DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC?
It took almost two weeks to get to Kansas City. Once there, they met up with Bill Stokes, a Wagon Master who knew the Santa Fe Trail and how to run a wagon train. They traded their wagon in on a bigger wagon with a canvas bonnet. They bought a milk cow, a team of six oxen, and a whole bunch of supplies like corn our, salt pork, dried beans, and dried apples.
Things happened around Grace with blinding speed. Mamma and Daddy were happy and filled with excitement over the trip. “It’s a dream coming true,” Mamma said. But Grace felt as if she were watching from somewhere outside herself. She clung to Old Shep like an island in the sea. Try as she would, she could not enjoy the adventure going on around her. Every new thing made her want to go home again.
She spent almost all of her free time under the wagon with Old Shep, trying to gure out what she would have to do to convince her parents to go back to St. Louis. She was sitting there alone one afternoon with the tin of gingerbread men, trying to decide how to ration them. She was afraid that when they were all gone a piece of Grandma Willis would be gone, too. Old Shep, usually by her side, had gone with Daddy into the town.
A scruffy-looking girl stuck her head under the wagon. Right behind her was an even scruff- ier-looking boy. Grace hadn’t met them, but new families joined the Stokes Company every day. The pair looked to be about her age. Grace wondered if they would be friends.
“This here is Junior,” said the girl, grinning, “we seen you crawl under here.”
“My name is Grace Willis, what’s yours?”
“Ruby Swathmore. Junior knows magic, don’t ya, Junior.”
“Yeah,” said Junior, snickering. He wiped his nose on his sleeve.
“Want to see some magic?” asked Ruby. “Junior can make stuff disappear.”
“Sure,” said Grace.“Close your eyes,” said Ruby.
The minute she closed her eyes, Junior grabbed the cookie tin, crawling out from under the wagon in a ash. Ruby was right after him. “You better give me my share, Junior. I’ll knock the snot out of you if you don’t.”
Grace followed them, too furious to think about what she’d do if she actually caught up. They raced across the field where wagons were collecting, dodging in and out among them. Then they let her catch up, making no effort to hide. “Told ya he could make stuff disappear,” taunted Ruby, turning to face her. Her mouth was so full of gingerbread she could hardly talk. “I can make stuff disappear, too. Specially gingerbread.” A great glob of gingerbread showed as she talked.
“That was mean,” Grace said, trying to stand her ground. “I would have shared.”
“Yeah? Want to make somethin’ of it?” asked Junior, talking with his mouth full. The empty tin was on the ground where he’d dropped it. They had stuffed every last bit of gingerbread into their mouths.
There wasn’t any use trying to talk and Grace wasn’t a fighter. Besides, there were two of them, both a good inch taller than she was. She picked up the tin, tears of anger burning in her eyes, and walked away.
Mamma listened sympathetically. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
“They ate every last gingerbread. Every last one. All I have is this one,” Grace sobbed, pulling it from her pocket. “Grandma made them especially for me. And I was stupid enough to close my eyes.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” said Mamma, putting her arms around Grace. “It would have been good fun if he had been magic, wouldn’t it? You were right to walk away, though. Maybe you should just try to stay away from them.”
“I don’t believe in magic anyway,” said Grace.
“You don’t?” Mamma asked. “What a dull world it would be without magic in it. How uninteresting if nothing extraordinary ever happened.”
“Why can’t we go home?” Grace whined. It didn’t do any good. It never did.
“But we are home,” said Mamma. “Home is where we are all together.” She always said that. Grace quit listening before Mamma got to the part about looking forward and how she’d miss out on all the fun if she kept looking backward.
The evening the Johnson wagon arrived, everything changed. Grace and Old Shep stood watching as a new wagon pulled up. Twenty-one, she counted to herself. Mr. Stokes says we have to have thirty wagons before we can leave. Why do they keep coming?
A boy stuck his head out from the canvas bonnet. “Oh! Ha-llo there,” he said. There was something about the way he said it and the mischief in his eyes that told her they were going to be friends.
It was early the next morning when they actually met. The field where wagons were collecting for the journey west was full of wild flowers and tall prairie grass. Grace grudgingly admitted to herself that it was beautiful in the early morning with dew sparkling from every leaf and wild flower.
She and Old Shep were out before breakfast gathering flowers when she saw Ruby and Junior. Laughing gleefully, they poked at something with a stick. She was about to turn and walk in the opposite direction when a rough looking man stepped into view. “What’s the big idea of you two runnin’ off like that?” he yelled. “Get back here before I have to take off my belt.” Drop- ping their stick, Ruby and Junior rushed back to their wagon. Grace couldn’t help smiling. Serves them right.
