Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 58

The whole camp comes running, and we’re surrounded before we have a chance to dismount. Mrs. Joyner shoves her way through the crowd like Moses parting the Red Sea. Andy lurches for her, toppling out of Jefferson’s lap and into her arms. They cling to each other like a pair of burrs. Even Mr. Joyner hobbles over, Olive at his side. A dozen questions fly at us at once, mixed with hearty congratulations.

“Don’t thank me,” Jefferson says when most of the questions are directed at him. “Lee’s the one who found him.”

He doesn’t know how close I was to giving up when I found the locket lying broken in the dirt. “We did it together.”

“She . . . oot,” he says, glancing at me. “Shoot! Lee kept on going long after I wanted to quit. Said we wouldn’t stop until we found him.”

We answer more questions, describing the gulch, the wagon, the coyotes. Before we’re done, every man in camp has come by to shake our hands, slap us on the shoulders, and say something kind. Everyone except the college men, but I don’t have time to wonder about them because Frank Dilley approaches, frowning.

“You got lucky,” he says.

“Bible says you got to seek in order to find,” I answer, only because I’m not about to let him have the last word. “Seems to me we made our own luck.”

He looks fit to say something pointed, but Mr. Joyner pushes past him. He puts one hand on my shoulder and the other on Jeff’s. “I can’t thank you men enough. What you’ve done for my family, not just today, but through this whole journey . . .”

Mrs. Joyner appears at his side, Andy in her arms and Olive at her hem. “It’s impossible not to see the hand of divine providence, from the moment we met you on the flatboat in Chattanooga.” She stares straight at me. Her lips tremble. “I am sorry for . . .”

I can’t bring myself to tell her it’s all right, that everything is fixed between us. “I’m glad we could help out today. Andy’s a good boy.”

Mr. Joyner wraps a companionable arm across his wife’s shoulders. It might be the first time I’ve seen him show her kindness. “If there’s ever anything we can do for either of you, all you have to do is ask.”

“Sure,” I say.

“Thank you, sir,” Jefferson adds.

As they head back to their wagon, Reverend Lowrey is the last to approach. He clasps my hand and grips it tight. His own hand is bumpy with blisters. “I heard what you said to Mr. Dilley. I had no idea your own faith was so strong, Lee.”

I try to pull my hand free, but he won’t let go. “It’s really not.”

“Seek and ye shall find,” he says with a wan smile. “‘What man, having a hundred sheep, if he lose one, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.’ Tonight we all rejoice with you.”

His eyes are dark circles. His shoes are covered with wet dirt, and his sleeves are rolled up to the elbows. He’s been up all night digging his wife’s grave. My joy at finding Andy dissolves like a drop of water on a hot frying pan. Instead of yanking away my hand, I give his a reassuring squeeze. “I’m so sorry, Reverend Lowrey.”

“Don’t be,” he says earnestly. “The Lord taketh away, but He also giveth. Finding that boy was a blessing.”

He turns away, and finally, Jefferson and I can take the saddles off our horses and rub them down. Dawn bruises the horizon. It’s been twenty-four hours since the stampede woke us up. I could use a hot meal, though I don’t know that I could stay awake long enough for someone to cook it.

“It’s like we’re heroes,” Jefferson says. “Did you see the way everyone looked at us?”

I certainly saw the way Therese looked at him. I suppose he earned it. “Thanks for coming with me.”

“Of course. You’d have done the same, if I had asked.”

Yes, I would have.

He tosses his saddle under the wagon, and he pauses, thinking. “Mr. Joyner says if we ever need anything, all we have to do is ask. I bet he forgets by tomorrow.”

“I bet you’re right.”

We give our horses some oats and fresh water and lay out our bedrolls. For the first time since we set off from Independence, I’m asleep so fast I don’t even see Jefferson’s head hit the pillow.

“Hey, Lee.”

I jump awake from the deepest sleep, heart hammering.

It’s Henry Meek, leaning down toward me. His eyes are red-rimmed, his beard ungroomed, for once. “So sorry to wake you, Lee,” he says. “But can you come to our wagon? Jasper needs some help, and he says it’s got to be you.”

Chapter Twenty-Five

Jefferson mutters something, rolling over. I clamber to my feet, yawning, and follow Henry. The angle of the sun indicates late morning. At least I got in a couple hours of shut-eye. I’m not the only one late abed—the camp is silent and still as a graveyard as Henry and I wade through cold campfires toward their wagon.

Tom stands outside, hat twisted in his hands.

“I’m really sorry about Athena,” I say. “She was a good cow. Everyone liked her.”

A muscle in his jaw twitches. “Everyone liked her butter,” he says, not meeting my gaze. He indicates the wagon with a tip of his chin. “Jasper needs you in there.”

I push aside the flap. It’s warm and bright inside. An Argand lamp hangs from one of the bows, and two candles rest on the front edge of the box. It’s a fire waiting to happen, and I’m about to say so, but speech leaves me.

Jasper leans over Major Craven. The Major is in a bad way. He’s pale and dry with fever. His trousers have been removed, leaving flannel drawers that are cut off at the knee. The bandages wrapping his broken leg are yellowish brown with pus and blood.

I flash back to Frank Dilley offering to put him down.

“I . . . I can’t do anything here,” I say before he even asks.

Jasper reaches over to clasp my wrist. “His leg has to come off if we want to save his life. I need your help to amputate it.”

“Get Tom or Henry.”

“Absolutely not,” says Henry. “The one time my father tried to show me how to butcher a hog, I passed out cold.”

Tom shakes his head. “I tried, but I vomit every time I get close enough to smell it.”

I yank my hand free of Jasper’s grip. “Get Jefferson. Or Mr. Robichaud. Or any of the other men.”

Major Craven raises a cadaverous hand toward me. His voice sounds far away. “I . . . want . . . you.”

“He says you’re good luck,” Jasper says. “You got help for him right away after the stampede. You went out and found that missing Joyner boy.”

“You’re . . . blessed . . .” the Major says.

Right about now, I feel a little cursed.

Jasper whispers so low I must strain to hear. “Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. He wants you here, and a hopeful, cooperative patient is about a hundred times more likely to pull through.”

“Oh.” It’s hard to say no to a man who wants you to help save his life.

“We have to do it soon,” Jasper adds. “So the Major can spend his fuel healing up his broken ribs and other wounds. He can’t move his toes anymore. The wound hasn’t stopped seeping blood, not even after I stitched it up. And now it’s infected.”

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