Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 27

“We won’t try to pass the rapids today, will we?” Red asks.

“Not on your life,” says the captain. “Or mine.” Then he turns around, and the size of his voice turns from pistol shot to cannon fire: “Get ready to push off!”

Red and Joe untie the ropes tethering us to shore. The animals, crowded inside their swaying barn, start lowing and kicking. Coney launches onto the roof and barks at nothing in particular. Mrs. Joyner brings the children to the open bow of the boat and says something about beginning a great journey.

I glance around, feeling useless. “What should I do?” I ask.

“Grab a pole and push off,” says Joe, lifting his pole high with both hands to show me. Red and the captain already have theirs in hand, and the three men space themselves along the side of the boat.

I see where the poles are stored and grab one. It’s heavy and at least twice my height. It thumps and scrapes along the deck as I hop onto the roof, dragging it up behind me. I maneuver it around, whacking Joe in the back of the knees.

“Hey!”

“Sorry!”

He glares at me while I jab the end into the shore and push.

“Your grip is too far back,” Joe warns.

The pole sticks. Our boat slides away, but my pole won’t come free. I yank harder. The pole starts to slide through my hands. I’m leaning over the edge, tipped precariously over the water.

“Joe!” I holler.

Joe darts over and grabs the back of my trousers. “Let go.”

“I’ll lose the pole!”

“Then go with it,” he says.

I let go, and the pole sticks out of the mud a moment before slowly drooping down and sinking into the water.

Red Jack snorts. “Off to a good start, boy,” he says, motioning me toward the middle of the roof where I can’t make any trouble.

The captain regards me with a cool eye.

“I’m really sorry, sir,” I say.

“I’d take it out of your pay,” he says. “Only I’m not paying you. So go ashore when we tie up for the night and cut a new one.”

“Make sure it’s one you can handle,” Red Jack says. I don’t hear any meanness in his voice, only practicality.

I have no idea how to cut a long, sturdy pole from the twisting trees that hug the riverbank. “Yes, sir.”

We drift downriver until it’s past dark, so he doesn’t send me ashore tonight. Aunt Tildy lets Joe cook dinner one last time. She vows to take over the boat’s kitchen tomorrow, and no one argues. After the plates are cleaned up, Joe gets out his fiddle and Red Jack fetches his guitar. They sit on the roof and play while the captain sings in a startlingly beautiful tenor. Joe dances while he fiddles, slapping his boots on the thick planks of the roof. Mrs. Joyner holds tight to her children, refusing to clap along or even smile, but when Aunt Tildy and the little ones start clapping, she doesn’t protest.

It’s not the best music I’ve heard, but it fills the cold night sky with energy and warmth. I gaze up at the stars and find the bright cluster of the Pleiades. My throat tightens with the memory: Jefferson and me lying on our backs in the hayloft last winter, straw poking out of our mouths, the loft shutter propped open to the sparkling crystal sky. The Cherokee don’t call it the Pleiades, he told me, but the Ani’tsutsa, which means “the Seven Boys.” His mother told him the story, how eight boys got so mad at their mama they decided to run away, but as they leaped into the sky, she grabbed the eighth boy by the heel and dragged him back to earth, leaving his seven brothers to shine in the night.

Jefferson liked to imagine he was the eighth boy, the one who stayed. Staying is important, he said. And he liked the idea that he had brothers somewhere, maybe looking after him. Jeff was embarrassed afterward, and he made me swear never to tell that he had such fanciful notions. I swallowed the lump in my throat and said that having a brother would be the very best thing.

I hope Jefferson’s all right; I hate to think what might happen if he ran afoul of those freebooter brothers or their ilk. I wish I could have caught up with him on the road, but now I find myself hoping he’s still three days ahead. Because anyone sent after me would recognize him just as easily. With luck, he’s practically to Independence by now.

The final note from Joe’s fiddle echoes over the water, dying slow and sweet. The wind on the river is icy cold, colder even than on the road, so everyone gets up and turns in. No one has indicated where I should sleep, so I head back to Peony’s stall and prop myself in the corner. It’s been a long day of hard work, and this is the first time I’ve had a roof over my head at night since leaving home. I’m cold, but I feel safer than I have in weeks, with a full belly to boot. My eyes drift shut.

I startle awake. It’s Fiddle Joe. He hangs a blanket over the side of the stall and walks off without saying a word. I snatch it up. It’s old and threadbare, but after losing everything else, it seems finer than gold.

Morning on the river is one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen, with golden sunshine gleaming on water as smooth as a mirror. Red Jack pokes his head out moments after I do. He yawns and stretches, and he’s untying his pants to relieve himself into the water when he spots me.

“Holy—” he says, jumping in alarm. “You’re up early. Been sitting there the whole night?”

I’m blushing like the girl I am. “I’m an early riser,” I say, turning my back and giving him his privacy.

Joe stumbles out a while later and starts bacon sizzling on the box stove. At the breakfast table I try to return his blanket.

“Naw,” he says. “Everybody ought to have their own blanket.”

I can’t squeeze out my thanks through the tightness in my throat. I have a blanket again, and I didn’t even have to buy it.

The Joyners rise late. While they eat breakfast, I learn what the captain meant by “unskilled labor.” It’s my job to muck stalls every morning, which is no different from my chores back home. At least I go after it with a sure hand.

“Just toss it overboard,” the captain says. “The current washes everything away.” I do as he says, but it gives my belly a squirm to think of drawing our cooking water from the same river.

Water laps gently against the boat as we get under way, morning mist rises from the banks, and great white herons swoop low for leaping fish. No wonder some people spend their whole lives here. Just like Joe said, it’s a pleasant way to travel, with the lovely river to do most of the work.

Or maybe saying so was all for show, because we haven’t drifted far before Joe and Red and the captain become thin lipped, and wound tight as rattlers. About ten miles downriver from Chattanooga, I discover why.

We reach a narrow gorge. Walls of rock rise up on either side as the water flows fast and white, like it’s being pushed through a mill chute. The wind picks up, whipping at my short hair. Spray coats my skin, making me shiver. The walls of the gorge sweep by faster and faster.

The captain orders the Joyner family inside, and Mrs. Joyner can’t comply fast enough. Her husband lingers beneath the overhang. “Chisholm!” he booms. “Our contract stipulates safe passage to Missouri. If we don’t arrive safely, you don’t get paid.”

“You’ve nothing to worry about, sir,” the captain returns.

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