Windwagon Smith


WINDWAGON SMITH had a face like any other man, and two legs to walk on, but the morning he rode into Westport the quietest mule in town jumped sixteen feet. And some men would have flown like bald eagles that day, if they could.

That was when Westport was the great city of the prairie. Now it is only a far corner of Kansas City and smells like gasoline and coal smoke, but in those days it smelled of prairie grass and clean wind, and was on every road west. No matter where you were going beyond the Missouri, you started at Westport. You followed a rutted trail twenty miles from town to a meadow where Jake Shafer’s Negro boy had nailed a box top to a runt cottonwood and painted on it, ‘Rode to Oregon.’ There the families for Oregon turned north, and the wagons for Santa Fe and the Spanish cities southwest. West of the crossing, two hundred miles of grass rolled away to the sky, waist-high, blowing black and green and yellow. Your shoes got slick as lard in that grass. Then you came out into the sagebrush, and the grit chewed off your soles and left you barefoot. And about that time the Comanches would come yelling out of the sand hills. All the way across a thousand miles of empty prairie you would wish you were back in Westport, sitting in Punch Dunkelberger’s Star of the West saloon, listening to Jake Shafer tell how Davy Crockett could grin the bark off a tree.

Westport could have been the greatest city in the United States. It could have been Boston and New York and Detroit pressed into one and set down in the middle of the prairie, if it hadn’t made one mistake. That was about Windwagon Smith.

The morning Windwagon came, Punch Dunkelberger’s hound dog woke up bristling like a hairbrush. That dog always slept until noon under his master’s hat peg in the Star of the West; he had slept through a cyclone and seven street fights. But that morning he woke up about ten o’clock, waved his nose in the air, howled a long quaver, and slunk into a closet. Two Pawnees in the Star looked at the dog and blew away like smoke. Jake Shafer changed his seat and drew a bead on the door. The door opened slowly. But only Shelby Foster glided in, with his apologetic way, giving a little bow before speaking, because he was from the East and knew manners. When he tried to talk he was so excited he couldn’t squeeze the words out, and stood there with his mouth mostly open, his eyes big as soap kettles, and a silly polite look on his face, waving his hands toward the street as though he were batting gnats.

‘I never hoped to see the Missouri flow juleps,’ said Jake Shafer, ‘or a gopher running a coyote, or Foster without anything to say.’

Foster looked behind him and croaked and skipped aside, and there was a crash, and the head and shoulders of Jake’s mule Martha appeared in the doorway. The doors slammed back and caught the mule’s neck in a pincers, and there she stood like a moose head on the wall, rolling her eyes.

‘I can stand bugs in the beer,’ bellowed Jake in his big barrel voice, ‘but when the draft animals come in I go out.’

When they went out, there was Windwagon Smith.

All they saw at first was a Conestoga wagon coming down the street between the log houses. It was like any other Conestoga wagon, sway-backed, with a horseshoe canvas top. Except for one thing: there was nothing in front of it.

No oxen, no mules, no horses. Nothing. The wagon was just coming down the street.

The Pawnees were peeking from behind trees, eyes bulging like hard-boiled eggs. The dogs were barking, and the ponies that hadn’t run away were pulling at their hackamores.

‘He’s got a sail,’ said Punch suddenly.

A pole stuck up out of the wagon like a ship’s mast, and on it a square of canvas turned half sideways to catch the quartering wind.

A little man in blue denim was riding on the wagon seat. He furled the sail in quick movements, locked the wagon wheel, and came to a stop exactly where Jake’s mule had been. When he hopped down from the wagon he walked with a sailor’s roll and sway. The dogs quit barking and balanced on their hind legs, ready to go either way. It was so quiet you could hear the stranger’s feet crunch in the dust and sand.

‘Ahoy!’ he said out of the silence. ‘Think I’ll drop anchor and come ashore for a bit of refreshment.’

His voice was deep and rolling, with something about it that prolonged the r’s and clipped the consonants like axebites in an oak tree.

‘My name’s Smith,’ he explained. ‘I’m the master, the crew, and most of the cargo of this ship, and I aim to do a lot of sailing on the prairie.’ There was never so much r in prairie until he said it.

It was Painted Dog, a Pawnee, who really named him. Painted Dog had been behind the nearest tree when Jake’s mule jumped into the saloon. ‘Mule be there,’ he explained later, ‘door there. Windwagon blow down street. Whoosh! Mule: here, there!’ So they called the stranger Windwagon, for he was the kind of person who had to have a shinier name than Smith.

