Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 19

Peony dances beneath me, snapping me out of my daze. I hope I didn’t lose time again. I look around to see if I’ve embarrassed myself, but no one seems to care that we’ve stopped dead in the middle of the road. Perhaps it was only a few seconds.

I urge her forward, even as I cast out for the source. A scraggly man approaches, leading a wagon with fresh-cut lumber for the sawmill. Both knees of his overalls are patched, but I’m sure he’s the one who triggered my twitch.

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a shiny golden watch, flips it open, and checks the time. More gold is somewhere close—maybe a handful of eagles. If he’s wealthy enough to afford that watch and carry a stash of coins, he could afford decent overalls. I guess folks aren’t always what they look like on the outside, which is something I think I ought to know by now.

He grins at me with tobacco-stained teeth. “Almost time!” he says.

“For what?”

“You’ll see.”

Not a minute later, a whistle shrieks and a column of dark smoke rises above the trees. It moves closer, picking up speed until the column stretches long, like reins trailing a runaway horse.

“Is that the train?” I ask.

“Well, it sure ain’t a steamboat,” he says with a wink. “It’ll be there when you get into town. You should take a gander.”

“I’ll do that, sir.”

“It’s going to change everything!” he says. “Once that tunnel’s done.”

“That’s what my daddy always says.” Said. That’s what my daddy said.

Sure enough, an hour later I steer Peony into Dalton and discover that the town’s main feature is the train.

I stare agape. It’s a metal behemoth, bigger than any machine I’ve seen or imagined. It makes me glad I’m not an iron scryer, if such a thing exists, because if it set off my witchy powers, it would leave me dead senseless for a day.

When the train chugs away from the station, Peony and I set out on the Chattanooga road, which follows parallel to the now-empty tracks. I imagine how fast we could get to California if a train headed that way. It might only take weeks instead of months. Truth be told, I’m not sure it’s safe to ride in something so huge and fast.

I’m a mile north of town when horses clop up behind me. I’ve been swift, passing lots of folks on the road. But no one has been passing me. I glance back, just quick enough to mark three riders—men in thick beards, weathered coats, and slouched hats.

They gain on me slowly. The first comes up on my right and gives me a friendly nod. The second fellow pulls even on my left. The third rider closes in at my rear.

Peony’s ears go back.

They have a rangy look about them, with sun-blasted skin and unkempt hair. But their guns are shiny and new.

The one beside me grins, and I feel like a deer in his sights. “Howdy,” he says.

“Howdy,” I say with forced cheer.

“Saw you at the station in Dalton. That train is something else, ain’t it?”

“Never seen anything like it,” I say, because it seems like a safe thing.

“Ever seen those steamboats on the Mississippi?”

“Never been to the Mississippi.”

He whistles. “They’re a sight too, blowing out a cloud of smoke and running down the water like a thousand horses. We’re headed that way. Go down to the Mississippi every winter. Where you headed?”

“North to see some cousins.”

“Whereabouts? If it’s around here, me and my brothers probably know ’em.”

“Oh, I don’t think you would. They’re up close to Chattanooga.”

His eyes narrow. “Know pretty much everybody around those parts. Ain’t that so, Ronnie?”

“You know it is, Emmett,” says a voice behind me, and the back of my neck prickles.

“Don’t think we’ve ever seen you around here before,” the first one—Emmett—says.

“I reckon not,” I say. “My family’s back in Ellijay.”

The fellow grins like a cat with a mouse, and I don’t know what I said wrong, but I immediately regret it. My thoughts spin fast, trying to figure out my options.

“Shoot, Ellijay’s not that far, is it, boys?”

“Never been there myself,” Ronnie says behind me.

“Neither have I,” says the one beside me. “But I hear it’s nice.”

“So, you fellows know the area pretty well?” I have a peculiar urgency to keep them talking.

“Nobody knows it better than us, from Dalton to the Mississippi,” Emmett says.

“Then maybe you can tell me something. Man at the train station said the next town is Tunnelsville, less than a day’s ride. Thought I’d reach it by now.”

“That’s fourteen, fifteen miles away,” Emmett says.

“At least,” Ronnie adds.

“Oh,” I say. “So I won’t get there tonight?”

“Not a chance.”

Without warning, I jerk Peony around. Ronnie’s horse whinnies as it sidesteps to avoid us, and I breeze right past. The men pull up their horses and turn to stare at me.

“You fellows saved me a lot of trouble,” I say. “But it puts a burr under my saddle for the fellow who misled me back at the station. Figure if I hurry, I can get back to Dalton in time for supper.”

Emmett frowns. “Sounds about right.”

“Well, you did me a kindness, and I’m grateful,” I say.

I kick Peony into a fast walk. I don’t hear their horses following behind, and I resist the urge to look over my shoulder to make sure. I’m halfway back to Dalton when I finally risk a glance, and when I don’t see them on the road behind me, my hands start shaking something fierce.

I slide from Peony’s back and lead her uphill into the woods. The ridge is thick with birch, a place where I can observe the road unnoticed. I sit down, knees to chest, and watch the winding track below me while Peony lips hungrily at bare branches.

Nobody shows before dark. I hope the brothers kept on going to wherever they were headed. If they stop for the night, I might encounter them again tomorrow. Maybe I can find other folks to ride with before I do.

I lead Peony deeper into the trees and find a sheltered spot beside a stream. Snow blankets the ground up here, and my breath frosts as the temperature drops. I crunch through a caul of ice with the heel of Daddy’s boot so Peony can drink. I hitch her to a tree instead of hobbling her so we can take off quickly if we need to.

The wood is damp, and it smokes something awful, so I keep the fire small and hope it doesn’t show much against the sky, which is a bit too moonlit for comfort. I load Daddy’s Hawken rifle and lay it out at my side. I hate letting it rest on wet ground, but I’m not sure what else to do. The fire, small already, burns low even before I drift off.

Peony’s nicker wakes me.

Branches crunch under heavy boots.

I reach for my rifle, but it’s gone.

Before I can jump up, the cold end of a gun barrel presses against my scalp. I don’t have to look at it to know it’s the Hawken, and it’s loaded.

“You should have gone back to Dalton for the night,” Emmett says.

“Heck,” says Ronnie. He’s a looming shadow on my left, hemming me in so I can’t escape. “You should’ve stayed in Ellijay.”

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