Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 6

But Mama is nowhere to be found, and the place feels so bare it’s like an ache in my soul.

Still calling for her, I race outside and bang on the outhouse. I search the barn. I splash through our tiny stream and sprint into the peach orchard.

Under the trees, I stop short. The world is so empty and quiet. Too quiet, as if even the trees need to be hushed and sad for a spell. Which is just as well; I must stop panicking and start thinking. You’re a smart girl, Lee, Daddy always says, especially when I struggle with algebra. You can figure this.

Winter chill works its way through my boots, which aren’t quite dry from yesterday’s hunt, and I wrap my arms around myself against the cold and the dread. In the distance, Peony snorts at something. I left the poor girl hitched to the wagon. She’ll have to keep.

I close my eyes and concentrate, turning in place like a compass.

Gold sings to me from north of the orchard, from the vein that Daddy and I started working before the snow hit. Fainter, as if very small or from very far away, comes the one I’m looking for: a hymn of purity, a lump of sweetness in my throat. A nugget, maybe, but I’m hoping it’s Mama’s locket.

It’s in the direction of the barn. I’ve already been to the barn. What did I miss?

That lump of sweetness pulls me back through the bare peach trees, through the icy brook. The sensation strengthens as I approach. It’s not coming from inside the barn, but behind it. Beyond the henhouse and near the woodpile.

The ground outside the henhouse is littered with down; something panicked the poor birds bad enough to send their feathers through the breathing holes. The sweetness in my throat turns sour. I force myself to walk the remaining steps.

I find her there, sitting with her back against the woodpile, legs outstretched, her skirt ridden up enough that a sliver of gray stocking shows above her boots. The locket that led me to her rests above her heart, sparkling in the sunshine. Below, her waist is soaked in blood. She’s been gut-shot.

Her eyes flutter as I approach, and she lifts one hand in my direction. “Leah,” she whispers. “My beautiful girl.”

I rush forward and grab her hand. “I’ll get Doc,” I say. “Just hold tight.” I try to pull away, but her grip is strong, though her gaze is so weak it can’t seem to alight on anything for more than the space of a butterfly’s touch.

“My strong girl. Strong, perfect . . .”

“Who did this to you?” Tears burn my eyes.

Her head lolls toward me, as if moving her neck can force her gaze in the direction her eyes cannot. “Trust someone. Not good to be as alone as we’ve been. Your daddy and I were wrong. . . .” Her words are coming slower and quieter.

“Mama?”

“Run, Lee. Go . . .”

Her chin hits her chest, and she says no more.

Chapter Four

I need help. I should get the sheriff. Or Judge Smith. I know I should.

But all I can do is sit back on my heels and stare. It doesn’t matter what I do next. Not a single thing in the whole world will make my mama and daddy any less dead. And once I get up and walk away, everything will be different. I want this moment, this in-between time, when I’m not quite an orphan and I’m not quite alone.

She’s wearing her winter dress, the black wool. Her chin rests in the ruffles of the high collar. I avoid looking at her belly, instead letting my eyes drift down to the mud-splattered skirt. She tried to run.

I gently lower her skirt to cover her stockings and tuck it under her ankles so the breeze won’t blow it back up. The shiny brown bun of her hair skews to the side. I reach up to rearrange a hairpin or two, but my shaking fingers just make a mess of everything.

I swallow hard. Mama had the most beautiful hair. Shimmering light brown, with hints of bronze and gold. It fell past her waist when it wasn’t pinned.

The locket winks at me, bright against the black wool. She’d want me to have it. But removing it will be so final.

A twig snaps, and I shoot to my feet. The sound came from the woods behind the barn. It could have been a raccoon, or even a deer. Still, I imagine murderous eyes on me as I reach behind Mama’s neck for the clasp. My hands struggle to make sense of it. I’m too afire with listening, ready to dart away at the slightest noise.

My fingertips tingle from gold as I work the clasp. It comes free, and I barely catch the charm before it slips off the chain. I shove both chain and locket into the pocket of my skirt.

“I’m so sorry, Mama,” I whisper. “I have to go.”

But go where? Everything is foggy and strange. All I know for sure is that Mama told me to run.

I can’t just leave her here. It wouldn’t be right. I need help. I need—

Jefferson! He’ll know what to do. I could be at the McCauley claim and back in twenty minutes.

I shouldn’t go unarmed.

I dash to the house and bang open the back door. Daddy has a special rack above the mantel for hanging our guns. We own three—an old long rifle with a bayonet, the newer Hawken rifle I always hunt with, and a cap-and-ball revolver. The long rifle and the Hawken give me distance and accuracy, but they can be awkward to load while bareback, especially with my fingers trembling like they are. That leaves the revolver.

I grab it from the rack and palm the ivory grip. Something niggles at me while I stare down at it, like mosquitos in the back of my head. I think about Daddy, lying in a pool of his own blood. Bile rises in my throat, but I force it down.

That hole in his forehead. So tiny and perfect. The back of his skull is probably in tatters, but except for that hole, the front is as white and pristine as Mrs. Smith’s alabaster vase.

No rifle would make such a tidy hole. My daddy was shot with a revolver, like the one I hold in my hand. No, maybe even a smaller gun, like one of those fancy new Colts. Do I know anyone who owns a new Colt revolver?

I sift through memories of everyone I know, but my mind fogs up again, and I can’t do it for all the gold in the world.

Jefferson. I need Jeff.

I run out the front door, leaving it swinging in the wind, and I leap over the steps and over Daddy’s body. I unhitch Peony, hike up my skirts, and use the wagon wheel to vault onto her back.

The McCauley homestead is tucked into a dark holler between two birch-thick hills. Jefferson half cleared one of the hillsides and planted corn, now brown and shriveled with winter. But the rest of the land is so wild and dense that most of the ground never sees the sun. It’s a dank, dark place made for hiding things like moonshine and heartbreak.

Peony and I splash across the frost-edged creek, passing a rotting, abandoned sluice. I pull her up at the house—a small log cabin with a sod roof. Smoke curls from the chimney, and wind whistles against the cracked glass of the single window.

“Jefferson!” I swing a leg over and slide off. I sprint through dead weeds to the stoop, where I leap to avoid the sagging steps, and pound on the door. “Jefferson!”

Their dog, Nugget, barks from inside the house. Booted footsteps hurry toward me. The door swings wide, revealing Jefferson’s da, a small man with wild gray hair, rumpled clothes, and a bright red nose.

He shrugs on his right suspender strap, blinking against the gloomy day, which is downright perky compared to the murk of the cabin. “Miss Lee,” he slurs.

The air wafting out the door is warm and sour, like rising bread gone bad. “I need to see Jefferson,” I say.

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