Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 20

Chapter Eleven

I’m in big trouble if these brothers were hired by my uncle to bring me home. But I’m in bigger trouble if they weren’t.

Mama warned me about men like these. She knew a few when the Georgia gold rush was young, when times were rough and she was one of the only women in Dahlonega. So I know they’ll rob me blind, at least. If they’re not working for my uncle, they’ll do worse.

“Zeke,” Emmett says. “The fire’s gone out. Fetch us some wood, will you?”

“Make him do it,” Zeke says, indicating me.

Him. They’re not working for Hiram.

“Shut your trap and do what I tell you,” Emmett says. As his brother sulks off, he says, “You, sit up.”

I do as he asks, slowly, keeping an eye on the Hawken.

“And give me that blanket,” Ronnie says, yanking it from my shoulders. He wraps it around his own and steps back again, keeping me trapped between him and Emmett.

“How’d you find me?” I ask to stall more than anything.

“Smelled your campfire,” Emmett says. “Ronnie here spotted the place where you left the road. He’s a dab at tracking, my brother.”

I left tracks, and I made camp upwind of the road.

Zeke returns. “Why’re we wasting time here?” he says, dumping a few branches beside the fire.

“Ain’t no rush,” Emmett tells him. “Might as well pass the night.”

Emmett squats beside my fire pit, the Hawken across his knees. He keeps the barrel aimed my way, one hand resting on the stock within easy reach of the triggers. With his free hand, he stirs the coals and stokes the flames. “You got that bottle on you, Ronnie?”

Ronnie retrieves a jug from his horse. Corn liquor, if I don’t miss my guess. He pulls the cork and takes a swig, then passes it to Emmett, who does the same before handing it off to Zeke.

My saddlebag lies on the ground beside me, where I was using it as a pillow. Ronnie grabs it and reaches inside.

“Stop that,” I holler before I think better of it.

Ronnie grins. Holding my gaze, he slowly and deliberately rummages around inside. He pulls out Free Jim’s bundle of shirts. “Hey, there’s a shirt in here for each one of— Holy . . .”

The gold eagles spill out, clanking as they fall, then roll silently into the dead leaves. Ronnie drops the shirts and scrambles for the coins. Zeke runs over to help. Emmett remains where he is, watching me like I’m a snake.

I’m worse than a snake. I am patient. I am a ghost.

“There must be sixty or seventy dollars here,” Zeke says.

“More!” Ronnie says.

“How much?” Emmett asks me.

“Didn’t stop to count.”

“You think this is Lucky Westfall’s gold?” Ronnie asks.

Emmett raises an eyebrow at me.

“What if it is?” I say, clenching my hands into fists to keep them from trembling. If everyone knows about Daddy’s murder, it’s only a matter of time before they hear tell of his missing daughter.

Zeke is down on his hands and knees, scattering leaves and branches. Ronnie upends my saddlebag and shakes out my few belongings. Peony’s grain spills everywhere. Thank the stars I got rid of my women’s clothes.

“Reminds you of the old days, don’t it?” Emmett says, still studying me.

“This kid don’t look anything like a Cherokee,” Ronnie says.

“But us, out in the woods at night, looking for someone stupid.” His chuckle is ugly and mean. “Remember that first fellow?”

“Didn’t have anything on him but a bearskin,” Zeke says.

“And that rifle, remember? You carried that rifle for three years.”

“Heck, I hated that gun. Never shot straight for me.”

“Because you hit too many Indians in the head with it,” Ronnie says.

“Maybe we should head west like everyone else,” Zeke says. “We won’t find a richer treasure trove of stupid than on the road to California.”

They’re pretending to ignore me, but I know better. I saw it a dozen times with Jefferson’s da, the way he’d coyly provoke Jeff into being heedless or clumsy, then use the excuse to yell at him. If no one was around, he’d do more than yell. So I’m watching them close and waiting for my chance to escape, but I’m not going to give them any excuse.

The fire is going strong now. The brothers gather close and pass the bottle around again. Ronnie has found most of the coins, and he lays them out before the fire, counting them over and over again. Anger makes it hard to see straight. I fled one thief only to find another, and soon I’ll have just as much nothing as I did before.

“We got lucky tonight,” Emmett says.

“We did,” Zeke agrees.

“But think of those flatboats, drifting down the Ohio,” Ronnie says. “It’s like money at a fair, waiting to be picked up off the ground, and it’s a lot closer than California.”

“Eh,” Zeke grunts, and takes another drink.

“How about it?” Ronnie asks, looking at me. Whatever comes next, it’s how he plans to set me up. “You’ve a talent for robbing, at the very least. Murder, if you’re the one who killed Westfall. You want to go to Memphis with us, head down the Mississippi?”

Zeke sits up straight. “Hey, now, I don’t want to split shares four ways.”

Ronnie scowls and pokes at the fire, sending up a spiral of sparks. Its warmth is seeping back into me. My limbs twitch with readiness.

“I thought you didn’t want to come with us this year, Zeke,” Emmett says.

“Aw, I was just letting off steam,” Zeke says.

Emmett turns back to me. “So how about it? All these farmers from Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania—they complain about slavery, how bad the South is, how we ought to change our ways. But come early winter, they slaughter their hogs, fill their barrels full of pork, and float down the Mississippi. They stop at every plantation along the way, selling off their goods until they get to New Orleans. Then they walk back home, their pockets full of southern money. They’re a bunch of hypocrites.”

“God hates hypocrites,” Ronnie says.

“Amen,” Zeke says.

Emmett smiles. “So you see, we’re instruments of God’s justice. How would you like to be an instrument of God’s justice?”

I say nothing.

“A lot of these northern hypocrites like to gamble their way back home,” Emmett continues, “where their families can’t see them being hypocritical. And my brothers and I like a fair game of cards as well as the next man.”

“Not a fair game,” Ronnie amends.

Emmett says, “If they lose a little money to us, that’s fine. Keeps it here in the South where it belongs.”

“Some of ’em like to drink,” Ronnie says. He takes the jug from Zeke and tilts his head back for a swallow.

“That they do,” Emmett agrees. “And we happen to be drinking men too, and good company besides. But these northern fellows are weak, and if they can’t hold their liquor, and they fall down and hit their heads—”

“Or fall into the river,” Ronnie says.

“Why, then, it’s our civic duty to empty their pockets and take their wages, to return them to their families.”

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