The whole town followed the stranger to the Star. They made a circle around his table, then circles around that circle, like winding up a ball of yarn, until the room was full. Those who were near passed word over their shoulders to those who were not, so that bulletins would slide outward like waves when you throw a stone in a pond: ‘He’s sitting down’ — ‘sitting down’ — and finally, at farthest remove, the Pawnees would hear the news and pass it on: ‘Sittum down’ — ‘sittum.’

The stranger savored his drink like a man who had been long away from the good things. He was one of those old youngsters, anywhere between thirty and fifty. His face was burned and lined, his sandy hair had been tumbled and tousled by many a wind, and his eyes had the perpetual squint that a sailor gets from pecking all day at horizons. People looked mostly at his eyes: they burned like a tent preacher’s. When he began to talk, he wasn’t bashful or brash, just quiet and sure, and convincing, his big burry voice rolling like the tide. He told how the prairies were going to look tomorrow, speckled with mansions and factories and towns, wealthier than India. But he said people needed one great thing before they could have any of those things. They needed a way to move fast, a way to carry goods from town to town; to build this new prairie of tomorrow they had to have the speed of the wind! Then he talked about his wagon, how it would sail any place on the prairie ten times as fast as a draft animal, yet, without animals to buy or feed, it didn’t need to follow crooked trails along rivers, and it would always have free power because the wind never stops on the prairie.

Jake Shafer nodded his head at that, and the circle behind him nodded, and two minutes later the Pawnees were nodding their heads, too; they knew that prairie wind. Then the stranger looked Jake straight in the eye and said he wanted the men of Westport to ante in some money and build a fleet of big sail wagons, like his little one, for the Santa Fe trade. For a minute everybody stared at him. Then somebody snickered, and somebody laughed, and everybody around began to laugh, and the room shook, and mirth rippled outward until the farthest Pawnee was holding his belly and gurgling ug-ug-ug in his throat.

When the room was quiet again, the stranger said he had thought they might feel that way. He would be back in a few days; they should think it over. Then he climbed back into his wagon, unfurled the sail, and rumbled away in a great arc toward the west.


For the next few days they talked of nothing except Windwagon Smith. Jake Shafer said that he didn’t hand over any chips until he saw the cards on the table, and everybody agreed that was sage. Shelby Foster, who had just graduated from a New England college, said that the kind of mathematics they taught in New England colleges proved that such a big wagon couldn’t run, and only a fool would invest money in it. Foster had come out to write a book like Francis Parkman’s about the Oregon Trail, and went around looking at people and writing in his notebook. And as soon as Foster came out against windwagons people began to look at them more favorably. Jake’s daughter Rosalie, who was as sweet as clover honey, said that maybe this was one of t he things you just have to believe in — like boats, the first time you see one. Someone suggested that maybe Smith had gone to St. Joe, Westport’s rival town, and St. Joe would build windwagons and take over the whole trade; and everybody spent a bad day imagining St. Joe full of millionaires. But a rider from St. Joe said Smith hadn’t been up there. And when he hadn’t come back in four days, Westport gave him up and thought of other things.

When Windwagon Smith had been gone six days, a trapper came to Westport with a strange story. He had been riding about ten miles from town when he saw a white streak on the prairie. The streak turned out to be an old cow, sticking its head between its legs and uncoiling with ten-foot jumps, stringing its tail out behind like a fence rail. Before he could think what to do about the cow, it sailed past him and disappeared in a funnel of dust. He pondered whether he should catch the cow and race it against all comers, but he didn’t know that he could catch it; it was the fastest cow he ever saw.

That same day a caravan that had just started west passed back through Westport, headed east. The men of the caravan held tight to their guns and kept their mouths shut. One woman who was a little hysterical said they weren’t afraid of the Sioux or the Mormons, but they weren’t going out on the prairie among the spirits. They were going back to Ohio where bodies stayed in their graves!

Punch Dunkelberger and Jake Shafer talked of these events in the Star, Doctor Jackson told his patients about them while he prescribed calomel and mustard plasters, Shelby Foster discussed them with Rosalie Shafer while they looked at the moon. But the meaning was not fully comprehended until the next morning, when the dogs waved their noses in the air again and slunk away, all the ponies that could jump leaped the corrals and started east, and the Indians began to glide around, looking for wide trees. And soon Windwagon sailed down the street, waving to everyone.

