Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 34

“It’s just Jim now.”

I peer at his profile. “But Missouri is a slave state. It would be better if—”

“Do you have to go around introducing yourself as ‘Free Lee’?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then why should I?”

Because I couldn’t stand it if something happened to him, but I take his point.

A serving girl not much older than me sweeps by and plops our plates down before us.

“Eat up,” Jim says.

The fish is a bit rubbery, like it sat out a day or two before getting cooked, but I can’t afford to turn down a meal. I’m halfway through when Jim says, “What are your plans?”

I swallow my mouthful. “Find Jefferson. He said he’d meet me here. Then we’ll figure out how to get to California.”

He nods. “Some folks thought the two of you ran off together.”

“I wish we had.” If Jefferson had been around, those brothers wouldn’t have dared rob me. Then again, maybe his Cherokee blood would have made him a tempting target. The thought turns my stomach. “Have you seen him? He left a few days before I did, so I really thought he’d be here by now.”

“I haven’t, no.” At the look on my face, he adds, “Sorry. Some companies have left already, even though the grass isn’t growing in yet.”

It’s an awful possibility, that we could come all this way and not find each other.

“The reason I ask about your plans,” Jim says, “is that I’m heading out tomorrow. Found a good company willing to have a Negro along. You’re welcome to join me.”

I stare at him. “But . . . Jeff . . .”

His smile is sympathetic. “I figured you’d say that. But in honor of your daddy, I had to offer.”

“You could wait! Just a few days. We could look for Jefferson together.”

He stabs at his catfish. Puts down his fork. “I may not get another opportunity. I have two wagons full of goods. Plenty of money from liquidating the store. But it doesn’t seem to matter. Only one company will have me along, and I have to go.”

I mash the fish on my plate with my fork, my appetite gone. I guess I don’t blame Free Jim—Jim—one bit for wanting to head off with a big outfit. It’s what I’d do, if not for Jefferson.

“Well, good luck, Jim,” I say wistfully. “I hope you find mountains of gold.”

His eyes flash. “I hope so too.”

Everyone gets the fever. Even rich men. “Jim, you said something in the store. About Hiram.”

Jim dabs his mouth with his kerchief and twists to face me. “How much do you know about him?”

I shrug. “Not much. That he’s Daddy’s older brother, a college-educated man. He came south from Boston with my mama and daddy; they were all great friends. But when Daddy won a parcel in the land lottery and he didn’t, Hiram left for the big city to practice law. We didn’t see him much, not for years at a time.”

“Did you know that Hiram and Elizabeth were going together?”

I nearly choke. “No, Mama never said.”

“They were planning to marry.”

I gape at him.

“She was running away from something in Boston, something awful. So when the Westfall brothers decided to head south during the gold rush, she asked to come along. She and Hiram fell in love. They were going to get married when they reached Georgia.”

My meal rolls around in my belly. “But she married my daddy.”

Jim nods. “She changed her mind at the very last moment. That’s about the time your daddy and I were getting on as friends. Reuben comes to me one day and says, ‘Jim, I’m going to marry Elizabeth, and my brother is going to be heaping mad, and I don’t know if she’ll ever love me or if Hiram will ever forgive me, but it’s something I got to do.’”

I stare down at my plate, trying to take in his words. Conversation hums around us, like buzzing insects. A breeze gusts through the dining area, flapping the awning.

“He never told me why,” Jim adds. “But he was wrong about one thing and right about the other: Yes, Elizabeth did love him, and no, Hiram didn’t forgive him. Especially after the lottery, when your daddy got a nice piece of acreage and he came up with nothing. And a few years later, when Reuben and Elizabeth had a daughter, a beautiful baby girl they named Leah, Hiram left Dahlonega for good, and I only saw him but once or twice after that.”

“So he murdered them out of revenge?”

“I can’t say what’s in that man’s head, but maybe so.”

The serving girl sweeps by and collects our plates. I realize I’m squeezing the golden locket with my hands, twisting, twisting, twisting at the chain. I force my fingers to let go. “Hiram paid us visits, when I was little. And Daddy went to Milledgeville a few times, before he got sick.”

Jim nods. “Reuben told me they’d reconciled, years later. But your uncle has a politician’s face. Never can tell what that man is thinking. He lies slicker than a huckster with a love potion.”

I’m still not convinced Hiram wanted revenge. He was after me, what I can do.

It’s on the tip of my tongue to tell Jim everything—about the gold dust that used to be hidden beneath our floorboards, about Hiram tricking my daddy into leaving the estate to him. It’s even on my mind to tell Jim that the gold coins in his pocket are singing to me like a hymn, that I know for sure and certain he’s carrying at least twenty dollars.

But I say nothing.

“Did you ever hear tell why your mama left Boston?” Jim asks.

“No. She hinted that something bad happened when she was a girl. Why did she?”

Jim frowns. “I don’t know. I was hoping you did.”

“Daddy never told you?”

“I don’t think Reuben ever knew.”

“Oh.”

A sudden thought almost makes me jump out of my seat: Maybe Mama had witchy powers too. Maybe that’s why she was so prickly whenever I found gold. That’s why she never let me use the word “witch” in the house.

I sigh. I’m full up on heartache and ire, on frustration at not knowing enough, and it’s making me fanciful.

“You’re sure you can’t come with me?” Jim says as he rises from the bench.

I stand up too, even though I’m not ready to say good-bye. “I’m sure.”

“Will you be all right if Hiram finds you in California?”

I swallow hard. “I guess we’ll find out.”

He reaches out and grasps my shoulder. “I wish I could tell you more.”

My eyes feel hot, and my throat constricts. “It’s more than I knew before.” Please don’t go, I want to cry out. You and Jeff are all I’ve got.

He gives me a sad smile, then thrusts out his hand. It swallows mine when we shake. I hold on longer than I should.

“I have a lot to do before sunup tomorrow, so I have to go,” he says, gently pulling his hand away from mine. “Take care of yourself, Lee. I surely hope to see you in the gold fields.”

My cheek twitches with the effort to not cry. “I surely hope so too. Thanks for dinner. For everything.”

Prev Next