Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 16

The barn door isn’t visible from anywhere in the house except the back porch, so I probably have a few minutes to get out, close the door, and get into the cover of the woods. I’m about to yank her forward when I get an idea.

Blackwind’s saddle hangs over the side of one of the empty stalls. I grab my knife from the belt at my waist and saw through the girth strap. It takes longer than I care for, but unless Hiram’s a dab at bareback riding, it’ll be worth it.

I grab Peony’s nose strap and lead her from the barn. The door squeals when I close it behind us. I swing up onto her back. She dances a little, but I dare to hope it’s with anticipation rather than nervousness over the unfamiliar saddle. I check that Daddy’s Hawken rifle is steady in its holster, and give her flanks a light kick. She lurches forward, eager to go, but I keep her at a quiet, patient walk.

The world is smothered in soft white. Fresh flakes continue to drift down, and I twist in the saddle to make sure they’re filling Peony’s tracks. No birds call, no rodents rustle in the barren underbrush, no wind whistles through the bare branches. The winter-still world holds its breath, waiting for me to give myself away with a sound.

I nose Peony behind the barn and into the woods. I bend over her neck to avoid low branches as we twist through the maze of chestnut and red oak and digger pine. The trees break wide too soon, revealing the white ribbon of open road. I pull Peony up short.

If I take the road, I risk being seen by someone who knows me. If I keep to the thick woods, I can’t go fast enough to outrun Hiram.

With a kick and a “Hi-yah!” I urge my horse into a gallop. I refuse to look back.

Chapter Nine

Peony and I fly down the road. The wind sweeps my hat from my head so that it flaps like a sail at my back, the chin strap strangling my neck. The icy air on my face makes the corners of my eyes tear. Or maybe it’s the fact that I’m leaving home forever, as fast as I possibly can.

We reach the fork, and Peony slows, sides heaving. She noses toward the familiar route into Dahlonega. I steer her left, on to Ellijay Road, but she tosses her head and veers right again. “Please don’t fight me, girl. Not today.” When she feels the reins against her neck a second time, she gives in.

I resist the urge to spur her back into a gallop. Though she pulls our wagon almost every day, I haven’t been running her regularly. I need to take care of her if she’s to stay sound all the way to California.

But this is precious, precious time; the only part of my journey when I can put distance between myself and Hiram before he realizes I’ve run away. Which means I’ll have to run Peony again once she cools off. I’ll have to.

The most dangerous part of the journey is close to home.

“We might make Prince Edward by dark if we hurry,” I explain, my voice sounding hollow and lonely in the empty winter woods. “Daddy’s been there.”

My plan is simple: stay on the big road until I get to an even bigger road, and head off into the woods if I see someone familiar. If I’m lucky—very lucky—the gathering at the courthouse will last awhile, leaving the road empty.

An hour passes. I urge Peony into a gallop again. This time, she pulls up even sooner, and I dismount to walk beside her for a spell, giving her a chance to rest.

I feel smaller when I’m not on Peony’s back. Smaller, lonelier, colder. The woods loom to either side, dotted with adjoining paths that all look the same—gloomy tunnels through leafless forest, barely wider than deer trails. What if I’ve missed an important turn? I hope I’m going in the right direction.

Any direction is better than back, I tell myself firmly. Soon enough, with the sun low and me still not home, Hiram will realize I’m gone. He might be searching already. I did my best to misdirect him toward the sea route, but what if it wasn’t enough? There could be men on the road right now, pattyrollers or borrowed miners, coming to ride me down. Maybe they’ll ambush me, bursting out of one of these silent, gloomy trails.

I can’t help myself; I swing back into Peony’s saddle and urge her forward. She tosses her head in protest. “It’s just a few days of hard travel. Once we’re out of Georgia, we can slow down a little.” I reach down and pat her neck. Even in the fading light, she’s a beautiful animal, with a shimmery golden coat and a flaxen mane and tail.

“Peony,” I say, pulling her up and sliding off again. “We’ve got a problem.”

Everyone for miles knows “Lucky’s palomino.” She’s even more recognizable than I am, with a coat bright enough to shine in the twilit gloom. I whip off my gloves and stash them in my pocket. With my bare hands, I shove aside some slushy snow and scoop up the mud beneath it. When I lift it toward Peony’s neck, she twists her head away.

“Sorry, girl, but everyone knows that pretty coat of yours.”

Working fast, I smear mud down the side of her neck. She nips the space near my ear in warning. That’s the thing about Peony—she’s sweet most of the time, but if you do something she doesn’t like, she’ll let you know. Daddy used to say she and I got along so well because we had a few things in common.

“Hold still!” I rub a little mud on her flanks, wary of an impending kick. When I smooth it down her rear legs, she whips her tail around to swat my face.

I give her reins some slack and step back to see how she looks.

“Blast.”

It’s only my first day on the road, and I’ve already made a huge mistake. She’s exactly the same horse as before, with her proud bearing and corn silk mane and a glorious tail that almost brushes the ground. Now, she’s muddied up in a way that will draw even more attention, and the precious time I spent disguising her is a total waste.

I start to climb back on, but I pause, foot in the stirrup. There’s another bit of business I should take care of while we’re stopped. The delay might add up to another huge mistake, but ignoring the task could be worse.

Every decision I make right now feels like the wrong one. I’ll just have to be quick.

I hobble Peony and grab my woman’s clothes and shorn braid from the saddlebag. It’s an armful, even rolled up tight as it is, with the corset, the full skirt, and the petticoats. The whole mess is probably worth a decent sum, and for the hundredth time I consider selling it somewhere. For the hundredth time I come to the same conclusion: It would seem mighty odd for a young boy to walk into a store with a bundle of female fixings to sell. They’d take him for a thief for sure—which might make them look close enough to realize he wasn’t a boy at all.

Using a small branch and the heels of my boots, I dig at the ground, squelching up mud and rotting leaves. I don’t have time to make a proper hole, so I settle for a small depression. I drop in my parcel of hair and clothing.

I stare down at it too long, feeling strange. The edge of the skirt’s ruffle has started to escape the bundle, and the shiny braid winks up at me. It’s like I’m burying half a girl here.

Peony’s snort moves me to action. I cover it all up best I can with more mud, add a few deadfall sticks and rocks, which ought to hold if a big rain comes this way. My saddlebags are a lot lighter now. I mount up and kick Peony forward, but my back twitches, like that buried bundle is staring after me and my ill-fitting trousers.

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