Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 28

But once Mr. Joyner ducks inside, Captain Chisholm and Joe Fiddle exchange a dark look. The captain takes the steerboard while Joe and Red grab their poles and take up position to either side of the boat.

I still don’t have a pole of my own. I look around for something useful to do, but the boat dips violently, and my legs fly out from under me. I hit the deck hard, pain shooting up my tailbone. The boat lurches again as I scramble for the edge, for anything to hold on to.

The captain stands on the roof, yelling out hazards, riding the waves like a duck in a storm, while I cling for dear life. We veer left, toward the wall. It looms over me, getting closer and closer. The wall is slick with tiny waterfalls, and dotted with clumps of stubborn vegetation that I could reach out and touch if I wanted.

The captain strains at the steerage, but our course won’t correct. What happens if we hit the wall? I imagine the boat splintering apart, wood and water flying everywhere. Peony can swim in a pinch. I hope the Joyners can too.

Red Jack jams his pole all the way down to the bottom of the river. He strains until every vein in his neck stands out as though painted in blue ink. The water froths between the boat and the cliff side, geysering up and soaking me to the skin. I hold my breath.

Slowly, the boat turns on Red’s pivot.

We break free, and the boat shoots down the center of the gorge like an arrow. Red Jack lets out a whoop of joy.

The gorge opens up, wider and wider. The cliffs give way to gentle hills. Our flatboat slows until it lazes along like it’s out for a Sunday buggy drive.

“Any damage?” calls the captain.

“We never hit!” Joe calls back. “Not even once.”

“Nice work, men,” the captain says, and his glance includes me, even though my only accomplishment was not getting washed overboard.

Red Jack stashes his pole and helps me to my feet. “So, how did you like your first trip down the Suck?” he asks.

It takes a moment to find my voice, but when I do, I surprise myself by blurting, “Very much, sir!”

He grins and slaps me on the back.

I’m alone in my sudden affection for white water, though, because now that things have quieted, I can hear the oxen lowing mournfully. Something crashes inside the cabin, followed by a long wail.

Aunt Tildy charges out, her face white and her hands shaking. “No, Lordy, Lordy, no, I’m not going one mile farther. You put me ashore! You put me ashore this second, or I’ll tell your mother.”

The rest of the family tumbles out after her.

Mr. Joyner’s cravat is askew, and he mops his forehead with a handkerchief. The children cling to Mrs. Joyner’s skirts, who is just as wide-eyed and white-knuckled as Tildy.

“Please don’t go, Auntie,” Mrs. Joyner says. “Who will feed the children?”

“Get Fiddle Joe over there to do it,” Aunt Tildy says with a wave of her hand. “Or learn to do it yourself, I don’t care. But Lord have mercy, I am not fit for this mode of travel.”

Captain Chisholm hops down from the roof. “Don’t worry, ma’am,” he says. “Most of the river is as calm as a sleeping babe. We’re through the worst already.”

Aunt Tildy shakes her head. “I’m going ashore at the first landing, and I’ll make my own way back home if I have to crawl.”

“We should have brought one of the slaves,” Mrs. Joyner says to her husband. “Polly, or maybe Sukey. Surely your father would let us have Sukey? We can put ashore here, and the children and I will wait while you go overland to fetch her.”

My heart lodges in my throat. Waiting here on the riverbank, possibly for days, is the very last thing I want to do. We’re only a day’s ride from Chattanooga, where I saw Abel Topper. I hope he’s on his way to Kentucky by now, but I can’t be certain.

“Nonsense,” Mr. Joyner says. “I’ve read about these pioneers. They’re rugged, hardy types who solve their own problems, and we shall do the same.”

“Darling, you know I don’t cook! I am mother to your children, not some . . . not some . . .”

“There’s really nothing to it, ma’am,” Joe says.

Mrs. Joyner looks back and forth between Joe and her husband, her face shifting from panic to horror.

“Then it’s settled,” Mr. Joyner says. “We’ll put off Aunt Tildy as she requests, and you shall use the remainder of our waterborne voyage to practice your culinary skills for our principal journey west.”

The ensuing silence is long.

In a near whisper, Mrs. Joyner says, “If you think it’s best.” I almost feel bad for her. Almost. I’ve never heard of anyone who couldn’t cook a blessed thing. Even my daddy could make coffee or fry up bacon or spit a rabbit.

After many tearful farewells, the family puts Aunt Tildy ashore at the next settlement. I hang back, because it’s none of my business, but I can’t stop staring after her. Tildy was the only one of the Joyner party to show me any kindness, and now she’s gone.

Chapter Fourteen

We drift for days down the meandering Tennessee River, first through Alabama, and it feels strange to head south after I spent so much time trying to go north. But soon enough the river twists up through Tennessee toward Kentucky, ultimately aiming for the Ohio. Our journey is cold and wet, and at mealtimes, we huddle by the stove while Mrs. Joyner tries her hand at cooking. She pretends to ignore us, but our hovering must make her nervous because we end up with burned flapjacks and runny grits every time.

Occasionally, we land to get supplies and stretch the horses’ legs. I’m glad for the opportunity to care for my personal needs in privacy, but I don’t breathe easy until we’re back on the river. More often than not, we go days without stopping, and I’m forced to duck down in Peony’s stall and use a slop bucket. I don’t dare remove my clothing to launder it. My shirt becomes stiff and stained.

The nights we do put to shore, Mr. Joyner always tries to find other gentlemen for a game of cards, even though Mrs. Joyner prevails upon him not to go. I think about the brothers and their plan to rob card players along the river, about Uncle Hiram and Abel Topper, and I sit on the roof unable to sleep because I’m keeping watch. The fact that I never see them is no reassurance. I didn’t see the brothers coming the last time.

Each morning, I muck stalls. During the afternoons, Joe teaches me to pole, using a piece he helped me cut from a long, skinny spruce. The work is no harder than what I’m used to, and indeed, some of it is a good deal easier. With so much feed and so little exercise, Peony fattens up, and her winter coat grows in thick and lovely. I don’t begrudge her one bit; she’ll need a store of strength for what’s ahead.

After a week, I screw up my courage to approach Captain Chisholm, who stands at the back of the boat, one hand on the rudder, the other shading his eyes.

“Captain?”

“Son?”

“It’s been a week.”

He stares at me a moment as if confused. “Oh. Right. Well, I reckon I can give you another week’s trial.”

A twitch of his lips indicates he might be having a bit of fun at my expense, but I don’t dare put it to the test. I mutter a quick “Thank you, sir” and get right back to work.

One of the oddest things about this boat ride is the utter lack of gold. I’m the only one who carries gold coins. The mirror we loaded on board must be gilded with brass, or maybe even paint, and I hope the Joyners didn’t pay good money for it. I know the captain carries some money, and surely a wealthy man like Mr. Joyner does too, but if so, it’s in small denominations; Seated Liberty dollars and quarters and dimes never give me the smallest niggle. Back home, and even on the road, gold was always poking at my senses. But not now. Now, there’s a hollowness inside me, like I’m missing a part of myself.

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