Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 46

She’s seated on a trunk, sipping tea, wearing a light yellow calico with lace trim. She was smart to bring a warm-weather dress. “It feels already like a summer of Canada,” she says. “I don’t know what it is I am to do when it makes hot.”

“When it gets hot.”

“‘When it gets hot,’” she intones.

“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” I say. “Thank you for watching Andrew and Olive.” I don’t see them anywhere. Maybe they’re playing nearby.

She flips her hand as if it’s nothing. “How are Mr. and Mrs. Joyner?”

“They’ll be fine,” I say. I sound just like Mama, assuring everyone about Daddy. “It will pass.”

“Poor Mrs. Joyner,” she says. “Her and Mrs. Lowrey.”

“What’s that?” I can’t imagine what Mrs. Joyner and the preacher’s wife have in common. Maybe the reverend is sick too. Then I remember that Mrs. Lowrey is hugely pregnant.

“Ah,” I say, recalling how often I’ve seen Mrs. Joyner with a hand on her belly. No wonder she’s so tired and troubled.

Mrs. Robichaud smiles sadly. “She has much to worry herself, yes? It is to be very bad if she gets sick.”

“I’ll do what I can to help.”

“I know. I gave the enfants some food for lunch,” she says. “I hope that is good.”

“Very good,” I say. “I’m sure the Joyner children were pleased.”

“My own children are not feeling so well. I think they have, I don’t know the word, la rougeole.”

I have no idea what she means, but her face is grave. “Sorry to hear that.”

“I hope Andy and Olive do not catch it. I sent them back to their mother a few minutes ago, for to be safe.”

“Thank you,” I say. They probably returned by way of the generous Hoffmans, hoping for a treat. “I hope the twins feel better soon.”

I make my good-byes and wander away, my mind still churning over the news of Mrs. Joyner’s pregnancy.

Mrs. Lowrey, the preacher’s wife, is alone on her wagon bench, mending a bonnet.

“Beg your pardon, ma’am,” I say.

Mrs. Lowrey jumps, startled. She’s a small woman, mousy and plain, with a belly as big as a barn. She almost never leaves the wagon; her husband keeps her under tight rein. He would probably loathe what I’m about to suggest.

“I know you’re busy, Mrs. Lowrey, but with Mr. Joyner sick and all, Mrs. Joyner could use . . . well, not a hand, maybe, so much as an ear. It’d be a blessing if you could check in on her, and maybe offer to pray with her.”

It’s like my words are magic. “Well, no one could have an objection to that!” she says.

No, they couldn’t. As she pries herself up from her bench, I hope it’ll be good for both of them.

I check in with the Major, and let him know that some of our folks are sick—Mr. Joyner, the Robichaud children. I don’t say anything about Mrs. Joyner’s condition, because I’m supposed to be a man now. Soon enough, it’ll be visible for all to see, and there won’t be any point saying something now.

I take some jerky and bread with the college men, who are always unstinting with their butter and glad for company. We chat for a long time. Jasper tells me that some of the Missouri men have fallen ill too. “Stay away from them,” he warns. “And from Mr. Joyner, if you can. I expect we’ll lose a few people to the sickness before it’s done.”

I recoil a little. “Like who?”

He shrugs. “People who have eaten unripe fruit, maybe. Or those who drink too many spirits.”

I need to warn Jefferson. I thank the college men for dinner and make my way back to the Joyners’ wagon. Jeff isn’t here, but I find Mrs. Joyner in a much better temper.

“That was a kindness to send Mrs. Lowrey over,” she says.

“She looked like she could use the company.”

“We prayed together,” Mrs. Joyner says. “She prays with sincerity and sound doctrine, even though she is a Presbyterian. I may invite the Lowreys over to our wagon for supper sometime.” After a pause she adds, “She could fall sick any day now.”

“Any of us could. But I don’t think she has the cholera,” I say.

Mrs. Joyner turns her face away. “No, woman-sick. Forget I said anything. You wouldn’t understand.”

Frustration boils up inside me, because I do understand. Mrs. Lowrey’s birthing time could be upon her any moment. And every child on the way is like a roll of the dice with fate. You never know if you’ll deliver easy or if the pains will kill you. Or if your baby brother won’t even draw breath long enough to earn his name.

But men don’t talk about these things, much less hired help to genteel ladies. I start to walk away, boots scuffing the dirt, thinking about evenings on the porch with Mama, when we watched fireflies and drank sweet tea and talked about all the things that men don’t talk about.

Mrs. Joyner says, “Can you run over to Mrs. Robichaud’s wagon and fetch Andy for me?”

I whirl back around. “Andy’s not here?”

“No.” Her voice is steady, but her eyes are alarmed.

“What about Olive?”

“She returned more than an hour ago.”

“Mrs. Robichaud sent them both back. Her own boys are unwell.”

Mrs. Joyner sheds her malaise like it’s a second skin. She jumps to her feet, picks up her skirts, and jogs through the camp yelling her son’s name. When Andy doesn’t immediately appear, I dash over to the Hoffmans’ wagons to find Jefferson.

He and Therese are sitting side by side on a bench. Therese’s hands are folded neatly in her lap, her shoulders not quite touching his. “Andy junior wandered off,” I say breathlessly.

“Wandered off where?” Jefferson says.

“I don’t know. No one has seen him for at least an hour.”

He rises, plopping his hat back on. “I’ll have a look around.”

Therese says, “I will too.”

“Thank you,” I tell her.

She hollers for her siblings’ attention and starts organizing them to search.

My belly is in a tangle. Bad men like the brothers are out there. And quicksand along some of the streams. Subtle changes in the flat landscape that you don’t notice until suddenly you can’t see the wagons any more. And even though I’d never say it aloud to Jefferson, Andy could have been kidnapped by Indians. He might already be miles away.

I can cover more territory with Peony. I’ve only taken three steps toward her when a glad cry rings out from the far end of camp, where the sheep are grazing away from the cattle.

A silhouette manifests in the firelit darkness. It’s Hampton the shepherd, Mr. Bledsoe’s slave, carrying a boy on his shoulders.

Someone reaches for Andy, but he flinches away, clinging to poor Hampton’s head.

“Unhand that boy!” someone else shouts.

I push through the growing crowd, Mrs. Joyner on my heels. Andy starts to wail in panic. He’s covered in dirt or worse, and tears streak muddy trails down his cheeks. Hampton tries to lever the boy’s arms away from his face, but without success.

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