‘Ahoy!’ he said. ‘I’d have been back yesterday, but came on a caravan and maybe scared them, so I took a long swing off the trail and waited until I was sure they were out of the way.’

The town followed him into the Star again, and he showed a stone that was as good as an affidavit for where he had been. It was jagged and black, and still warm from lying in a little gully beyond Council Grove where all the wind blows straight up, hot as Mexican pepper. That gully is one of the side doors to hell, people think. The Doctor worked long division on a table top, and calculated that the windwagon had made nearly seventy miles a day. An ox team was lucky to make fifteen. When Windwagon said he thought he might go to St. Joe, Jake looked at the faces around him and then jumped up and banged the table and said, ‘By God, we’ll form a company here!’ A great whoop went up behind him, and undulated outward, and in a little while the Pawnees were screaming and dancing in the street, the dogs snapping at their heels.

That is how the Westport Prairie Clipper Company was formed. You can see it in the company’s minute book. Jake Shafer was elected president; Punch Dunkelberger, vice president; the Doctor, secretary and treasurer. Windwagon could have had any office he wanted, but he wanted only to be Navigator — Navigator of the Prairies, he said with a faraway look in his eyes. He said you had to believe in the future. Columbus had to believe; Dan Boone had to believe in Kentucky before he cut the Wilderness Road; Fulton had to believe that a little engine could push a big boat. Every time progress is made it’s because people believe enough in something to take a chance. He said that pretty soon the prairie would be white with sails. The clippers would cruise past the oxen like coyotes past snails. Every day a clipper would dock in Westport with its hold full of gold and spices and blankets, and every day in the Spanish cities (ports, he called them) they would shout, ‘Make way for the Westport Prairie Clipper!’

Punch Dunkelberger was so near to tears he made the mistake of setting up the whole crowd.

They were slow in starting to build the clippers, because Windwagon was particular. He wanted white oak and hickory for the bed, so it could be curved just right to hold the cargo on slopes; and long-seasoned ash for the spokes and the tillers and all the moving parts that weren’t iron. The iron had to be beaten just enough. When Jake saw what a job it was going to be, he said they would build one clipper and try it out before building the others. Windwagon looked a little hurt, but he put the measurements on paper and sent riders to St. Joe and Independence to see what materials they could collect. Some things had to be ordered from St. Louis and Pittsburgh.

While the clipper was building, Windwagon had plenty of time to talk. He was ever one to talk grandly — not boastfully, just grandly. As soon as he got a dozen wagons promised, he began to talk of a hundred-wagon fleet. And one evening he said, ‘It’ll never do any good to have ships unless we have sailors. We’ve got to build crews at the same time we build clippers. If you are going to be the first captains in the Santa Fe voyage, you’ve got to learn to pilot.’

So Jake climbed into Smith’s little wagon one day, with his jaw set firm and his hands holding tight, and Windwagon sat beside him and explained how the sail worked. He let Jake try to steer, and they staggered over the prairie for a while. When they came back, Jake climbed out quickly with the sweat running down his face and said he’d rather drive a runaway bull team than handle a 6 x 6 sail. One by one the other members of the Company began to go out for sailing lessons. They would swell out their muscles and hold on to the tiller as though they were driving a twelve-mule span, and tug at the tiny sail like wrestling a steer. Windwagon would shake his head in despair and take the tiller from them, and make the wagon glide this way and that. When Windwagon steered it was as though the man, the wagon, and the wind were all one will. But when Jake, or Punch, or the Doctor steered, the wagon would stagger and hesitate and groan in its joints. And when the lesson was over, the pupil would climb out as quickly as possible and go into the Star for a long drink.

Windwagon explained that a captain must also know how to navigate. Foster snorted at that; he said that to navigate you need to know the kind of elevated mathematics that is taught only in New England colleges, but Windwagon said that for a man of sense it wasn’t necessary to go to college, and he began to teach Westport the common rules about the stars and directions and estimating distances.

Jake Shafer ordered a sextant from Baltimore, and Windwagon nearly cried when he saw it. It reminded him of the sea, and he spent a whole afternoon telling how it feels to skid before a salt breeze, and how the mountains come to the bay at Naples, and how in a few weeks the first clipper would be sailing into Santa Fe.

