Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 49

“I said she’s fine!”

I reach into my pocket and fish out four dollars. “Get her shod. I know she’s not a barefoot horse, so don’t you dare say no. We need her sound.”

He stares at the coins in my hand. Sighs. Grabs them before he can change his mind. “Thanks, Lee.”

“You’d do it for me.”

I stare after him as he leads the sorrel mare toward the blacksmith’s stable, my pockets feeling light as air.

In the morning, we leave Fort Kearny behind, and it feels as though we’re stepping off the edge of civilization. The trail starts to incline, and the weather warms. I’m thirsty all the time. Still, we push on as hard as we can because the general word at Fort Kearny is that the cholera clears up past Fort Laramie.

Our train rolls by more shallow graves, most of them dug up. We make graves of our own when two of the Missouri men pass on in the night. I didn’t know them well, but I stand a long moment at their graveside, hat off, just like everyone else. Unlike everyone else, I stare at Jefferson the whole time, assuring myself that he seems as hale as always.

Mr. Joyner continues to improve, much to his family’s great relief, though he moves more slowly than before. The mood is better around our wagon, and at night, when we set up camp, I play hide-and-seek with Andy junior. He still wears my locket, like a good luck charm, and each time he hides, I pretend for a few minutes that I don’t know exactly where he is.

“You don’t have a rifle?” Mr. Joyner says, blinking against the afternoon sun. Major Craven has called an early halt today on account of us already making sixteen miles and coming to a spot rich with grass.

“No, sir,” I say, thinking longingly of Daddy’s Hawken.

“Lee’s the best shot in Lumpkin County back home,” Jefferson says as he lifts a chair from the wagon.

Mr. Joyner snorts, as if hearing a tall tale. “Well, the Missouri boys say this is buffalo country. I’ll lend you my rifle until I’m back in fighting form. You and Jefferson head out, try to find one of the beasts. If you do, shoot it and bring it back.”

His rifle is a beautiful Springfield with a single trigger, made of shining chestnut wood, or at least stained to look just like it. The barrel is nearly three feet long. I’ve never shot one before, but I like its easy weight and elegant balance.

Jefferson is as thrilled as I am to get away from camp chores for a bit. We ride out, rifles in hand, into rolling wild pasture.

“What you said a few nights ago,” Jefferson says once we’re out of earshot.

“What did I say? ‘Shut up and sleep’?”

“No, about not having to lie to anyone. You don’t have to lie to me. You know that, right?”

“It’s not lying with words,” I explain. “Everything I do is a lie. My clothes, my name, who people think I am.”

“Yeah, but it’s great, isn’t it?”

“Great?” I peer closer, trying to figure him.

“This is the best we’ve ever had it.” At my expression, he quickly adds, “It’s the best I’ve ever had it in my life. Plenty of food. The work is easier than mining and farming.”

“Oh. Yeah, great.” Jefferson doesn’t feel the same sense of loss that I do. My mama and daddy are a constant ache in me, even months later. But Jefferson is glad to be rid of his da, and I don’t blame him. Therese looks at him in a way none of the girls back home did. He’s stronger than he’s ever been.

“I mean, no one likes me,” he amends. “Or trusts me much. But that’s no different from back home.”

“Therese likes you.”

His face turns thoughtful. “She does. And maybe I’m winning some of the others over too. Don’t you think?”

I stare down at Peony’s mane. “I think you could win over anyone in the world, if you wanted.”

We plod on, keeping an eye out for game. Bees flit around the wildflowers, and sleepy crickets leap through the grass to avoid our horses.

“You’re not lying to me about anything, are you, Lee?” he says, and his voice has a strange quality to it.

Words congeal in my throat. What do I say? Yes, Jefferson, I haven’t told you that I can find gold the way a hound finds foxes. I haven’t said that seeing you with Therese makes me sad. That on the way to Independence I started getting used to the idea of marrying my best friend, and that sometimes when you turn your back on me at night, it feels like the world is cracking open.

I find my voice. “No. I’m not lying. It’s just . . .”

He reins in the sorrel mare. “Lee?”

“It’s just that maybe I’m not telling you everything.”

“Oh.” He looks down at his hands clutching the reins. “I might not be telling you everything either.”

I startle a little, and Peony dances in response. But if I’m keeping secrets, it’s only fair that he does too. “I reckon that’s all right,” I tell him.

“Yeah.”

We ride on. With Jefferson, silence is sometimes as comforting as talking.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Jefferson and I ride out every afternoon, but we never see buffalo. Our company keeps rolling, fifteen miles a day, give or take, with half a day on Sunday to make up for lost time.

Weather announces itself from far away now, low dark clouds that are more green than gray. The Platte River valley is the hugest I’ve ever seen, and it looks flat as a flapjack, though my sore legs tell me otherwise. I walk often, Peony by my side, to give her a break.

When a steady rumble of thunder wakes me one dark morning, I rise from my blanket, resigned to a day of soaking rain.

Jefferson is already up. He stands with his suspenders hanging at his hips, his face lifted toward the eastern horizon, which is just now brightening from black to the dark blue of a bruise.

“It’s clear,” he says. “See all the stars?”

“I do.”

The air tastes dusty and dry, not like rain at all. The winds have been relentless lately, which is why we’ve camped in this shallow bowl of land. For once, it’s possible that a storm is on the way, and we just can’t see it.

Our wagon circle has shrunk since Bledsoe’s men left, and now it feels like the animals and the people are all on top of one another. Maybe that’s why the oxen are so fidgety this morning, milling about and snorting. Nugget and Coney trot over to greet us, and Coney stretches up to lick my fingers.

The thunder grows louder. The ground twitches beneath my feet.

“An earthquake?” Jefferson says.

The rest of the camp is beginning to stir. Major Craven hurries toward us, rifle in hand. “I’m heading to the top of that ridge to get the lay of the land,” he says to us. “Want to come?”

“Sure,” we say in unison, and duck between the wagons and follow him up the gentle slope.

The prairie stretches endlessly before us, an expanse of black that is gradually brightening to green before the rising sun. About half a mile away is the strangest storm cloud I’ve ever seen. It hugs the earth, a rolling mass sweeping across the horizon.

“That’s no storm,” Jefferson says.

“Buffalo!” Craven shouts. “Run back and warn everyone. They must stay in the wagons!”

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