voices outside. I sit up slow, trying not to jostle Louisa. How can a skinny six-year-old take up so much room? I peer out the tiny square window above our pallet. Moses stands close to the house with Papa. The moon slips in and out of the clouds, so I can barely see their faces. Moses' legs are planted wide, like sturdy oak trees. "Since you sold the sheep, the calf, and the chickens, how are you fixing to farm?" Moses asks Papa in a low voice.

"I'll go back to working with stone. Every town needs a mason. Or I'll open a grist mill."

Moses steps closer to Papa, until he's right below me. "I know you think this wet bottom land makes the girls sick," he says. "But there's better farming on high ground."

I hold my breath. Is Papa moving because of Louisa and me, and the terrible sickness Mama calls "fever and ague?"

"Moses, I'm not a farmer," Papa says. "There's only one bag of cornmeal left, and it's many months before the corn is ripe again." His voice breaks. "Look at the little ones, son. They're pale and scrawny as fledglings. Besides, your mama misses her family." He sets a hand on my brother's shoulder. "Come on to bed. We need to get an early start in the morning."

Moses turns away. I strain to hear his voice. "I talked to Mr. Flower, at the settlement called English Prairie. He told me the western prairie is bigger than the sea. Maybe I'll try my luck there." He waves his hand toward the west and leans that way, as if he can see the open prairie from here.

"Suit yourself," Papa says. "But you're likely to get bound out, traveling alone."

Bound out. Those words make me shiver. Mama has told us stories about orphan children who get snatched up like stray chickens. She says people treat bound out children like slaves, and they can't get away until they're grown.

"I'm almost fourteen," Moses is saying, drawing himself up.

Papa laughs gently. "You've grown tall, son, but you still have a child's face and voice."

Moses ducks his head and I feel sorry for him. Papa shouldn't have said that.

"I'm sorry, son." Papa's shoulders are slumped. "How do you think I feel? I don't want to go back to a slave state. I'm a Freemason -- we believe in equality. But your mama and I are too tired to start over in a new place." A cloud scuds across the moon, hiding their faces. "I can't stop you if you want to stay behind," Papa says quietly. "But you'd best explain it to your mama yourself."

Papa heads for the door. I wiggle back under the feather bed, breathing slow as if I'm asleep. So my brother has been running off to English Prairie all this time. Why didn't he tell me? I hate secrets.

Papa climbs the ladder into the loft. I hear Mama's soft voice, then Papa's, but I can't make out the words. When Papa starts to snore, Moses slips inside, leaving the door open. Moonlight washes over the table, where our clothes lie waiting to load in the wagon. I watch through half-closed eyes. Moses picks up his bundle, then tiptoes to the pallet he shares with Solomon and leans over him, touching his head. He stands beside the open door a second, then reaches up over the frame. Even though it's dark, I know what's hanging there: Grandfather's Kentucky rifle. I grit my teeth to keep from shouting: You can't take the rifle! How will we eat, if Papa can't hunt?

Moses shoves the leather sack of gunpowder into his pocket, tucks the rifle under his arm, and leaves without making a sound. I pull on my clothes, my fingers shaking as I button my dress. When I slip out the door after him, the clearing is empty. Sadie, the mule, snuffles at me from inside the fence. The river hisses along below the willows. Which way did he go?

Moses must be headed to English Prairie. I have to stop him.

I pick up my skirts and run barefoot along the muddy track that leads north from our clearing. An owl hoots above me, or maybe it's a bear. Sometimes we hear wolves in the forest. What if a wolf finds me before I find Moses? If I get lost in the woods, what will happen to me?

Next Week: A Scream in the Forest

TEXT (C) 1998 Liza Ketchum