One day Punch Dunkelberger appeared wearing a captain’s cap he had ordered from St. Louis. It was bright blue with silver braid, and Punch looked like baked ham with birthday candles. But in a few weeks everyone had a blue cap. Each new one seemed to have more trimming than the one before, until Punch got ashamed of his and talked of putting a red turkey feather on it. The town was no longer interested in the things it had been. A caravan could hardly buy a mule or an ox in the village. The blacksmith was working on the clipper and had no time to shoe animals or repair wheels. Most of the business men closed up shop, hid their leathery faces under blue caps, sighted through the sextant, and tried to walk and talk like Windwagon. It was wonderful to hear them go on about tacking and hauling, port and starb’d.

Sometimes a man would look at himself in his wife’s mirror or calculate how much money the experiment was costing him. Then he would go to Windwagon, clear his throat and furrow his brow, and try to say his worries. Always Windwagon would soothe him and tell him about Tomorrow and send him away figuring how much money could be made on one trip to Santa Fe. You couldn’t doubt a man who believed as hard as Windwagon.

Shelby Foster was the only man in Westport that Windwagon couldn’t convince. Foster stood around and wrote in his notebook and groused. He said he had learned in college how another damned fool once wanted to make a machine that would fly on the wind — somebody named Darius Green, he said. That led to Foster’s quarrel with Rosalie Shafer. When Foster had come to Missouri he had tried once to ride a pony and taken one look at Rosalie, and decided to write his book in Westport rather than on the Trail. Before that, Rosalie hadn’t had any beau except on Sunday nights when Punch would come over and sit beside her and talk about the mule business with Jake. She said Punch lacked imagination. Foster would kiss her hand and tell her she was a flower. They would sit close together and he would read poetry to her, the kind they learn in the New England colleges, about skylarks. But sometimes they talked about Windwagon Smith, and Foster said sensible men would lock Windwagon up, and Rosalie called Foster a coward and said he too lacked imagination, and they would sit at opposite ends of the bench and look at the moon individually.

Windwagon had imagination, Rosalie said. And finally she teased him into giving her a sailing lesson, and after that he went out often with her late in the afternoon, when the sun would glint like a Sioux bonfire on Rosalie’s hair, and Foster would sit in front of the Star, looking as though he were chewing pickled nails. Rosalie might become a good sailor, Windwagon said; she had sea sense. But that’s all he said about her. Foster still went to see her six nights a week, and Punch on Sunday nights, but Punch said she didn’t act so interested in the mule business any more.


When two caravans wanted to buy windwagons, the men of Westport began to see what kind of business they were in.

‘There’s no end to it,’Windwagon said. ‘When we build our fleet of a hundred we can squeeze almost everybody else off the trail. When we build a thousand we can take over the whole trade. Then we can build a thousand more and spread out into Iowa and Illinois and maybe start a water-level route beside the Lakes as far east as New York State. Then we’ll build a million little wagons and sell them to the Oregon settlers. We’ll keep the Santa Fe route to ourselves. We’ll have our shipyards over there in the bottom by the creek, and start branches in St. Joe and Independence. We’ll train other captains, and become admirals and have fleets under us.’

The Doctor calculated they could make two hundred thousand dollars the first year and six million the second. They got so tangled figuring what the income might be the fourth year that Windwagon forgot Rosalie’s sailing lesson, and Foster sneaked over and read Milton to her.

One day half a dozen business men came up on the boat from St. Louis, looked at the wagon, and offered a thousand dollars cash for it; said they didn’t know whether Windwagon was crazy or a genius, but they liked to gamble. Jake laughed at them. They talked to Windwagon a while and offered ten thousand, but Jake told them to go home and dig up some real money.

Foster said Westport contained seven kinds of fools, all bad.

A company of soldiers marched down from Leavenworth one day. They had heard that cannons were being mounted in the wagons to conquer an empire in the Southwest, like Aaron Burr’s. There weren’t any cannons. Some people thought Windwagon looked a little crestfallen; it was the only thing he hadn’t thought of. The soldiers poked around and talked impressively about military possibilities.

Jim Bridger himself came in one day and spent a long time studying the wagon. He looked sad, as though he saw the old West changing. And Kit Carson came up, with his Indian wife, and talked a long time to Windwagon like a brother, and said he wished he were thirty years younger.

