Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 33

I whirl, my hand flying to my five-shooter.

A tall Negro grins down at me. Though a graying beard sprouts on his jaw, and his eyes are crinkled with new lines, I recognize him at once. “Free Jim!”

He looks me over. “Well, hello, uh, Mr. . . ?”

“McCauley,” I whisper.

“Mr. McCauley! Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.”

It’s like God dropped a little piece of home right in front of me, and it’s all I can do to resist throwing my arms around him. Instead, I hold out my hand, which he clasps. “Nice to see you too, Mr. Boisclair.”

“Long way from Dahlonega,” he observes as his eyes continue to search my face.

“I’m not the only one who’s come a long way.” Though it’s only been a couple of months, Free Jim looks as though he’s aged years. A thousand questions dance around in my head. Why did you leave? Where is Jefferson? Is my uncle looking for me? Is he here? I manage, “Rough trip?”

His smile drops away, leaving only fatigue. “Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime.”

“Maybe we’ll swap stories.”

“Hey, you there,” the store clerk interjects. “You going to buy anything? Because if not, I’d rather you didn’t clutter my doorway.”

We’re nowhere near the doorway. “Show some respect,” I snap. “Mr. Boisclair is a free Negro and a respected businessman, and his shop is about ten times bigger and cleaner than this godfor—”

“Let’s go, Lee,” Free Jim says, tugging my arm. I let him drag me out the door, even though I’m seething. The street is bustling. A buggy rolls by, spattering mud onto my legs.

“Guess I’ll have to do business elsewhere,” I tell him as we walk toward Peony. “There’s another store a few streets over by—”

“I didn’t need your help in there.”

“I wasn’t trying to help. It’s just . . . He had no right to talk to you that way.”

He sighs and changes the subject. “Glad to see Reuben’s palomino in good health. I thought that was her, but I wasn’t sure until I saw you inside.”

“Jim, I have to ask.” I drop my gaze and shuffle my feet, gathering my words and my pluck. “Did you travel with anyone? I mean . . . Is anybody from Dahlonega here with you?”

“I came alone.”

“Oh.” It feels like I can breathe again. “That’s good.”

“Your uncle Hiram left a few weeks after you did,” he adds gently, “when it was clear you’d run off.”

My gaze darts around the busy street, even as I grab for Peony’s reins. “Is he here? Did he—”

“Hiram sold the Westfall land to Mr. Gilmore and went to catch a boat in Charleston. He’s sailing to California by way of Panama.”

My knees go watery with relief, and I lean against Peony for support.

“He sent some men west after you, just in case. But no one caught even a hint of you.” His eyes twinkle. “They were looking for a young lady, after all.”

My plan worked. I can hardly believe it.

“Well, except that good-for-nothing Abel Topper,” he continues. “He rode back into town more than a week after you left, insisting he chanced upon your mare. By then it was too late; you were too far ahead.”

“Where’s Topper now?”

“He left for California with your uncle, once it was clear no one would hire him for the railroad.” In a dropped voice he adds, “They aim to reach the gold fields ahead of you.”

I nod. I’ve always known I’ll have to face Hiram again someday. “At least I won’t see him on the trail. Is anyone still looking for me? Did he post a reward or something?”

“Not as far as I know.”

But there’s an agitation about him. He opens his mouth to say something, closes it. He runs a hand through his tight beard, clears his throat, tries again. Finally, he asks: “Did Hiram kill Reuben and Elizabeth?”

I can hardly force the word past the lump in my throat. “Yes.”

He nods, as if he’d already worked out the answer. “I expected he’d do something foolish someday.”

“Why?” Tears sting my eyes, and my hands clench so hard that my nails dig into my palms. “What are you talking about? I don’t understand!”

Free Jim settles a giant hand on my shoulder and clasps it. “Do you have a place to stay?”

“Sure,” I lie. I can’t bring myself to tell him I lost most of his money and all of his shirts.

“I have some things to do. Meet me tomorrow at the Hawthorn Inn. It’s two blocks north of the square. Noon. We’ll talk.”

“Okay.” I almost beg him not to go. I’m not ready to be alone again.

He tips his hat to me. “Until tomorrow, then.”

I watch his back as he walks away, and I’m unhitching Peony before I realize I forgot to ask him about Jefferson.

Noon tomorrow can’t come soon enough. I spend the next hours meandering through town, searching the face of every stranger, hoping to find Jefferson, worrying I’ll run into the brothers instead. Evening falls, and I head out of town as the clouds break open, a coral sunset lighting up the western horizon.

The first empty spot suitable for camping is nearly a mile from the town proper. Tree stumps are everywhere, jutting out of the muddy ground like grave markers. But there are no trees; everything has been chopped down for firewood and wagons. I lie down in the open beneath the stars, and I let the sound of chirruping crickets and the scent of a hundred campfires lull me to sleep.

The next morning I make a circuit of all the groups forming up to head west. There are at least a dozen companies, each larger and more sprawling than the last.

I pass a woman bent over an honest-to-goodness box stove, and something about her makes me pause. She turns to grab a wooden ladle, and I glimpse her face. It’s Mrs. Joyner!

Somehow, she convinced someone to unload that stove for her. Certainly not Mr. Joyner, who I’ve never seen carry anything heavier than a cigar. I raise my hand to wave, surprised at how glad I am to see her safely arrived, but I flash back to her prim mouth and hard eyes as she gave me the good riddance. I let my hand drop and slink away before she can spot me. That’s one wagon train where I won’t be welcome.

I resume my search for Jefferson. Time and again I see someone with his lanky form and dark hair, but then he turns around, or moves in a way that Jefferson would never move, or calls out in a voice I’ve never heard.

Finally, the sun is high enough that I head into town for my meeting with Free Jim. The Hawthorn Inn is easy to find, though calling it an “inn” is generous and optimistic. It’s little more than a giant shack, with wax-paper windows, sleeping cubbies curtained off with sheets, and a huge, canvas awning pretending to be the roof of a busy dining area.

Free Jim is already sitting at one of the long benches, a mug before him on the table. Though the inn is crowded, there’s a bubble of space around him, so I climb over and plunk down beside him.

“I ordered us up some fried catfish,” he says by way of greeting. “Hope you don’t mind.”

My mouth waters. “Thanks, Free Jim!”

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