Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 45

“Are you sure?”

“They were trying to keep it quiet, but some of the Arkansas men already have it. They’ve moved away from the rest of the wagons, but they’re afraid to go too far because of Indians.”

“Too weak to go too far either, I reckon.”

“I reckon.”

I don’t know who is buried in that grave we left behind this morning, but now I know why they put the body up high, where everyone could see it. Not as a memorial, but as a warning.

Mr. Bledsoe, the Arkansas sheep farmer, catches the cholera and sickens fast. So fast that Jasper says he was probably sick already—maybe even in the early stages of consumption. Whatever the reason, within a day he’s flat on his back and must be tended by his men.

I suspect Mr. Joyner is also sick. When the wagon train starts up the next morning, he seems more irritable than usual and frequently excuses himself, disappears for a while, then rushes to catch up.

My stomach is in knots, partly from worry, because anyone could catch the cholera. Anyone. And partly because it’s my monthly time. I have to slip away constantly to rinse my rags and change them for fresh ones. By evening, Jefferson has noticed. “You aren’t sick, are you?” He looks me all over, up and down, as if checking for ticks.

“Not like that,” I say.

“You’d tell me if you were, right?”

“Of course.”

“You shouldn’t go off alone.”

“I have to.”

“Take me with you, at least.”

“No.”

“I’m not worried about Indians, but it’s easy to get lost out—”

“Jeff!” I whisper frantically. “It’s my monthly time!”

He gives me a blank look. Then understanding dawns. “Oh.” I swear, if not for his swarthy skin, he’d be blushing down to the roots of his black hair.

As soon as the wagon train stops for the night, I ride off on Peony to take care of things. It’s too late; I’ve got a bloodstain on my pants. I find a muddy stream and scrub it out as best I can, glad it wasn’t worse.

The sound of moaning reaches me long before I’ve made it back to camp. It’s Mr. Joyner. As I near the wagon, I realize he’s not alone in his vocal misery. The Arkansas men are a regular choir of retching and grunting and begging for clean water. The air is starting to smell peculiar.

Mrs. Joyner hands a cup of water through the bonnet opening, then leans wearily against the back of the box. Her skin is pale, and strands of blond hair stick to her sweaty forehead. I hope she isn’t sick too. If she is, then taking care of the children will surely fall to me. I know what my mama would tell me to do right now.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” I say, intending to offer help.

“Where have you been?” she snaps.

“Had my own business to take care of.”

“From now on your only business is Mr. Joyner. Do you understand me?”

I glare at her.

“I asked you a question, you—”

“Ma’am!” I interrupt, because if she calls me names, it’ll go too far to make better. “I’ve done all my assigned work. If you’re unhappy with it, then you can pay me seven dollars per our agreement, and we can part ways.”

Her mouth opens. Closes. Then: “You can’t do that.”

“If you want to call me names, then it’s time for me to go. I’ll head back to Independence if I need to.”

Once the words leave my mouth, I realize they’re not true at all. I’m for California or bust, regardless of loathsome uncles and uppity employers. I suppose I could ride on, catch up with the next wagon train, see if they wanted to hire me. Maybe Jefferson would come too. We might have to leave, anyway, if Mr. Joyner doesn’t get well.

My threat has the desired effect; it takes the spine right out of her so that she seems to shrink into herself. “That’s not necessary. I just . . . With Mr. Joyner under the weather for a bit, I could use some extra help.”

“I have to take care of myself occasionally, but the rest of the time I’m happy to do what I can.”

“Mr. Kingfisher doesn’t go off nearly as often as you do,” she points out.

“I . . . prefer privacy and modesty. Way my mama raised me.”

Her eyes narrow, but she nods. “Do you mind setting up the table for lunch? As close to the wagon as possible. If Mr. Joyner feels better, he may attempt to share our company.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I say.

“I want that tablecloth perfectly straight. Mr. Joyner does love a tidy tablecloth.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And could you pick some flowers for the table? In times of sickness and trouble, it’s more important than ever to hold to the tenets of civilized living.”

I sigh. “Yes, ma’am.”

The table is harder to wrangle by myself than I expected. I could use Jefferson’s help, but he’s nowhere to be seen. I can’t rightly complain after disappearing myself.

Once the table is on solid footing, the wings extended, and the braces in place, I spread out her checked tablecloth. I unpack their box of fine china plates and silver and put out four place settings. I wander far afield to find a few clumps of violet prairie clover, and I pick the best ones for the vase.

When I return, Mrs. Joyner is crouched over the cook fire. The Dutch oven sits nestled in the coals. The lid rattles, loosing bits of steam.

“What’s cooking?” I ask.

She looks up, startled, and her eyes are wet and her cheeks blotchy. She seems as helpless as a babe, and I feel sixteen different kinds of sorry for her and for every harsh thing I ever thought about her.

After a sniffle, she takes a rag and lifts the edge of the pot. “Water, I think.”

“No one can mess up water,” I say, and I realize it sounds like an insult, but she just smiles in response.

“Where are Andrew and Olive?” she asks with a start.

I spied them earlier, playing with the Robichaud twins. “They’re fine, perfectly safe, over with our Canadian friends.”

She starts to rise but doesn’t seem to have enough energy for it. She sags back down to her knees, her hand on her belly. “I should fetch them. The Robichauds are very kind, but they don’t want to be bothered.”

“I’m sure it’s no bother.”

“You know, I’m not even sure they’re Christian. Mrs. Robichaud says they never put much stock in religion. Can you imagine?”

“How about I check on them? In the meantime, if you toss some oats in that water, they ought to be ready enough before we load up again. Mr. Joyner might like something plain.” My daddy always liked plain food best when he was feeling sick.

“That’s an excellent idea. I’ll get started on it.”

I turn to go after the children, but Mrs. Joyner calls out. “Mr. McCauley?”

I stop. “Yes, ma’am.”

“I don’t mean to drive you away.”

“We’re fine, ma’am.”

“Are you sure?”

“Perfectly.”

Nothing out here is really fine or perfect. We just have to do the best we can.

Mrs. Robichaud sees me coming and waves.

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