Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 44

The Major says, “But next time it could be Indians! So you have to be ready.”

“I must have kicked away my other boot,” Jefferson whispers, looking around. “Blast it, I’ll never be able to find it in the dark.”

“We are now deep in Indian territory,” Craven says. “We’ll be going deeper, all the way to California. In my experience, we’ve nothing to fear by day. They’ll come to trade, and they may have food and other valuable information. For our part, it’s a chance to resupply and lighten our loads.”

He looks pointedly at those of us standing by the Joyner wagon. But my conscience is clear. I can hold everything I own in my hands.

“But if they come at night, it’ll be to rob us. They’ll steal our horses and our cattle if they can. So be on guard and be ready to defend yourselves!”

“Hey, Wally!” someone calls. One of the Missouri men. “How many Induns you kill in the Black Hawk War?”

The Major’s face blanches.

“Ten? A hundred?” the caller persists.

In a voice almost too low to hear, the Major says, “Too many. And hopefully not a soul more. Now get back to sleep.” He hops down from the trunk.

“As if anyone could sleep after that alarm,” Mrs. Joyner grumbles.

“The man’s just doing the job we elected him to do,” Mr. Joyner says. “Back into the wagon.”

Jefferson glares after Major Craven. “That was a lot of ruckus about nothing,” he says.

“Guess we better sleep under the wagons or inside the circle from now on,” I say.

“It’s not true, what he said.”

“He’s not talking about the Cherokee.”

“But back home they said all that about the Cherokee—that we were thieves and worse—and it’s not true. You remember when Dan Hutchings killed his brother-in-law?”

“Sure.” It was a big scandal in Dahlonega. They’d been arguing over a piece of land that Dan said was his, through his wife. He hung for it.

Jefferson stares off at nothing. “Dan was a white man, as white as they come,” he says. “And nobody ever said he did it because white men are savages. But one Indian does something bad, and suddenly all of them are bad.”

In the moonlight, his profile looks more Cherokee than ever. Mama used to say that Jefferson had a noble dignity about him, which was her way of pointing out his Indian blood while pretending to be polite. He doesn’t seem noble to me. He’s just Jeff.

“No one thinks you’re bad,” I say softly.

He turns on me, eyes flashing. “That’s not . . . I mean . . .”

“I knew a lot of Indians back when I was a little girl, and not a one of them was bad. And I know you, and you’re the best person I know. Do you want me to walk on over to Major Craven and spit in his eye?”

“Course not,” he says, but I’ve coaxed a little smile out of him.

“I could probably hit it at five paces.”

He says nothing, but his eyes rove my face, and he gets a strange expression.

My cheeks warm. “Come on,” I say, tossing my saddlebags and blanket under the Joyners’ wagon. “Let’s go find your boot.”

Chapter Twenty

Late the next morning, we spot a mound of dirt ringed with rocks, staring down at us from high on a hill. A small wooden cross made of not-quite-straight branches stands guard over it. The grave can’t be more than a week old, but already the cross lists to the side. There’s no headstone that I can see—no name, nothing to mark who this person was, who they left behind, or who carries on without them.

Major Craven and some of the Missouri men climb the hill to investigate. Moments later, they gesture wildly at one another, their angry voices carrying on the wind.

Mrs. Joyner leans over from the wagon seat. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know, ma’am.”

“Well, go find out.”

So Peony and I climb the hill and discover that the grave has been scraped open. I catch a glimpse of pale, gray skin before Major Craven and his men shovel dirt to quickly cover it up.

“What happened?” I asked.

Major Craven shakes his head sadly. “The grave was desecrated.”

I’m about to ask about the person buried here, but Mr. Joyner crests the rise. “Go back to the wagon and make sure Mrs. Joyner keeps it rolling,” he orders.

“Yes, sir.” I turn Peony around and go right back the way I came.

“So, what was it?” Mrs. Joyner asks.

“Something dug up the grave,” I tell her. “Maybe wolves or wild dogs. They’re covering it up again.”

“But who was in it?”

I shake my head. “Don’t know, ma’am.”

She frowns.

As we ride on, she cranes her neck, keeping the hill in view for as long as possible.

I can’t stop thinking about my glimpse of dead flesh. Maybe it was a girl like me. I’ve got no family, no friends besides Jefferson. If I die, I’ll end up in a shallow grave like that one, unnamed and unremembered.

About an hour later, the wagons stop for a short break, and Mr. Joyner catches up with us.

“It was Indians,” he announces.

“Oh, how terrible,” Mrs. Joyner says, covering her mouth.

“Indians killed him?” Jefferson asks. He’s tight and coiled on the sorrel mare, like a thunderstorm about to let loose.

“It was a her, not a him. And no, looks like natural causes did it,” Mr. Joyner says. “But Indians dug up the grave. They stole the girl’s clothes. Even the blanket she was wrapped in.”

Mrs. Joyner shakes her head in vigorous denial.

I’m about to point out that we can’t know what they stole if we didn’t see what the poor girl was buried with in the first place, but I decide it won’t do any good.

Mr. Joyner says, “Truly, these savages have no fear of God nor love of the white man.”

Jefferson rides off on the sorrel mare.

I almost ride after him, but I’m not sure he wants company. I’m not sure I want company either.

I don’t know what to think about the Indians. Seems to me we don’t really know anything about them. We don’t even know what we don’t know.

I avoid the Joyners when we stop for lunch. My appetite is gone, anyway. I keep thinking of that poor girl, with no family, out here all alone and even her grave dug up.

By the time we’re moving again, I’m regretting my decision to skip lunch, and hunger makes me even grumpier. When I see Jefferson riding toward me, I almost steer Peony away. A strange look on his face makes me pull her up instead.

“What is it?” I ask

“They’re saying it’s cholera,” he whispers.

A chill rolls down my spine. Mama told me about cholera. “Where?” I ask. “Here?”

“It’s what killed that girl we found. Cholera morbus. There was a sign on the grave.”

I didn’t see any sign. They must have moved it before I got there. “Morbus? What does that mean?”

He shrugs. “I think it means they’re dead.”

Cholera usually springs up in big cities. A wagon train isn’t a big city, but it’s definitely dirty and crowded. We’re all jammed together, treading over the same ground and cooking and sleeping, hour after hour, day after day, in the same tracks as the wagons before us. It’s not like a barn that I can muck out and clean up. It’s just muck.

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