Curious about what they had been doing, Grace waited until Ruby and Junior were out of sight. An ant den stood in a bare place in the tall grass. Right on top of it was a little creature no bigger than the back of her hand. She couldn’t tell if it was a lizard or some kind of frog. It was reddish brown with dark spots and spikey all over. Two spikes stuck out from the back of
its head like a little collar. The poor thing was covered in patches of blood. Ruby and Junior must have hurt it.
Grace didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t stand to see it suffer, but she was afraid to pick it up.
Just then Sid appeared. He carried a long stick, using it as a walking staff. Following him were a much younger boy and girl. They carried long sticks, too.
“What cha found?” Sid asked.
“I don’t know,” said Grace. “Some kind of creature. I think Ruby and Junior hurt it. They may have put it on the ant den to see if the ants would eat it.” Then, noticing his quizical look, she added, “Ruby and Junior are two big bullies.”
Sid leaned over to look. “Why that’s nothin’ but a horned toad,” he said.
“It’s wounded,” said Grace.
“No, somethin’ must ‘a upset it, maybe it was them pokin’ at it,” said Sid. “Look how puffed up he is. They do that to protect themselves. Don’t worry about the ants. He’s glad to be on an ant den.” He straightened up, putting an arm over the little girl’s shoulder as she and the boy gathered around. “Ya see, horned toads like to eat ants. They sit by an ant den and gobble them up as they walk past. The ants can crawl all over him and it doesn’t hurt him one bit.”
“But he’s bleeding,” pleaded Grace, still worried. “Ruby and Junior must have hurt him.”
“Maybe not. I reckon they was tryin’ to get him upset. If he’s frightened, a horned toad can squirt blood from the corner of his eye. It’s a weapon that keeps skunks and coyotes and bigger animals like that from havin’ him for breakfast. Horned toads won’t hurt you. I wouldn’t pick up one that’s sittin’ on an ant den, though. You might get stung even if he doesn’t.”
“I saw your wagon come in last night,” said Grace. “My name’s Grace Willis, what’s yours?”
“Sid Johnson. This is my little brother Jimmy and my sister Cora. Mamma asked me to take them for a walk before breakfast. She wants us out of her hair while she’s settin’ up camp.”
“We’re explorers,” said Jimmy, standing just a bit taller and gripping his walking stick.
Cora took her thumb out of her mouth long enough to say, “I’m a ‘splorer, too.”
“Oh good,” said Grace. “Maybe we can all be explorers together.”
“You have to have a walkin’ stick,” said Jimmy.
Sid grinned. “It’s okay Jimmy. We’ll find her one.” He had such a carefree, easy manner. Grace envied him.
“Can I pat your dog?” asked Jimmy.
Old Shep, who had stayed back all this time, stepped forward, wagging his tail as if he knew exactly what was called for.
“Sure,” said Grace, trying to sound casual and carefree like Sid.
“Let him smell your hand rst,” advised Sid. He held out his hand to Old Shep, who sniffed it approvingly. Cora didn’t wait. Dropping her stick and taking her thumb from her mouth, she threw her arms around the dog in a big hug. Old Shep stood patiently, tail wagging.
With Sid as a friend, Grace quit thinking so much about going home. They always found interesting things to do when they weren’t busy with chores. They explored under every wagon as new families joined the train. Sometimes it was the two of them and Old Shep. Sometimes Jimmy and Cora came along. Sometimes other kids from the camp joined them.
By the time the wagon train pulled out of Kansas City, the younger children in the train counted on them to organize games of hide and seek, hopscotch, cat’s cradle, or marbles. With Sid as her ally, Grace didn’t worry about Ruby and Junior. Sid wasn’t any bigger than the twins. In fact he wasn’t quite as tall as Junior. He wasn’t a bully either. But something in his manner said, Don’t even try.
One day they were walking beside the Willis wagon, trying to stay in the shade cast by the canvas bonnet. “Do you believe in magic, Sid?” Grace asked.
“Sure,” said Sid in his matter-of-fact, casual way. “Don’t you?”
“I don’t know,” said Grace doubtfully. Then she told him how Old Shep showed up on the porch the day before the auction.
“One hundred three in dog years,” repeated Sid thoughtfully. “Why couldn’t he be? Old Shep is no ordinary dog, I’ll tell you that much.”
“What do you mean?” asked Grace, bewildered. “He doesn’t do spells or turn people into frogs or anything. And he sure didn’t stop the auction from happening.”
“That’s not magic. That’s fairy tales,” said Sid. “There’s somethin’ about Old Shep. He understands stuff. He’s wise. Maybe he is one hundred three. Maybe he’s a whole lot older.”
“But what good is it?” Grace persisted.
“I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t have to be any good. Maybe it just is. Race you to the front of the train.” Sid was off in a leap, Old Shep bounding after him. Grace ran, her bonnet falling off her head and dangling behind her, wind whipping through her hair.