Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 26

The surface of the river is burnished red gold with late-afternoon sunshine when two men roll a huge wagon down to the dock. I stare agape at it, wondering how in the world we’ll get everything aboard. It’s full to bursting with flour, grains, barrels of salted pork, and a whole heap of fancy furniture. There’s a sideboard table, and four high-back chairs. A bed frame and a feather mattress. A lady’s dresser with a gilded mirror. Mr. Joyner said he was moving his whole household, but I didn’t figure that meant his whole house.

We unload it all, every single piece, and it’s a good thing Mama’s shawl is wrapped so tight around my chest because sweat pours down the front of my shirt, making it stick to any available skin.

By the time we finish, it feels like my aching back won’t bear another burden, which is when the captain directs us to disassemble the wagon. I don’t dare complain or show even a hint of weakness, so I go at it like I’m as fresh as the morning.

After taking the wagon apart, we heft and slide the wagon box onto the boat. Then we fill the box with all the other pieces—the wheels, the tongue, the bonnet. Next, we bring the oxen aboard. There are four teams of two, which seems like a lot for one wagon, but when you’re moving a whole household, I guess that’s how many you need. The huge beasts don’t care for their stalls, and they have a lot to say on the matter, but once they’re settled in and we spread some straw, they seem resigned.

“Where’s the rest of it?” Captain Chisholm asks once the wagon and oxen are all safely aboard.

“There’s more?” I gasp.

“You have a problem, son?”

“Course not.”

He grins.

Suddenly my plan to go all the way to California with nothing but Peony and a saddlebag seems like the height of tomfoolery.

By evening, more supplies and more animals have arrived, including a pair of fine horses and a hound dog with white patches and drooping ears, who licks my hands and face as if we’re long-lost friends. I scratch his ears and rub his scruff, thinking about Nugget. I hope she’s a comfort to Jefferson on the road, the same way Peony is a comfort to me.

“Coney, get over here before I whip your hide.”

It’s Mr. Joyner, dressed in a fine black suit with a yellow silk cravat. Standing prim beside him is a pretty blond woman in a blue calico dress and a lace shawl. One hand clutches an embroidered satchel, full to bursting; the other grips the shoulder of a girl in blond braids who can’t be more than six years old. Another child, a towheaded boy of about four, stands half hidden in her voluminous skirt, though he dares to peek out at me. I wink at him, and he turns away fast, burying his face in his mama’s skirt.

Even the two children carry bulging satchels. At the family’s feet is a huge luggage trunk, which will probably take all four of us to haul inside and which Coney the dog is now giving a thorough sniffing.

Red Jack shares an amused look with me before grabbing a couple of satchels. “That’s a fine rocking chair we just loaded,” he says by way of conversation.

Mr. Joyner nods solemnly. “I’m having my whole house disassembled and floated downriver on another flatboat,” he explains as we work. “When it reaches New Orleans, it’ll be loaded onto a ship and sent down to Panama, where it will be trucked across the isthmus and then loaded onto another ship and transported up the coast to California. We’ll have our own familiar home waiting for us—walls and all—when we get to San Francisco. We’re only bringing with us those things essential to our overland journey.”

I had no idea packing up a whole house was possible—or that a dressing table could be considered essential. “Why didn’t you go the same way?” I ask.

He seems startled that I would dare speak to him, but he answers nonetheless. “And expose my wife and children to the harsh climates and rough heathen of Panama? Or the relentless waves of the Pacific? Never. Besides, the trip across the continent will be an adventure, something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. Isn’t that right, Andy?” He tousles the boy’s near-white hair.

“Yes, Pa,” Andy says, but he gazes wide-eyed at the decking before him. The river is choppy with activity, which makes the boat pitch and sway. He slips a hand into his mother’s.

Mrs. Joyner is stiff beside her husband, and I’m put in mind of an egret, the way the woman’s senses are attuned to everything around her, the way she stands so pale and frozen, but perhaps ready to launch into graceful flight if startled. She squeezes her son’s tiny hand, saying, “It’s God’s will for America to cover the continent from sea to sea.” Her voice is soft, and it seems to have a question in it. “We’ll be part of something grand, helping spread civilization into the wilderness.”

“That’s exactly right, dear,” Mr. Joyner says.

I imagine civilization as a bag of seeds that she’ll be scattering along the roadside as we go. Like Johnny Appleseed. The thought makes me smile, but she glares at my grin like I’ve done something wrong.

“Come along, children,” she says, pointedly turning her back on me.

“Yes, Ma,” they chorus as she herds them aboard. I stare after them, wondering at “Pa” and “Ma.” I’ve never heard anyone call their parents that before.

“Hello,” someone says in my ear, and I whirl. It’s a gray-haired lady in sensible navy wool, with a straw hat and a patched satchel.

“I’m Matilda Dudley,” she says. “The Joyners’ cook. But you can call me Aunt Tildy.”

I tip my hat. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am. I’m Lee.”

She chatters at me while I continue to load cargo, explaining all the ways in which she has served the Joyner family over the years, from tending their herb garden to caring for the children.

I don’t discourage her from talking, but her friendly prattle sets me on edge because the flatboat, which originally seemed huge, is shrinking rapidly. I don’t know how I’ll keep my identity a secret aboard this floating homestead, with all of us crammed in like sheep in a pen. How does anyone attend to their private business on a boat like this? What if I need to launder my shirt?

“That’s enough, Aunt Tildy,” Mr. Joyner interrupts finally. “No need to bore these gentlemen with ancient history.”

“Yes, sir!” she says. Then she continues, unabashed, “You know, it’ll be a wonderful thing to see the wild frontier. They say it’s summer all the time in California.”

If a sweet dumpling took human form, it would look just like Aunt Tildy, right down to the flour-dusting of her gray hair. When she starts to argue with Joe about who’s going to do the cooking, I dare to hope I won’t be eating runny, oversalted eggs again.

Mr. Joyner gestures to the captain. “Everything’s aboard. Why aren’t we under way? California’s not getting any closer while we tarry.”

“Soon enough, sir,” Chisholm calls out.

He calls the crew over and says to us in a low voice, “We’ll just push off and float a few miles until dark. Make our passengers happy.”

It’ll make me happy too. Once we’re under way, it’ll be harder for Uncle Hiram to find me, either by accident or on purpose. Almost everyone in Chattanooga who might remember me—or Peony—is aboard this boat.

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