Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 39

We steer our horses into a flock of sheep, who bleat as they scatter. Nugget and Coney run to meet the herding dogs, and everyone gets in a good sniff. A short Negro with arms as thick as tree trunks waves to Jefferson as we pass.

“Those sheep belong to Mr. Bledsoe, and that’s Hampton, his shepherd.”

“Mr. Bledsoe is the one from Arkansas, with ten wagons?”

“That’s right. He’s got about a thousand head. He says sheep are smaller and more sure-footed than cattle, so they’re more likely to survive the trek across the mountains. Plans to get rich establishing a herd in the gold fields. It’s causing problems with the Missouri men because the sheep foul the grass, and the cattle won’t eat it. Right now the plan is to let the cattle go first and have the sheep bring up the rear.” He points. “That wagon over there is Reverend Lowrey and his wife.”

“Just the two of them?”

“And one more on the way.”

My face must register surprise that he would mention such a thing, because he quickly adds, “You’ll know it as soon as you see her. The reverend says God called him west to minister to the miners in the gold fields. To be honest, Lee, it’s a pretty misfit bunch. We’re the leftovers. People the other companies wouldn’t take, mixed with a few who arrived too late to set off with the rest.”

He’s about to say more, but we come to the end of the line.

“That’s Major Craven over there,” he says. The tent he points to is military style—plain and exacting.

“I heard he was a major in some kind of Indian war.”

Jefferson’s face darkens. “The Black Hawk War. An ugly bit of business. More than a thousand Indians killed. Craven was a sergeant. Only reason everyone here calls him Major is because of Mr. Joyner.”

“How’s that?”

“The other companies were appointing captains, and Mr. Joyner said that since ours was so distinguished, it needed a guide with a more distinguished title.”

“That’s . . .”

“I know!”

I shake my head. “We’d be lucky to make it to California if Mr. Joyner was in charge. He doesn’t know a rabbit from a raccoon.”

“He doesn’t need to know anything. Haven’t you read the papers, Lee?”

“Read what in the papers?”

His eyes twinkle. “It’s the easiest thing in the world to get to California—you just aim yourself west and start walking.”

Chapter Eighteen

The sun sets over the western horizon, and it’s like an omen, the way it lights up the plain in fiery gold. Major Craven makes a circuit of the camp. He’s a middle-aged man with a huge scar across his top lip that almost disappears in the brightness of his easy smile. He announces to all that our company is now complete and that we’ll be leaving on the morrow.

When Mrs. Joyner sees that her husband has hired me, her eyes widen and she draws in a little breath. I brace myself for her protestations, but they never come, not even when Mr. Joyner offers to let Jefferson and me sleep beneath their wagon bed. It’s the first time I don’t leave town and go off on my own to spend the night.

We flip out our bedrolls so that they’re almost-but-not-quite touching. I spent so much time looking for him that it’s a delight to lie down side by side, to face each other in the dark. I’m not the least bit tired. I want to stay awake all night talking, soaking up the fact that he’s finally here.

“So,” he says in a low whisper. “Tell me about this uncle of yours.”

He’s the easiest person in the world to talk to, and now that we’re alone in the dark I don’t hesitate. “Hiram. Daddy’s brother. He . . . Well, I ran into Free Jim here in Independence.”

“You don’t say! What was he doing?”

“He sold his store. Now he’s on his way to California. You know he was great friends with Daddy, right?”

“Sure. Always thought that’s why your daddy stopped going to church after the Methodists split.”

“That’s right. Well, Jim knew a few things.” In as soft a voice as I can manage, I tell Jefferson everything: about Hiram being sweet on my mother, about how he lost both Mama and the land lottery to his brother, about how no one—not even my daddy—knows what happened to Mama in Boston that made her run away from her fine house and wealthy family to hack out a living in Indian country. I tell Jefferson every single thing, except the one thing I should never tell a soul: that of everything Hiram thought life had cheated him of, the witchy girl who could find gold might be the one that rankles him most.

“So,” Jefferson says after a long pause. “You think you’re rid of him?”

“Maybe.” Dread curls in my belly. “No. I’m not rid of him. But I don’t think Hiram wants to kill me. He wants . . . something else. He wouldn’t say what. After I ran away, he headed west by sea. He might reach California ahead of us.”

“You think he’ll be looking for you?”

“I know he will.”

“Huh.” He’s silent a moment. Then: “I don’t like it one bit.”

“Me neither.”

“And I don’t understand how a man could kill his own brother. Lucky Westfall of all people! Everyone liked him. Even my da.”

I choke a little on my next breath.

“Lee?”

“I miss him bad, Jeff.”

“I know.”

The wagon bed above us groans as one of the Joyners turns over. “Long day ahead,” Jefferson says. The weight of his hand descends onto my shoulder. He gives me a squeeze, and the gesture fills me up even better than Mrs. Joyner’s badly baked beans. “Lee, I’m glad you got away. Even gladder that you’re here.”

I smile into the dark. “Me too.”

“I won’t let that uncle of yours near you. I promise.”

“Thanks, Jeff.”

We say our good nights, and Jefferson turns his back to me and falls right asleep. I lie awake awhile, listening to the sounds of our camp—crackling fires and creaking wagons, shuffling oxen and bleating sheep, and my best friend breathing easy beside me.

When the bustle of morning rouses me, Jefferson is already gone. I shove on Daddy’s boots and scoot out from under the wagon to find our camp in a flurry. Everything is half loaded, and most of the oxen stand yoked before their wagons. It must have drizzled last night, because the ground is muddy and churned from all the goings-on. Mist chills the air, and gray hazes the sky, but everyone waves and smiles like it’s the Fourth of July. And maybe it is, in a way. Today begins a new life for many of us.

While Mrs. Joyner industriously burns flapjacks over the cook fire, a huckster with a coonskin cap weaves through the wagons, a wheelbarrow squelching through the mud before him, calling out, “Pickaxes, pans, and pickles for the argonauts!” He sells two pickaxes to a man in the wagon next to us, then he approaches Mrs. Joyner.

“Pickaxes, pans, and pickles for the argonauts! Surely you’d like a jar of pickles, ma’am? Argonauts are a notoriously hungry bunch.”

She recoils, bristling. “I’m no argonaut. I am a Methodist.”

The smile goes clean off his face. “Of course, ma’am. Your pardon, ma’am.” He tips his cap to her and moves on to the next wagon.

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