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Chapter 1

Early the next morning, Matthew awoke. He turned his head, but Bandit wasn't there. Must be hungry, Matthew thought. So am I, for that matter. He got out of his bedroll and started getting dressed. After pulling on his pants and boots, he decided not to put on his shirt yet. Matthew picked up the hat and put it on his head as he whistled for Bandit. The animal ran towards him from the creek, soaking wet. "Already took your morning bath, I see," Matthew said, chuckling. Bandit shook the water off and barked in agreement. They scouted the area carefully to be sure nobody was watching them before returning to the campsite.

Matthew took his spear from the wagon-bed. Moving upstream from Bandit, he chose a large flat rock near the middle and settled down. Before long, he had caught three medium-sized trout. Looking back, he saw that Bandit, too, had caught one with his mouth, from his spot on a small sand bar.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Ike had finished his chores before breakfast. Kid and Lou were at Mr. Tompkins's store to buy supplies for Rachel; Buck hadn't returned from Denver yet, on an errand with Teaspoon; and Noah was still on his run.

Where is Jimmy? Ike signed.

Cody shrugged. "I don't know. He left before we got up."

Ike picked up his charcoal and sketch pad.

"Gonna do some more drawing today?" asked Rachel.

Ike nodded. He didn't have a run today, so he could pretty much do what he wanted.

Cody swallowed a large bite of hot pancakes. "How about going to the creek? Nice and quiet."

The mute boy thought about that, then gave him a thumbs-up.

"I'll tell Buck when he returns," Rachel promised, handing him some fresh bread and an apple.

Ike smiled his appreciation, then went out to the barn. Jesse was cleaning Katy's stall.

"Going out for awhile?" Jesse asked.

Ike held up the small box containing his charcoal, then put it in his saddlebag. Good day for drawing, Ike signed back.

The younger boy stopped working long enough to help Ike saddle his horse. "See you later, Ike," Jesse replied. Ike mounted, then waved as he rode off, away from Rock Creek and towards the creek itself.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Matthew watched Bandit lunge at another fish just under the water's surface, but he missed it. "Better luck next time," Matthew said, turning his attention back to spear-fishing. His thoughts drifted to his journey thus far.

He'd gone southwest to Denver and spent a couple nights there. He didn't really notice anything out of the ordinary, every-day life of Denver's residents and visitors. Of course, there was the majestic mountain someone referred to as "Pike's Peak," whomever Pike was. The other thing that stuck out most in Matthew's memory was a person, actually. He'd climbed out of the wagon and onto the wooden sidewalk, just outside the town's general store; as he reached for the door handle, it opened from inside. Matthew found himself face-to-face with an Indian. But not just any Indian. This one was wearing a dark-blue shirt, brown riding pants, boots, and a black riding hat. It merely struck Matthew as odd, seeing an Indian in white man's clothes. Without so much as a word, the two had exchanged nods while Matthew backed away to let the other leave. The Indian's eyes seemed to look straight into Matthew, as if he knew everything about him. He's definitely not Lakhotan, and probably not even Sioux. Kiowa? Maybe. Pawnee? I hope not! Hard to know for sure. After paying for his purchases, Matthew had asked the store owner what was the quickest route to St. Joseph, Missouri.

"Saint Joe?" the owner repeated. "I'd take the Pony Express route, across southern Nebraska an' down through northeast Kansas."

"Pony Express? What's that?" Matthew hadn't heard of it before.

"Why, only the fastest way to send mail, m' boy! From Saint Joe all the way to California and vice-versa, through the mountains. Ten days on horseback, one way." The man whistled in amazement. "Most of the riders use Indian ponies. That's why it's called the Pony Express, see? One rider in Saint Joseph takes a saddlebag of mail to the next Express station--Sweetwater, I think. Or maybe Miller's Crossing. Anyway, he tosses it to another fella, and so on."

"Do you have a map of it?"

"No, son, I don't. Sorry. Say...why don't you just head on up to Rattlesnake. The riders there will tell ya which way to go next."

Matthew thanked him and left.

The last station he'd been to was Stevens. "Keep heading due east until you come to a wide creek, and follow that another couple of miles. Then go south until you reach a town. That'll be Rock Creek. The station aint far from town," the stationmaster advised. "If you need anything, ask for Marshal Hunter. Most folks call him Teaspoon. He's in charge of the Rock Creek station, too."

Matthew found the creek easily enough, but he wasn't sure how far he'd followed it. There was a well-worn path along the creek. Maybe I just take this road and it'll turn south when I need to. Matthew's stomach growled, reminding him of what he was doing. Turning around, he saw Bandit lying on the sand, one paw guarding his fish. Because of all the small bones in a fish, Bandit wasn't allowed to eat it, and he knew that. It was enough fun just catching them. Matthew would give him some more dried meat for his breakfast. Matthew looked down at the three trout on his rock, then back at Bandit. Four is more than enough. Maybe two now and two for lunch, if I need it. He crouched down to pick up his three fish. Glancing at Bandit, he froze. Bandit was on all fours, alert and studying the shore opposite their campsite.