Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 38

“Wait. You got robbed?”

If I tell him I lost Daddy’s gun, the hurt might be too much, so I say, “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

“I figured if I stayed in one spot, it would be easier for you to find me.”

“I have the worst luck,” I say, shaking my head. The only place I avoided was the place Jefferson had been the whole time.

“Hey, we’re going to change our luck, right? As soon as we get to California.” His grin is so easy now, like the weight of the world has fallen away. Maybe it’s being away from his da that’s done the trick.

“Sure, Jeff.”

“Mr. Joyner ordered me to tell you about our company,” he says. He points out a group of twenty or so wagons and twice that many men, all set apart from everyone else. “That lot from southern Missouri decided to head out at the last minute. We’ve been waiting for them to pull their gear together.”

“A rough-looking bunch.”

“Maybe so. But there aren’t enough for them to feel safe from Indians, so they needed to merge with another group. It’s all men, no families. And, Lee, they don’t know a lick about gold mining. You and I have more experience than the whole group put together.”

Jefferson doesn’t know the half of what I can do. “They good folk?”

“The opposite of good folk. Their leader is a fellow named Frank Dilley. You don’t want to cross him.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Is that the group Major Craven came with?”

“No, Craven is a guide, hired by Mr. Bledsoe, who’s a sheep farmer from Arkansas.” Jefferson waves toward a smaller group of wagons, all filled to bursting and sunken deep in the mud. “He owns all ten of those wagons. He’s a late arrival too, just like the Missouri group. All the other wagons belong to families. The families don’t trust the bachelors, and the bachelors don’t like the families, but everyone seems to get on with the Major.”

“The families?”

“You’ll see. That wagon over there? That’s the Hoffmans.”

Three small children chase one another around the wagon wheels. An older girl with blond hair spilling out from under her bonnet keeps an eye on them. She sits on a stool, knitting a stocking and whipping through her stitches without looking down once. When she sees Jefferson, a huge smile lights her face.

“Who’s that?” I ask. She’s a lovely girl, with a tiny nose and rose-flushed cheeks and eyes the color of an indigo bunting. Even Annabelle Smith back home couldn’t hold a candle to her.

“That’s Therese,” Jefferson says, tipping his hat to the girl. “She’s nice. You’ll like her.”

“I see.” My gut is suddenly in knots. Therese is the real reason he followed the German family from Ohio. It’s written all over his moony face. Maybe Jefferson wasn’t waiting in one spot in Independence so I could find him. Maybe he wasn’t even looking for me.

“Hallo,” she says as we approach.

“Therese, this is my old friend Lee. Lee, this is my friend Therese.”

“Pleased to meet you,” she says, her consonants soft and clipped.

“Nice to meet you too,” I reply, and I mean it. If Jefferson says she’s good people, then that will have to be enough for me. At the last second, I remember to tip my hat like a proper young man.

“Lee is going to help the Joyners wrangle their gear.” Jefferson straightens in his saddle. A sweep of his arm encompasses all the wagons. “I’m supposed to show her—”

I glare at him, but he’s already caught himself.

“Er, I’m supposed to show him the wagons and the camp, describe the work, and . . .”

Jefferson has always been a terrible liar.

“Better get back to it,” I say. “Be seeing you around, miss.”

“Be seeing you around,” she says, mimicking the cadence of my phrase perfectly. To Jefferson, she says, “Come by after dinner; I’ll save some.”

“Sure,” he says, grinning. His eyes follow Therese as she rounds up her siblings and herds them toward the back of the wagon.

“So that’s the family you followed west,” I say, wondering if Therese’s dinner invitation included me. Probably not.

“I don’t know how I’m supposed to do this, Lee.”

“Do what?”

“Pretend you’re someone you’re not.”

“What do you think you’re doing, Mr. Jefferson Kingfisher?”

“That’s different.”

“It’s no different at all. Those of us going west aren’t just seeking fortunes, you know. It’s a chance to start over. Be whoever we want to be.”

He grins.

“What?”

“I’ve missed y— your opining.”

“You’ve got to keep my secret, Jeff. All the way to California. If you don’t, they’ll leave me behind, or make me go back. And I can’t go back. I’ve got nobody to go back to, unless you count the uncle who killed my folks and took over my whole life.”

The grin disappears.

“Hiram said he had a plan for me. I have no idea what he meant, but I’m sure it was nothing good. Jefferson, you’re the only person left who I trust. You have to keep my secret. You have to.”

“Okay. I’ll do it.”

I exhale relief. “Thank you. You can start by helping me cut my hair. It’s getting too long.”

“Keeping your hair short isn’t going to make you look like a boy. At least not to me.”

“Please?”

He scowls. “If you say so.”

The scent of beans boiling in molasses tickles my nose, makes me realize how hungry I am.

“Here, I’ll show you the rest,” he says. “That’s the Joyners’ wagon—”

“I know them well enough.” For better or worse. “We came west on the same flatboat.”

“None of the other companies wanted them. They’re hauling too much. Major Craven keeps telling them to leave something behind, like that dining table.”

“But Mrs. Joyner won’t hear of it.”

“Indeed she won’t. Believe it or not, she hauls out that table and sets it with a checked cloth every single night. It’s like she thinks she’s still in Chattanooga.”

“You don’t say.”

“I can’t imagine all their stuff will make it over the mountains. Not unless we carry it.”

“That’s probably what they hired us for.”

He points to a single, neat wagon. “That’s Mr. and Mrs. Robichaud from Canada.” A cheerful red-and-blue quilt hangs over the sideboard, as if on display. “They arrived last week. His wife speaks mostly French, but she’s practicing her English every day. She’ll weary you with questions if you get too close. They’ve got twin boys, five or six years old. It’s a sturdy wagon, well organized, and Mr. Robichaud knows a bit of blacksmithing. So they’re welcome.”

His gaze shifts to three young men crouching around a cook fire. Easy laughter rolls from their mouths.

“Those are the college men—Jasper Clapp, Thomas Bigler, and Henry Meek. From Illinois. Jasper says they left college before they graduated.”

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