Author: Holly Hughes
Illustrators: Paul Bachem and Greg Dearth
Publishing Year: 1999
Setting: Red Buttes Station, Wyoming, 1860
Eleven-year-old Annie Dawson is between a rock and a hard place. Her friend Bill Cody, a rider for the Pony Express, is accused of neglecting the horses...by her father, a Pony Express station master. But Annie's father is disappointed that she's not a boy, and doesn't hide it, and he's extra hard on Annie's six-year-old brother, Davy, who isn't his dream son either. The horse is Magpie, Annie's favorite. Her relief when her mother says the horse will be fine is short-lived: during a rainstorm that night, Magpie starts acting crazy. Something's clearly wrong with the animal. Someone says Magpie is reverting from tame to wild, and that the only thing they can do is shoot her. Annie objects, reminding her father how gentle Magpie has been until just this moment. She asks to get Redbird Wilson, a half-Shoshone half-white teenager whose (Shoshone) grandfather has been teaching her the ways of a healer. Some of the men, including Mr. Dawson's boss, caution against this, citing how dangerous the "Injuns" are. Bill backs Annie up, saying that only a few tribes are aggressive toward the settlers, and the horse is probably just sick or injured. Mr. Dawson won't risk being fired by consulting Redbird, but also will wait until morning to see if Magpie needs to be put down.
Annie spends some time in the horse barn, trying to find evidence of what could be making Magpie act so bizarrely. She's able to get Magpie to trust her for a bit, long enough to give her a cursory inspection for obvious injuries. But soon the horse is acting up again (and not because Annie touched a sensitive area, at least not evidently). Her father hears the horse rampaging and comes out to see what's happening. He confides in Annie that he's worried he'll lose his job. He's new to being a station master, and doesn't have the best resume--a failed prospector, rather than an innkeeper or another more reputable job like most station masters. Mr. Dawson thinks his boss is just waiting for him to make a mistake so he can justify firing him. Annie reflects to herself that her father's boss makes him feel unwanted the same way Annie feels unwanted. She's also sure that she can help her father keep his job, and that curing Magpie is the answer. Taking advantage of having to sleep in the barn (as station master, the Dawsons also board stagecoach passengers, and the house is full) to slip out to Redbird's, riding one of the other horses.
Bill sees her, and tries to talk her out of going in the rain. Annie counters that he'd get fired. They talk a bit, and Bill intimates that he thinks someone might have deliberately hurt Magpie (and that whoever did is responsible for the supposed neglect he was accused of). He thinks she was poisoned. Annie reasons that it must be someone staying in house: while other mail delivery services or hostile Native American tribes might have motive, they wouldn't have had the opportunity. But she's more concerned with getting Magpie well, and heads for Redbird's.
Even though Annie comes in the middle of the night, Redbird quickly agrees. Her mother, the daughter of a healer, understands that healers must go when needed. Her father...well, Redbird didn't bother to wake him. The two girls make it back to Magpie (and safely return the other horse to his stall) under cover of darkness, but before they can coax Magpie to them, Mr. Dawson and a man working with his boss see what's happening. The other man, Mr. Ambrose, shoots at the "Injun" and frightens Magpie, who ends up kicking Mr. Dawson in the head. He slumps immediately to the ground, and Magpie bolts into the woods. Mr. Ambrose tries to apprehend Redbird and says he'll have to fire Mr. Dawson, but Mrs. Dawson puts him in place: it's his fault her husband is gravely injured and a valuable horse escaped, and Redbird has shown no evidence of any sort of guilt, and is a family friend who is needed to help Mr. Dawson.
