THE STORY SO FAR:

Jesse Damron is looking for her brother Moses, who ran away as the family was about to leave for Kentucky.

May 4, 1828.

On the trail to English Prairie, Illinois.

Not far from the cabin, I hear a strange sound, like a puppy whimpering. I stop running, my breath coming ragged in my throat. Then I inch forward and hide behind a tall tree. Moses is sitting on a fallen log, his head in his hands -- crying!

"Moses!"

He jumps to his feet, grabbing the gun, then slumps back down when he sees it's me. He swipes at his tears and I pretend I don't see them. "You shouldn't be here alone," he warns me.

"I came to find you. You can't take Grandfather's Kentucky rifle, the one he used in the war. Papa will never forgive you. Besides, we'll starve without a gun!"

"I know." He balances the gun on his knees. The silver stock gleams in the moonlight. "I can't leave, but I don't want to go back to Kentucky, either. Don't you see?" He looks up at me.

"That's the old life, Jesse. The new life is out west, where there are so many buffalo you could walk across their backs for miles. There's a river called the Mississippi that flows all the way to the ocean. And miles of black soil with no stones or stumps to clear away." He grabs my hand. "Come with me, Jess. We'll have an adventure."

I'm tempted until I remember Papa's warning. "I'm afraid of being bound out," I say. "I'm only twelve. And what about Grandma? What will she say, if we don't come home together?" I think about how Grandma cried when we pulled away from her cabin two years ago, how she ran after us on her short legs, waving until we couldn't see her anymore.

"We don't even know if Grandma's alive," Moses says in a tight voice. "We haven't had a letter in six months."

"Don't talk about her that way!" Now he's scaring me. "You have to come with us," I tell him. "We can't cross the ferry in Harmouny without you. Sadie won't obey anyone but you."

He hesitates, and I think maybe he'll change his mind, but then he waves me away. "There are plenty of men at the ferry crossing. They'll push that stubborn mule onto the boat." He hands me the rifle. It's so heavy, I can barely lift it. "Take this home. I'll travel without it."

"How will you eat, if you can't hunt?"

Before he can answer, we hear a scream, more horrible than the time Mama found a rattler in the cabin. The hair prickles on the back of my neck and my hands are so clammy I nearly drop the gun. "Someone's killing Mama!" I shove the rifle into my brother's hands and start to run.

"Jesse, wait!" He grabs my elbow. "It's a panther."

A panther? My legs tremble, like the time I had the ague. Papa told me about panthers, but I've never seen one. As big and fast as a wolf, he said. Even worse, they can climb trees. "It's near the cabin," I cry. "We've got to take the gun back. Hurry!"

We run toward the clearing. Clouds hide the moon. We stumble and trip in the dark. Papa shouts our names and the panther screams again. It sounds as if it's above us, in the trees, in the shadows beside the trail, in front of us, then behind. Moses grabs my hand and pulls me along. I scramble to keep up with his long strides.

I hear another scream, but it's not the panther, it's the mule. My heart jumps and stutters against my chemise. "It's after Sadie," I whimper.

We come out of the woods into the clearing. "Papa, we're over here," Moses calls out, low and frightened. Shadowy moonlight lands on Papa, who stands in the doorway, gripping an ax. Mama holds up the lantern beside him. Louisa and Solomon peer out from behind her nightdress. When Papa sees us, he warns, "Stay back!"

We freeze at the edge of the woods. The panther perches on the fence while Sadie circles the pasture. The panther's long tail twitches like a cat when it's about to pounce. But this isn't a cat, and it's not after a mouse. It wants our mule. I bite my lip to keep myself quiet.

Moses rams a ball and gunpowder into the barrel of the rifle and raises the gun to his shoulder. I stick my fingers in my ears. "Don't shoot!" Papa yells. "You'll kill Sadie." Too late. The panther shrieks, Moses pulls the trigger, and the gun kicks back, nearly knocking him down. I grab him from behind, my ears ringing.

We wait, shaking, for the smoke to clear.

TEXT (C)1998 LIZA KETCHUM

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