Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 31

We travel less than five miles before night begins to fall. The wagon slows and pulls over to the side. I steer Peony around and discover that we’ve reached a small farmhouse.

A small slave girl, no more than ten years old, answers the door and runs to fetch her master. He’s a lean older man, with skin like weathered hickory.

“Hello, good sir,” Mr. Joyner says. “My family and I—”

“What state are you from?” the old man asks.

“Tennessee,” says Mr. Joyner.

He grunts. “As long as you aren’t from Illinois or Ohio or any of them places.”

I gape at him, realizing he means free states. Maybe things are different near the frontier, but no one in Georgia ever refused to help my father because of his Yankee ways.

The old man steps inside to have a brief conversation with his wife, and they reach an agreement. “We can provide accommodations and provisions. Supper and breakfast. You’ll have to share the beds.”

Mr. Joyner offers many expressions of gratitude, as well as a few coins. After taking care of the animals, we go inside and find a cozy, warm cabin that smells of dried apples and wet soot. We sit around a plank table beside a stone hearth. The table’s centerpiece is a wooden vase, filled with wrapping-paper flowers dyed yellow, and I swallow against the sudden sting in my throat.

The tiny slave girl brings a tray of salt pork and onions, which isn’t nearly as tasty as Fiddle Joe’s cooking but still hits the spot. The men trade news, most of it focused on the gold in California and the settlement in Oregon territory. When the table is cleared, the old man and his slave drag a feather mattress out from the bedroom and place it before the hearth.

“I reckon you and your family can sleep here tonight. Your hired hands can have the back porch, and your boy can make do in the barn.”

Mrs. Joyner bristles. “He is not our boy. He’s traveling with us temporarily.”

I don’t understand how that woman can be so hot and cold, so kind one moment and so uppish the next. But I know better than to stay where I’m not wanted, so I excuse myself and slip into the barn.

“Looks like I’m sleeping with you tonight, girl,” I say to Peony. “Just like always.”

I’m so tired it’s only a few minutes until I drift off. A whisper startles me awake.

“Mr. McCauley?” Mrs. Joyner’s voice.

Lantern light pools around me, and I tense up in my bed of straw, but I don’t turn over. “What?” Maybe she wants her blanket back.

“I . . . um . . .” She falls silent.

“Spit it out, ma’am. I’ve very tired.”

She gasps a little, then says all in a rush: “Mr. Joyner says he wants you gone by morning.”

“What?” I flip around to face her. “Why? I haven’t been any trouble. I work hard.”

Her face is even more prim by lantern light, her features sharp and mean. “We face a grave challenge, Mr. McCauley, as we head into the godforsaken wilderness. I must shelter my children, give them a chance at a good life. That means protecting them from . . .” She falls silent again, and a muscle in her cheek twitches.

“From people like me?”

“I am a mother, and a mother knows a runaway when she sees one. I’m sure you understand. Perhaps if you had references . . .”

“Does Mr. Joyner really know you’re here?”

Her lips press into a thin line.

“Pardon my saying, ma’am, but this is hardly the Christian thing to do.”

“I gave you that quilt!”

“And I suppose it made you feel good about yourself. Here, take it back.” I start to untangle myself from it.

She hesitates. Then: “No. It’s yours. But, please . . .”

I let her plea hang in the cold night air for a spell, until she shifts on her feet and drops her gaze. Finally, I say, “I’ll be gone by morning.”

She slumps in relief.

I say, “I wish you and your family the very best of luck, ma’am. Maybe I’ll see you in California.” I don’t really mean it, but it gives me a nasty twist of pleasure to see her startle at my words.

“To you as well, Mr. McCauley.” She turns and walks away fast, lantern light bobbing with each step.

I lean into Peony’s shoulder. “How do you feel about leaving right now?” I whisper, and she nuzzles my hair in response. It’s not like I could sleep after that, anyway.

I pull on Daddy’s boots. My feet have gotten used to them, big size and all. I don’t even get blisters anymore.

My hands shake as I throw Peony’s saddle over her back, and I realize I’m crying. I wipe at my cheeks with the back of my hand. I grab Mama’s locket and squeeze a moment, giving it a chance to refill my well of resolve.

I tighten the cinch, check my saddlebag, and mount up. Outside, a light mist is falling on a world that’s so cold and wet it feels like a tub filled with misery. The Joyners plan to head north, either to Port Girardeau or St. Louis, so I’ll take the first left I find and head north later.

Coney is curled up on the porch of the house. He lifts his head and stares quizzically. He stands, shakes himself, and follows us down the road a ways before whining and turning back. Of everyone in the Joyner family, I’ll miss him the most.

I nudge Peony forward. “It’s just you and me now, girl.”

Again. It’s just you and me again, is what I should say. But I know she understands.

Chapter Fifteen

The first person I meet on the road as the sun rises is a grinning huckster with a beard as stiff as a whisk broom. Patches cover his elbows, and a striped feather juts from his hat’s band. His mule cart is loaded with pots and pans, bolts of fabric and plaster dolls, pickaxes and even wishbone-shaped divining rods that he claims will lead a fellow to gold.

“No, thank you,” I tell him. If the divining rods worked at all, my uncle wouldn’t have killed my folks to claim my magic.

His smile is fierce and determined. “I have it on the best authority that these rods—”

“I don’t have any money.”

His smile disappears like fog in the sun. “Good day, then.”

He snaps the reins, the mules protest, and the cart rattles forward. I turn Peony around and walk beside him.

“Can you tell me if this is the road to Independence?” I ask.

He waves his hand dismissively. “Every road will take you to Independence if you choose the right direction and keep on going till you get there.”

“But which direction is the right direction?”

He points ahead. “If you go down to the river and turn north—”

“I don’t want to go that way.”

“If I had any maps, I’d sell you one. Huh.” He rubs his whisk-broom beard. “Maybe I should load up on maps.”

“Can I go that way?” I point in the direction he’s just come from.

He pulls up short and twists in his seat. “Head west and ask folks for the road to Charleston. You can make it there by lunchtime. Go to Mrs. Moore’s boardinghouse on Market Street if you need a place to stay, and tell her that—”

“Where do I go from there?”

He sighs. “From there, you’ll head west to Sikeston, Poplar Bluff, and then Springfield. There are a lot of towns along the way, but if you remember those, it’ll get you in the right direction.”

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