Julie looked up to see Myles staring at her and started walking toward him. He hated that she had insisted on keeping the little wagon they had started out on and driving it herself. Both he and Teresa had assured her she would be more than welcome to share the Conestoga he had bought as soon as they got married, but Julie said newlyweds should be alone. Besides, she was capable of handling the wagon by herself. Derek had not liked it, and they'd had some words over her insistence, but Myles stayed out of arguments between Derek and his sister.
Julie worriedly greeted him, "I don't like the idea of our being stuck over here, away from the others, if that storm decides to break. Do you think we'll get across today?"
Just as he was about to answer, there was a distant cheer, and they turned to see that the Field wagon had made it across the churning river. Immediately a rider on an exhausted horse started back through the water toward them, and Myles said worriedly, "I have a feeling we're about to find out."
"It's Thomas." Julie nodded toward the rider. He was shivering with cold, his pant legs soaked with the icy waters of the Colorado River.
"Get going and be careful," he said to Myles. "Let Teresa take the reins and you hold onto the guide rope. If you stay in a straight line and hold steady, the horses' hooves and the wagon wheels can stay on the bottom. Veer off the least little bit and you'll get caught in the current."
Myles hurried to his wagon to tell Teresa, and Julie turned toward her own wagon. But Thomas called to her, "Get in your brother's wagon, Julie, or Mrs. Thatcher's. We're leaving yours behind. Arnhardt says if the storm doesn't break tonight, we can come back for it in the morning."
"But what if we can't come back?" she protested. "That storm looks bad. And we might wake up to find snow on the ground. I'm not losing my wagon and my team!"
Thomas shook his head. "I'm sorry, Julie. There's no time to argue. Those are his orders. Now please, just get in another wagon. If there's anything important in yours, tell me and I'll get it for you now."
"This isn't fair," she said tightly, green eyes flashing. "I was way up in line ready to cross. I should have crossed at midday, but Derek kept sending word for me to fall back so the larger, heavier wagons could go. They took my place. Now my wagon is the one to be left behind. That's not right."
"You can argue with him later." Thomas sighed. "I've got my orders, and now you've got yours. We're wasting time and there is no time. Now, do you want anything out of your wagon or not?"
She shook her head, eyeing him steadily. After a moment he moved away. She watched as he rode back to the river, guiding Myles's wagon by the guide rope stretched between the banks and tied to trees.
Hearing running footsteps, she turned to see old Micah. "Miz Marshall," he called. "Miz Thatcher say for you to come on now. We's fixin' to cross."
Julie walked straight to her own wagon, hoisted herself up, and took the reins in her hands. "So am I." She smiled down at him. "You and Mrs. Thatcher go right ahead. I'm not leaving my team and my wagon."
Having heard Julie's declaration, Elisa Thatcher leaned out of her wagon and called, "Leave her be, Micah. Let her make a fool of herself, if that's what she wants."
Julie pretended not to hear. Her grip on the reins was firm, her gaze straight ahead.
When Myles was midway through the river, Micah moved his wagon into the water. It had become quite dark, and Julie had to strain to see the Thatcher wagon. All she had to do, she told herself, was stay close behind Micah.
It seemed hours before Micah's wagon reached mid-river. When it did, her nerves taut, Julie popped the reins and moved the eager horses forward. They were right behind Micah, and it was so dark that Derek couldn't see her there. By the time he realized she'd disobeyed his order, she and her wagon would be safely across.
Julie could barely see the gray canvas of the wagon ahead of her as she urged her horses down the gentle slope of the riverbank and into the black, churning river. The horses balked as they felt the icy water, and she snapped the reins again, hard. Wind whipped about her face, making her eyes burn and tear. Blinking furiously, ducking her head against the wind, she gripped the reins tightly and forced her team onward into the water.
Suddenly the wagon gave a sharp lurch to the left, and she realized, terrified, that the mist was descending so quickly that she couldn't see anything at all. Elisa's wagon was no longer visible, and she had planned to follow that, because there was no one beside her to grasp the guide rope. But the rope had to be there, she knew that. Wrapping the reins around her left hand, continuing to pop them up and down to force the horses forward, she moved along the rough wooden bench to the right, groping for the rope in the mist. It wasn't there.
The horses stumbled, this time more sharply, and Julie realized they were floundering. The wagon and the horses were all afloat. She had gotten off the track, into a place where the water was too deep for the wagon wheels to touch bottom. Freezing water flowed across her feet, rising to her calves. Then suddenly she was thrown sideways, the reins torn from her as she groped for the seat, trying frantically to stay in the wagon.