Westport was becoming a tourist town. The store stopped carrying powder and stocked little windwagons carved from soft wood. The print shop at St. Joe put out a souvenir booklet all about Windwagon Smith, saying that he had once been an admiral in the Scotch navy, had captured the Sandwich Isles from the cannibals, and had twice sailed around the world. Foster sneered that if the truth were known he’d bet Windwagon had a past a lot different from that. Rosalie said Foster had less imagination than Punch. Windwagon just laughed.

When the windwagon was done, it seemed that the whole population of the western territories came into Westport to see it. You could hardly shuffle your feet without stepping on a dog or baby. The windwagon was ten times as large as a Conestoga wagon, and built with two decks. Passengers could shoot buffalo from the upper deck when regular service started, Windwagon said. When the windwagon service was extended to Africa, they could shoot lions. It had a mainsail as big as a house, and the wheels were a foot wide and tired with iron. Yet, big as it was, it was so beautifully fitted and greased that it moved with hardly a push of the hand. Some were in favor of painting it red, white, and blue, like most of the wagons, but Windwagon said this must have dignity; this wasn’t a wagon, it was a clipper ship. They made it blue with silver trimmings, and red spokes in the wheels.

The day before the first trip, the manager of an Eastern railroad said that he didn’t think the ship would run but was willing to offer twenty-five thousand for complete rights. Jake was pretty uncertain for a while, and then talked to Windwagon, and came back and laughed and said they wouldn’t take a million dollars for the clipper. He talked almost as convincingly as Windwagon.

The Westport Prairie Clipper Company invited the President of the United States to dedicate the new ship, but he regretted. However, two top-hatted men walked into the Star, and when Punch went up to them and said in the new grand manner, ‘I am Captain Dunkelberger. I don’t believe I have the pleasure of your acquaintance,’ they looked at him oddly and one said he was the Secretary of the Navy and the other the Secretary of War. Then they borrowed ten dollars from him.

The prairie clipper was rolled out to the edge of town, and Rosalie Shafer broke a bottle of corn whiskey right prettily over one front wheel. Everybody yelled for a speech from Windwagon, everybody except Shelby Foster. Windwagon climbed up on the upper deck, blew his nose, hawked his throat, and began to talk with that faraway shine in his eyes.

‘Ladies and gents,’ he said, ‘and them of you as has come a long way to see us today. I want to welcome you to the port of the prairie. And I thank you for coming to see our little ship, the first clipper ever built for trans-prairie shipping in America. And I wish I could tell you what this is going to mean to you. I wish I could paint a picture the way this prairie is going to look in five years. This ship you see here today is only a pack rat compared to the ships you are going to see tied up in this port. There’ll be passenger ships and freighters big enough to carry this one on the poop deck, big enough to carry a whole caravan or a whole army. And there’ll be little windwagons. Where there’s big ones, there’s usually little ones, you know. (Long laughter.) We’ll make so many they won’t cost much. And every one of you’ll have a little windwagon in your barn, and you can get in it and go anywhere you want on the prairie just as easy as you put a chicken in a pot. This clipper shows that all you have to do is believe in these things and they’ll come true. This is just like the sunrise on a new day, only you and me are helping to pull up the sun!’

It was the best speech Windwagon ever made, but he never made a bad speech.


The maiden voyage, Windwagon called it, and said that only the real charter members of the company should go — and the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy, if they were sober. The President could have gone, too, if he had come. But nobody else. Not even Rosalie, who almost bawled in front of everybody when Jake told her no. The passengers boarded the ship and waved their caps. Punch had a red feather in his. Then Windwagon climbed up to the seat he called the bridge, grabbed the tiller, and yelled, ‘Cast off!’ Jake’s Negro boy took a block from under one of the wheels, and the clipper began to move.

There wasn’t much jerk when they started, for Windwagon payed out the sail slowly, but in a minute Westport was a quarter mile away and the grass under wheel like a green rug. Punch said so later. In two minutes they could hardly see the ponies and the crowd, and Shelby Foster out in front in his red shirt, looking as though he wore balancing the family tree on his nose.

They all said they had never felt anything like that ride. It was airy, like flying. This is the way a hawk feels, they guessed. This is the way it feels to scud in a three-master before the trade winds. The clipper swished past an ox team as though it were standing still. A Pawnee on a painted pony tried to race, but was left so far behind he got off his horse and gave the sacred salute of one thumb and four fingers.

