The man scratched his beard. "I always hitch a ride before the road gets hairy. Tried walkin' it once and had to hang on to a tree or get runned over."
Kathryn looked out her window and pressed back with a gasp.
"If you look over the edge at the next curve, you'll see a coach down there. Driver was in too much of a hurry. Happens every once in a while."
Cussler cracked the whip again, urging the horses to go faster. Kathryn gulped.
"Never know when you're gonna die." The old-timer turned philosopher. "We'll make it, dependin'."
"Depending on what?" Kathryn dared ask.
"How much Cussler drank at the last stop."
Kathryn looked at Henry Call. He shrugged. What had been in the big mug the station manager gave Cussler? She braced herself as the coach went around another curve. She couldn't help herself. She peered out. The coach lurched and the door popped open. She gave a shriek as she pitched forward. She felt someone grasp her skirt and jerk her back. The old man relatched the door. The three sat staring at one another. Kathryn didn't know who to thank and was afraid to guess.
Henry Call cleared his throat. "I was told Cussler is the best driver on the line. We have nothing to fear."
The old man snorted and tucked something into his cheek. His jaws worked like a ruminating mule deer as he studied Kathryn from her high-button shoes to the brim of her beribboned bonnet with its two dusty plumes. "What kind of bird gave up those feathers?"
"An ostrich." "Say what?"
"Os-trich. It's an African bird."
"Musta cost you plenty." He leaned over to the window and spit a stream of brown juice.
Kathryn almost gagged. The old man wasn't finished with his perusal. Annoyed, she looked him over from his dirty hat, worn plaid shirt, weatherworn leather coat, and faded-blue canvas pants to his dusty boots. The man smelled like a muskrat, or what she imagined a muskrat might smell like. But then, who was she to turn up her nose? She hadn't had a full bath since leaving Boston. Her whalebone stays pinched. Worse, her skin itched beneath them. Her bustle felt like a log at the base of her spine.
The stagecoach sailed along smoothly, and Kathryn relaxed until Cussler shouted, "Hang on, folks! Washboard a-coming!" Before she could ask what the driver meant, the old-timer put his dirty boots on the edge of the seat next to her and braced himself. The coach shot up, Kathryn with it. Her decorated bonnet was the only thing preventing a skull fracture. She landed with a painful thump and an oooff. One bounce turned into a succession. "Ah...ah...ah...ah..." She clung to the doorframe, her backside getting a beating. As quickly as the abuse started, it ended.
The ostrich plumes dangled between her eyes. Her hen-cage bustle had slipped downward. Kathryn shifted on the seat, but that made her predicament worse. Both men asked if she was all right. "Yes, of course. How long until we reach Calvada?"
"Not long, I'm thinking. Before sunset, anyway. Cussler is making good time."
Kathryn resigned herself to suffer.
Henry Call tucked his papers away. "It's a long journey for a young lady on her own, Miss Walsh. You must miss Boston."
"Indeed." So far, the journey had merely served to remind her of the heavy cost of following one's convictions.
The older man brightened. "Boston! I knew you was from back East. You've got that grand air about ya. Don't have many ladies out here." He seemed mesmerized by the flat and broken feathers. "Got plenty of the other kind though."
Henry Call cleared his throat.
The old man looked at him and chewed his cud. "She's gonna see fer herself, ain't she?" He turned back to Kathryn. "Why are you out here?"
"Seeing to family business, sir." As if it was any of his.
The old man's brows rose and he looked her over again. "No one's ever called me sir before. Plenty of other names, but not that one. No, we sure don't have anyone like you in Calvada. Don't take no offense at me tellin' you that. It's a pure compliment."
"They don't have many like you where I come from either, Mr...."
"No mister. Just plain Wiley. Wiley Baer."