Trusting her father to Redbird's expertise, Annie goes with Bill to find Magpie. They're supposed to shoot her (it would be a kinder death that having her get injured and starve to death), but they both think they might be able to help Magpie get well. Plus, if someone is deliberately sabotaging the Pony Express, that person must be found out. Redbird thought that Bill's guess of poison was right, and from Annie's description of Magpie's behavior, that the horse needs to keep moving to work the poison out of her system. They find Magpie much sooner than anticipated, but caught in some brambles, unable to move. They get her free, and among the scratches the thorns gave her, they see Magpie has a very deliberate cut. Mr. Dawson had seen it the day before, and scolded Bill for not treating the arrow wound, thinking Magpie had been wounded by a hostile Native American. But while Bill did encounter a few of the Blackfeet tribe, they only shouted at him. There were no arrows. Plus Annie hadn't seen the cut when she brushed Magpie down. Someone must have cut the horse to look like an arrow wound, and put poison in it.
Redbird arrives then, having followed the path the rampaging horse left. The three agree that Bill will stay with Magpie while Redbird and Annie return to the Dawsons'. Back at home, Davy shows Annie a knife he found. One of the stagecoach passengers must have forgotten it (the stagecoach just left). Annie sees some bloodstains and horse hair on it, and Davy says he found it outside Magpie's stall. This must be the weapon! Annie and Davy look carefully around the barn and find some clues: a bootprint with a peculiar pattern, a bit of clothing torn off on the rough wall, and a vial of belladonna nearly drained. Annie knows it was full yesterday, and that while a few drops can help a horse with certain ailments, too much can be fatal. With some information from a Pony Express rider, who pinpoints Magpie's symptoms as belladonna poisoning, Annie figures out that Mr. Ambrose is behind the crime. He was fired from a competing mail service after sabotaging some Pony Express equipment in California, and vowed revenge. Now it seems he's working for the Pony Express under a slightly different name to bring it down from the inside.
Just then, Bill comes in, asking for Redbird. Magpie is getting worse. Annie's suddenly torn in three directions: should she stay with her father, go to Magpie with Redbird, or help Bill catch the stagecoach with Mr. Ambrose on it? Her mother, Davy, Bill, and Redbird agree that it's best she accompany Bill: nothing can be done for father but wait for him to wake up, Redbird can handle Magpie, and Bill will someone to corroborate his story, plus Annie's a fast rider. They find the stagecoach fording a river, and not well. Bill swims out to help it across. Mr. Ambrose is downstream, flailing in the fast water. Bill goes after him too and rescues him. On shore, Mr. Dawson's boss asks Mr. Ambrose why he swam away. Annie and Bill jump in: he was trying to escape. They show the boss their evidence and Mr. Ambrose gleefully confesses, figuring Magpie is already dead, and saying he'd gladly do it all again, including the part with Mr. Dawson getting kicked. Mr. Dawson's boss arrests Mr. Ambrose, and promises Annie that he will be sure her father keeps his job. He also reassures her that if a horse can keep moving for twenty-four hours after belladonna poisoning, the horse will most likely survive.
Annie returns home (Bill, soaked and chilled, is resting at a nearby inn). Her father finally comes to, and seems to have no lasting damage. Annie and Davy tell him about the excitement he's missed. Just then. Redbird comes back to the house with Magpie. Both are tired, but the horse is well again--and Mr. Dawson is proud of both of his children.
A Peek into the Past
The Pony Express only lasted 18 months, meeting its end with the advent of the telegraph. But during that year and a half it was the fastest and best way to send news across the US. It was expensive--more than $30 in today's money for a letter--but mail arrived more than twice as fast than other methods. Riders earned good wages, because riding across the wilderness with only pistols, a knife, and the horse's speed as weapons was dangerous. Still, only one rider died. One famous rider was Bill Cody, a friendly and amiable man who capitalized on his fame to become the showman Buffalo Bill Cody in later life. He's part of the reason the short-lived Pony Express is so well-known today.
Dedicated to Grace.
Annie was born in the back of a covered wagon during her parents' journey from Vermont to the West.
Page 29 of this library copy has what appears to be a smeared drop of blood, as if a reader had a nosebleed and tried to wipe the drip off the page. Lovely. (What makes me think nosebleed? I'm prone to them, and own at least one book with a similar stain...and some pillows.)
I wonder if this book has the shortest time frame of any American Girl book. It barely covers 36 hours.