Under full sail, the clipper rushed across the prairie. Occasionally it struck a gully or a dry creek bed, and then the body bounced on the springs, and the passengers bounced in their seats. Sometimes it swayed sharply as it hurried down a prairie swell. But the swaying and bouncing were mostly in the body. The great wheels rolled true and straight where the tiller pointed them.

‘It runs like a flagship,’ shouted Windwagon over the whine of the wind. ‘It’ll run to Santa Fe in a week.’

He had to give his attention immediately to steering over an acre of badlands. That was when Punch Dunkelberger bounced into the lap of the Secretary of War. Punch weighed three hundred pounds.

‘I say,’ said the Secretary, ‘don’t you think we are going rather fast? For a maiden voyage?’ he added.

The Secretary of the Navy looked at the grass swirling past, then looked hastily away from it.

‘Go up and talk to him,’ the Doctor said to Jake.

Jake crawled to the front.

‘Don’t you think we are going a bit fast?’ he said in Windwagon’s ear. ‘Confidentially, some of the passengers who aren’t so used to this as we are seem to be getting a little frightened.’

Windwagon laughed. He threw back his head and laughed from his toes up, as free as the wind, happy as a child.

‘This is just crawling,’ he said. ‘Tomorrow we’ll be going over this prairie so fast we’ll hardly need to touch the ground.’

Jake crawled back to his seat and closed his eyes.

‘The man is mad,’ said the Doctor.

‘Knock him over the head,’ said Punch.

‘Then who’ll steer and stop this thing?’ asked Jake.

‘True,’ said the Doctor.

Windwagon looked back over his shoulder. ‘Would you gentlemen from Washington like to ask any questions?’ he called.

‘Us? No,’ grunted the Secretary of War weakly.

The sail thumped like a drum in the wind, and the stench of hot axle grease rose inside the wagon.

‘What if we hit something at this speed?’ said Jake.

‘Or turn over?’ said the Secretary of War.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Windwagon.

‘Can you pull the brake?’ asked the Doctor.

‘I think I’d better,’ said Jake. He crawled forward until he could reach the lever.

When the brake caught, the wagon skidded, groaned, began to turn almost at a right angle. It leaned dangerously on its springs. The sail strained and the hickory mast trembled. The wagon came around, grandly, thrillingly. But it didn’t stop, and it didn’t come out of the turn. It shuddered, hesitated, then swung around so that it was running backwards, slowly at first, then faster and faster.

They said Windwagon gave one slow look at Jake. He didn’t say anything. One slow look, more sad than angry, but Jake shriveled under it. And then Windwagon laughed again, that same free laugh from his toes to his mouth, but more rueful. He laughed and turned back and worked with the sail.

Later they knew what had happened. A brake on one wheel will stop a wagon going slow, but not a prairie clipper at full speed. The brake held just long enough to throw the clipper into a sharp turn and lock the steering gear. The sail turned on the mast and twisted its rope beyond chance of furling.

Far back, the crowd watched admiringly as the wagon bore down stern-first upon them, cutting a wide arc over the waves of prairie grass. Not until it was two hundred yards away did they stop cheering. When it was a hundred yards away, they scattered like a buffalo stampede. The prairie streamed pintos.

There were three little gullies in the path of the circle. Every twenty seconds the wagon hit a gully and the passengers bounced around like popcorn. About the tenth gully, the Secretary of War bounced out. He lit in a ball and rolled like a tumbleweed. Then he got up and ran like a jack rabbit away from the path of the wagon. ‘Stop the ship!’ shouted Jake. ‘Stop the ship at once! We’ve lost His Honor!’

‘You stop it,’ Punch suggested.

‘Excuse me,’ said the Secretary of the Navy, and jumped. He yelled and sprang up and began to pick things out of his pants.

‘Dwarf cactus,’ observed Punch.

‘ Gentlemen,’ said the Doctor, ‘I know the consequences of broken bones. I do not advise jumping.’

Two more passengers jumped, and then another, and finally the Doctor himself. That left Windwagon and Jake and Punch.

‘Father,’ said a sweet voice in the wagon.

Jake covered his eyes with his hands. ‘Did you ever hear of the voices of your beloved speaking to you just before death?’ he asked Punch. Punch held tight and groaned. ‘Speaking to me, too,’ he moaned.

‘Father,’ said someone again.

Jake looked toward the back of the wagon.

‘Rosalie!’ he bellowed.

