Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 57

“They’re the only family you never visit. You’ve made friends with everyone else.”

“Well, there are so many of them, it seems like they don’t need friends.” That sounds ridiculous the moment I say it. “I didn’t mean that.”

“Therese thinks you hate her.”

“I don’t even know her.”

“That’s why she thinks you hate her. You avoid their wagon. She’s convinced it’s because she talks funny or because you don’t like Germans. I told her that’s nonsense. It is nonsense, right?”

“I . . .” It’s not her I’ve been avoiding. It’s the two of them, together—something I’m not sure I can bear. “I’ll keep company with whomever I choose. I don’t have to explain it to anyone.”

He’s silent a long moment. Then: “That’s not like you, Lee. You’re a better person than that.”

“There isn’t any good or bad about it. I just—”

“The Missouri men don’t keep company with me because I’m half-Cherokee. Reverend Lowrey never let his wife keep company with Mrs. Joyner because she’s a Methodist. And Mrs. Joyner didn’t want to keep company with you for a long time because she thought you were a runaway scamp and a bad influence. So what’s your rotten excuse for not keeping company with Therese?”

“I don’t . . . I didn’t . . .” I sigh. Sometimes, having a best friend with uncanny clarity is the most irritating thing in the world.

“Therese is nice. You’d like her.”

I’m a worse person than Frank Dilley. “I’m sorry, Jeff. I thought I was giving you . . . freedom, I guess. To be with her. I know you’re sweet on her.”

He doesn’t say anything.

“You’re right,” I add. “I know you are. She is nice. Bringing us that cornbread was a kindness.”

“Thanks, Lee. But—”

“Shh,” I say, holding up my hand. “I heard something.”

He whispers, “What is it? What do you hear?”

It’s not what I hear; it’s what I sense. A tickle in the back of my throat. “I’m not sure. Let’s keep going.”

Other wagon trains have traveled down this gulch. We pass a broken wheel, half-buried in the dirt. A little farther on, an empty barrel. Cold campfires.

“I don’t hear a thing,” he says.

“It’s close.” I dismount and lead Peony by the reins.

“What’s close?” Frustration tinges his voice.

“I’m looking for tracks,” I say, bent over. “Footprints, anything he may have dropped.” Gold buzzes between my ears now, just like a cat’s purr.

Ahead, an abandoned wagon lies toppled over. The wood is white in the night, like the bones of a skeleton. A rib cage of hoops curls up from the spine of a wagon bed. My sense pulls me toward it, toward Andy . . .

I stop a hundred feet shy.

The locket is so, so close. But I see no place big enough for a boy to hide. I slow down, moving cautiously. Ten feet away. Five.

I fall to my knees.

The locket is smashed into the dirt, the chain broken. There’s no sign of Andy anywhere.

“Is that—?” Jefferson half asks.

“Yeah.”

“You and your big owl eyes! I wouldn’t have seen that in the dark if it was dangling from my nose.”

“Got lucky, I guess.” I don’t feel lucky at all. Andy’s not here. I didn’t have a second plan. Despair washes over me.

“He has to be close,” Jefferson says.

A rustling in the grass alerts me. Three rangy silhouettes materialize around the broken wagon. Coyotes. They must have a den here. The dogs lay back their ears and growl.

“Nugget, Coney, stay.”

“There’s something under that wagon,” Jefferson says.

“A coyote den.”

“Maybe. Something moved.” He hurries forward.

Probably just spring pups, but I grab my rifle from Peony’s saddle holster and jog toward the wagon on Jefferson’s heels. The coyotes mark our approach with ears pricked forward, but they don’t move. “Andy!”

There’s a small cry in response.

“I’m going to fire my gun, sweet pea. Don’t panic.” I lift the butt to my shoulder and put a round in the dirt beside the nearest skulking coyote. They scatter. The dogs take off after them, and I let them. I rip off the ramrod and start reloading, just in case.

“I can’t believe you missed that shot,” Jefferson says.

“Who says I missed?” I tell him. “I’m tired of killing things today.”

A bare foot protrudes from under the wagon bed. Jefferson nods to me, creeping forward.

Please be okay. “Andy, it’s us, Lee and Jeff,” I say. “We’re here to help you.”

That’s all the warning we give before Jefferson grabs Andy’s ankle and drags him out. He screams, pounding Jefferson’s arms with his tiny fists. Jeff gathers him tight to his chest and whispers reassurances as the boy wails, raking lines into his shoulders with his fingernails.

“Grab my canteen,” Jefferson says.

Andy is covered in mud, and he stinks of urine. I hold the canteen to his mouth, and he stops wailing in favor of gulping water like a wild dog.

Too much too soon could make him sick, so I pull the canteen away. “Lee,” he whispers. All the fight goes out of him, and he wilts against Jefferson’s chest. “Why’d you leave without me?”

“We didn’t leave,” Jefferson says. “We’re right here.” Jefferson strokes the boy’s head, which makes my chest feel funny.

“Where’s Ma?” Andy says.

Poor boy must have gotten so lost that he thought this wagon was part of our company. He crawled out of sight and stayed because he didn’t know where else to go.

“I’ve got something for you.” I pull the locket from my pocket and show him.

Tears fill his eyes. “I broke it.”

“It’s just a chain. We can fix that.”

He blinks up at me, as though the possibility that things can be fixed is the greatest wonder of the world.

“You did a good job taking care of it for me. We’ll fix it together in the morning, how’s that? In the meantime, keep it buttoned in your pocket.” I shove it into his chubby fist.

“Okay, Lee.”

Jefferson is staring at me, eyes narrowed. He looks to the locket clutched in Andy’s hand. Back at me.

“Let’s go find your ma,” I say quickly.

I call the dogs until they come loping back, tongues lolling through wide grins, like they’re on holiday. I climb into my saddle, and Jefferson starts to hand the boy up to me, but Andy clings to him. “I wanna ride with Jefferson,” he says.

Jefferson says, “No problem, little man.” He hitches the boy high and manages to mount the sorrel mare with Andy in hand.

Even though it’s the middle of the night, fresh fires are burning, and half the men are up drinking coffee. The sentry raises his gun when we approach, then lowers it.

“Well, I’ll be cussed,” he says. “They found him! They found the boy!”

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