Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 61

Only the Joyners hold back, and Mrs. Joyner goes through her usual ritual of setting out the checked tablecloth with impeccable linens and fine china. She is heavy with child now, her movements slow, her rests frequent. But she lines up those checks perfectly with the table’s corners, and she smoothens out the tablecloth like the world might come to an end on account of a single wrinkle.

She bakes a loaf of lumpy bread in the Dutch oven and sets some dried peas to soaking over the fire. Jefferson and I take one look at each other, and by silent mutual agreement decide to take supper with the Hoffmans. Maybe we can trade for Jefferson’s trout.

We’re heading away when she calls out to us. “Wait!”

She disappears inside the wagon, rustles around, bangs hard against something. She mumbles to Mr. Joyner, who has not come out of the wagon in two days, though no one will say why. I hope the cholera hasn’t returned.

When she climbs out, she’s holding two wax-sealed jars filled with a yellow-orange substance. “Peach preserves,” she explains. She puts one on the table and hands the other to me. “Please share them with the Hoffmans, with my compliments.”

My mouth waters and my eyes sting, because the thought of peach preserves gives me such a pang for Mama that it’s an actual hurt in my chest. I tip my hat at Mrs. Joyner and manage a thank-you.

No one in the company has pie or dumplings, milk or butter. We haven’t had a fresh fruit or vegetable in months. Still, we have a regular potluck, everyone wandering from wagon to wagon to see what’s been cooked up, and we eat until we’re fit to burst.

As the sun sets, we clear a space in the middle of our wagon corral. Two of the Missouri men bring out their fiddles. Then Mr. Robichaud surprises us by fetching his own instrument—a glossy walnut violin that soars over them all. He plays “Hail Columbia” and “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” even though he’s from Canada. Mrs. Robichaud beams with pride as everyone sings along, even me, though I sing softly, so my girl’s voice doesn’t carry.

Then we start dancing, and though I’ve never been one for dancing, there doesn’t seem much to it except twirling a lot and kicking up your heels. I dance with Andy in my arms, then with Olive, and when Jefferson asks me for a spin I almost say no, but the Missouri men are dancing together, and no one is paying them any mind, so away we go.

Jefferson knows as much about dancing as I do. We bump into each other and step on each other’s feet and laugh so hard our guts hurt. Then he asks Therese to dance. Then I ask Therese to dance. Then Jasper asks me, but halfway through our dance, the fiddles suddenly cease, and we go shock-still.

Major Craven has climbed out of the wagon all by himself and is limping toward us, using a thick branch wrapped in rags for a crutch. His shortened leg swings oddly as he hobbles along, and sweat beads on his forehead, but he’s grinning like it’s the best day of his life.

He’s been bedridden since his amputation and hasn’t left the wagon except to relieve himself, and then only with Jasper’s help. He sees us staring at him, frowns, then bellows, “I can’t believe you started the celebration without me!”

I let out a whoop of joy. Someone else follows. Then everyone is yelping and laughing and clapping him on the back. Mr. Robichaud starts fiddling “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” and everyone sings at the tops of their lungs.

Only Frank Dilley holds back.

Major Craven spots Frank, extricates himself from his congratulators, and hobbles over.

“Good to see you up and about, Wally,” Frank says, but his arms are crossed and his eyes are hard.

The Major braces himself on the crutch while lifting a hand to clasp Frank’s shoulder. “Thanks for leading the company, Frank. You’ve done a fine job.”

Frank nods but says nothing.

“I’d take it as a personal favor if you kept at it,” the Major adds. “I’m still stove up.”

Frank unclasps his arms and offers the Major a hand to shake. “Sure thing, Wally.”

Everyone breathes a little easier, and the fiddles start up again.

As the sun sets over tomorrow’s road, our singing winds down, and the dishes are cleared and scraped. I head off into the darkness to take care of my personal necessities, thinking that this has been the best Fourth of July ever. I’m a quarter mile up the creek when I sense it—a tingle in my throat that intensifies until it’s buzzing like mosquitos at the base of my skull. I hone in on the source and drop to my knees, right in the middle of the creek. A water bug skitters away as I sift through the gravel of the creek bed. I can hardly see what I’m doing, but I don’t have to.

Warmth washes through me when I touch it. To my fingertips, it feels like any other pebble, but my soul knows it’s anything but. I lift it from the water and hold it up to the stars. The tiny gold nugget is no larger than the nail of my pinky finger. Probably worth about ten dollars.

I smile. I can’t wait to get to California.

Jefferson and I have ridden out ahead with our rifles, hoping to spot some game. My eyes hurt from squinting against the sun, even though I wear a hat all day long.

“See that mountain up ahead?” Jefferson points to a low, rounded mound on the horizon. “I think that’s it.”

“It’s called Independence Rock, not Independence Mountain,” I say.

“Everything is bigger out here. Just look at me.” He straightens in his saddle and puffs out his chest and fails to keep a straight face.

“Your head is bigger, that’s for sure.” But he’s right. Jefferson has grown at least an inch. His neck has thickened, his shoulders broadened. He’s hardly the lanky boy with giant knees I knew back in Georgia. I’ve grown too, but not in height. I shift uncomfortably, resisting the urge to check on the shawl hidden beneath my shirt. It’s getting harder to keep my chest wrapped tight.

Jefferson urges the sorrel mare on, and I wish I could feel as cheerful as he does. Things have gone well for us. Major Craven continues to improve. We resupplied at Fort Laramie. We’ve traded with Indians along the way and haven’t had any problems except for minor bits of theft—a blanket, some food, a single gun.

Frank Dilley has kept the wagon train moving seven days a week. Which is how we’ve come to reach Independence Rock only a week after the Fourth of July. We’re almost on schedule, in spite of starting out so late.

But I can’t shake this mood, like something’s going to happen and I ought to see it coming.

“That’s the rock, Lee,” Jefferson says. “I’m sure of it. Doesn’t it look like a piece of the moon fell down from the sky?”

“Yeah, it kind of does.”

It’s a big gray dome, big enough that you could fit the entire town of Dahlonega inside, rising from the flat golden plain, like God dropped a giant ball in the mud and left it half-buried. Everything is bigger out here in the west. I suppose I should feel smaller by comparison, but it makes me feel bigger too, like the whole world is growing inside me.

We reach the rock and dismount, then hobble our horses to graze. “Oh!” Jefferson exclaims, brushing the rock with his fingertips. Names and dates are scratched into the stone, and some of the lettering is as fine as anything you’d see in Mr. Anders’s schoolhouse back home. There are hundreds of names. No, thousands.

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