Rosalie was just climbing out of the compartment Windwagon had designed to hold liquids and pottery on the Santa Fe run.

‘Rosalie!’ said Punch Dunkelberger, between bounces.

‘Miss Shafer!’ said Windwagon, looking around quickly.

‘What are you doing here?’ Jake thundered.

‘You know this is a very great thing,’ yelled Windwagon above the roar of wind and wagon. ‘Miss Shafer is the first stowaway in the history of prairie clippers.’ He went back to working with the sail. They said he was just as calm as though this were a box social in the schoolhouse.

Jake said some short ugly words.

‘You’d better jump,’ Punch advised her.

‘Don’t you dare jump,’ said Windwagon over his shoulder. ‘You might get killed.’

‘I’ll take care of you,’ offered Punch.

‘You need a spanking,’ said Jake.

‘I don’t need taking care of,’ Rosalie said to Punch. She looked Jake in the eye.

‘You pulled the brake, didn’t you?’ she said, low and hard.

Jake stared at her.

‘You couldn’t believe in Windwagon. You couldn’t put your chips down and take a chance. You got scared. You pulled the brake.’

Jake made gurgling noises.

‘I’m going up and sit with Windwagon,’ Rosalie said. Once she looked back at her father and Punch, who was staring at the nearest exit.

‘Don’t give up the ship, Captain Dunkelberger,’ she said sweetly.

The wagon whirled in its circle, the wind shrieking.

‘There went Jake!’ yelled Punch. Then Punch went.

He said he hit the ground unanimously, every square inch of him. He pulled himself out of the track and watched the windwagon. There was something beautiful about it even going backwards, something shiplike, birdlike, not wagonlike, with the wind filling out the sail blue-white against the blue-green grass. But he could see something from the ground he couldn’t from the clipper: every circle was carrying it farther west. Already at its most distant point it was out of sight behind the swell of the prairie.

‘Catch it! Catch it!’ yelled Jake, limping along.

‘Stop them!’ yelled Shelby Foster, bouncing along on a borrowed pony, holding tight to the saddle horn.

The windwagon changed its circles into ovals, its ovals into a pattern that couldn’t be made out because it was so far away. The last time anybody saw it, it was scudding backwards into the west, with Shelby Foster after it, far behind, occasionally taking one hand off the saddle horn to shake his fist. Rosalie and Windwagon were sitting close. Whenever they hit a gully they held to each other.


The Secretary of the Navy had to walk all the way back to town because he couldn’t sit. The others rode back on borrowed ponies, each jog showing up a fresh bruise. In Westport it was like a picnic breaking up after everyone had got indigestion and poison ivy. Shelby Foster came into the Star and said politely, ‘Good evening, Captain Dunkelberger,’ and Punch chased him halfway into Independence. Punch had a bandage around his head and was pale as whitewash, but full of fight. It took the Doctor two hours to pick all the cactus spines out of the Secretary of the Navy. Then the secretaries stole two horses and gave a sort of generalized scowl at all of Westport before they rode away.

The town went back into the mule, powder, and bacon business, trying not to hear a tide of scornful laughter that rose in St. Joe and spread and bounced back and forth between the Rockies and the Appalachians. But history seemed to be moving past Westport. The wagons began to go farther north, and when the railroads came in they chose other towns. Westport shrank and Kansas City grew, and after a while Kansas City swallowed Westport and put its street railway through the place where the Star had stood and built its municipal airport on the very land where the windwagon had begun its maiden voyage.

They never saw the windwagon again, although they searched the prairie as far as Council Grove. Of course, there were stories. Every once in a while a bullwhacker would be picked up barefoot and half-dead from thirst, and tell how his draft animals had suddenly reared up at a dust cloud and run away like antelope; and the worst drinker in Independence swore off and became an elder in the Lutheran church because he saw the ghost of a Conestoga wagon floating on the wind near the Pueblo. But that man was always seeing things.

Many a man saw Windwagon Smith after he left Westport, though. He was in the pilot house, he and a beautiful red-haired woman, when the first steamboat came up the Yellowstone, and they swear that nobody but Windwagon Smith held the golden spike when the two railroads came together at Promontory Point. And not long ago when the first transcontinental airplane roared out of Kansas City a little sandy-haired man closed the plane’s door and waved the pilot on. The little man wnlked like a sailor, they said. His eyes seemed to burn, and he had the perpetual squint that comes from looking always at horizons.