Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 53

She runs to her wagon and returns with a silver hairbrush. I cling to a wriggling little boy while she engages in some quick negotiations, coming away with a buffalo hide. The Indian girl’s wailing evaporates. She and her friends take turns touching the shiny silver handle. Then she unravels her left braid and starts brushing her hair.

Others, perhaps sensing the angry mood of the camp, gesture southward toward the herd of buffalo. Moments later, all the Indians melt away much as they arrived. The girl follows slowly, brushing, brushing, brushing as she goes.

Mrs. Joyner stares after her, beaming. “Maybe next time I can trade some salt pork for fresh buffalo meat,” she says.

She’d be better off trading away some of that big furniture before we get to the mountains.

“Ma’am?”

“You don’t like buffalo meat?”

“I don’t know— Never had any. Jefferson said you wanted to see me? Before the Indians arrived.”

The joy vanishes from her face. “Ah, yes. I’d like a favor.”

“Anything.”

“I’m worried about Mrs. Lowrey.”

“How come?”

Her brow knits. “She should be . . . Forgive me for speaking indelicately, I hope I don’t offend you.”

“Not at all.”

Everything comes out in a rush. “She ought to have delivered that baby by now. She’s long past due, but she won’t ask for help. Mrs. Robichaud can’t go to her because of the twins’ measles. Mrs. Hoffman is already overburdened with her six children. Six births, can you imagine! And Reverend Lowrey . . . Well, the reverend puts all his faith in God, as he should. He’s a good man and a loving husband, and I’m sure he just wants to protect his wife, and I’d go myself, but you see . . .” She leans forward and whispers, “They’re Presbyterians. It doesn’t foster casual relations, you understand? I asked them to dinner, but the reverend . . . Anyway, I’d like to do what I can to help her.”

This is the kind of conversation you have with another woman. I can’t help glancing down at my chest to make sure Mama’s shawl is in place beneath my shirt. It’s been harder and harder to tuck in every day; the material is ragged and stained now, the edges unraveling. But everything seems to be secure. “I . . . What do you want me to do?”

Mrs. Joyner’s hand goes to her own belly, a gesture I’m not sure she’s aware of. “Just make an excuse to stop by her wagon, like you did before. I have to stay and help Mr. Joyner—he wears himself out so quickly. Find out how she’s doing, perhaps? Maybe if the Lowreys ask for help . . .” Her quivering voice trails off.

I haven’t seen her so frightened and white-faced since we shot through the Suck on the flatboat, and I’m not sure why Mrs. Lowrey’s situation has her in such a state. “I’m glad to do it,” I say, even though it’s something a boy would probably never agree to.

“Hey, Lee!” Jefferson rides over on the sorrel mare. “Do you still have Mr. Joyner’s rifle? A few of the men are heading out to hunt some buffalo. The ones we downed here are all trampled and useless.”

“What about the wagons?”

“A few of them need repairs. They’ll take all day.”

I look to Mrs. Joyner. “I could bring you that meat you wanted.”

“Go on,” she says. “You can do that other favor when you get back.”

We ride out with a group of Missouri men, following a huge swath of mud and dirt that cuts through the prairie like a river. There’s some discussion about which band of Indians visited us, with the men generally settling on Omaha. Who ought to be removed, they say, so white men can settle the Nebraska territory.

The small band is also following the herd, and we pass them about a quarter mile out. Frank aims his rifle at the leader and holds it to his shoulder until the Indians notice. “Bang,” he says. Then he laughs, lowers his weapon, and waves to the Indians all friendly-like.

They don’t wave back.

“Suspicious beasts,” he says. “We could shoot all of them from here before an arrow ever reached us.”

“They’re sneaky,” offers one of his companions. “Come up and slit your throat in the night.”

“That’s why you shoot them first.”

Their talk puts my belly in a bad way. I glance over at Jefferson, whose lips are pressed tight.

“The Missouri men are snakes,” I whisper to Jeff. “The lot of them.”

“Men are men,” he says with a shrug. “It’s men thinking other men are snakes that’s the problem.”

Shame clenches my throat. He’s right.

The buffalo ended their stampede a mile or so beyond our camp, where a few small hills rise from the flat prairie. There are thousands and thousands of bison, as far as the eye can see. I’ve never seen that many of anything in all my life. Even ants on an anthill can’t compete.

Under Frank’s direction, we spread out to either side. He explains that we’ll shoot at stragglers to drive the herd back together and start them moving again, away from the Indians.

My first shot is good, even with the unfamiliar rifle, and the animal crumples. The nearest buffalo trot away, but the herd doesn’t spook.

“Nice shooting, Georgia,” Frank says.

“Show-off,” Jefferson whispers.

“Let’s go get it,” I say, grinning.

“Not yet,” Frank says. “We don’t stop until we’re done hunting.”

Maybe it’s not safe to dismount with so many buffalo nearby. I look to Jefferson for an explanation, but he shrugs, equally confused.

While I reload my rifle, the others start shooting. Gunfire cracks all around me, and burned powder fills the air. The buffalo take off running.

The men shoot indiscriminately and laugh at the cries of agony. They ignore wounded animals to shoot at others. All Jefferson and I do is follow behind and put down animals too injured to run.

It’s a slaughter. We kill more animals than our entire company can possibly eat, and then we kill some more. Finally, after driving the herd for miles, the men get bored, and Frank gives the command to pull up.

We gather around a dead buffalo, and I dismount to get there first. My daddy field-dressed a bear once, so I know it’s possible to handle something so large. I put my knifepoint to the buffalo’s hide. Frank grabs my shoulder.

“Like this,” he says. He pushes me out of the way, reaches into the buffalo’s mouth, and yanks out the giant tongue. He hacks it off with a knife. “Tongues and humps, that’s all we’re taking,” he says. “The delicacies.”

“What about the rest?” I ask, astonished.

“Leave ’em out here to rot. We can kill ’em all, far as I’m concerned. If the Indians can’t find anything to eat, maybe they’ll go live somewhere else.”

Even taking only the simplest cuts, we’ve killed far too many buffalo to take them all. The sun climbs past noon, so we stop and cook up dinner. Someone unhooks a pot from his saddle and sets a tongue to boil. It must steep a while, he explains, so the men stretch out on the grass and trade stories and joke about lingering until the mess is cleaned up back at camp.

Jefferson and I sit off to one side. His face is dark, his eyes troubled.

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