Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 66

Chapter Twenty-Eight

A week later, the pitiful lowing of thirsty oxen echoes through the camp. Mr. Joyner is scouting ahead for water with the other men while Mrs. Joyner prepares breakfast. Everyone else in camp makes do with items that are dusty, broken, and makeshift. But come hell or high water, she has that dining table set up with the tablecloth over it. The wind ruffles it, and she rushes to smooth it flat and square all the china.

I lick my cracked lips and say, “Mrs. Joyner, ma’am, good morning.”

The furtive glance she casts my way is toward my clothes, not my face. My chest is wrapped beneath my shirt again, though for comfort rather than disguise, and not nearly as tightly as before. I wear trousers today, which I got from Tom in exchange for two sage hens I bagged with my five-shooter. I love the skirt Lucie gave me, but it needs laundering already, and I’ve a strange notion to preserve it as much as possible.

“Good morning, Leah.”

“I’m ready to go back to work,” I tell her. “My leg is much better. Jasper says it’s fine for me to do some lifting.”

“That’s Mr. Joyner’s decision. You’ll need to speak to him.” She turns her back and crouches beside the cook fire. Batter sizzles and pops as she pours it on the griddle.

“I’ve tried, ma’am. He won’t hardly talk to me. He won’t pay me parting wages, because he says I can’t enter into contracts, so as far as I’m concerned that means I’m still working for him. But he won’t let me work, neither. He says it’s not right. But I’ve been doing the work for months, same as Jefferson. You’ve seen me.”

Her shoulders sag. “That’s not the point.”

“Well, what is?”

She pauses to flip the flapjacks. They’re burned, as usual. “You’ll have to talk to Mr. Joyner. He’s the head of this family, and his decision is final.”

“Ma’am, can’t you talk to him? He’s still not hale after the cholera and the measles. Him doing all the work I used to— It’s tiring him out something awful.”

“He knows best.”

Wind sweeps through camp and blows over one of the high-back chairs. Mrs. Joyner jumps as it hits the ground. I dash over and prop it again, making sure it’s square at the table like the others.

Her eyes meet mine. Her face is drawn and strained. “Don’t worry. I’ll still feed you, like we agreed. It wouldn’t be Christian to let you starve. Though, truth be told, we’re a little short.” At my perplexed look, she adds, “Someone’s been skimming our food stores.”

“I would never—”

She holds up a hand. “I know it’s not you. Mr. Joyner says Indians. Anyway, you’re welcome to whatever we have; just keep in mind that we’re short.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” I say, more concerned than I let on. She needs all the food she can get right now. “But honestly, I just want to be useful.”

She considers. Brightens. “I’m almost out of buffalo chips,” she says. The dried patties of half-digested grass are all we’ve been able to find for fuel lately. “That Hoffman girl is out gathering some.”

“I’ll see what I can round up.”

I find Therese swinging a big tin bucket while Carl, Otto, and Doreen run around looking for chips to toss inside. Doreen barely pretends to look. She has both arms out like windmill blades as she runs through the dry grass, her bonnet dangling behind her as usual.

“Guten Morgen,” I say to Therese.

“Good morning,” she says. “We are in America, we should speak American now.”

“You sound just like Lucie. Though, I think we left the United States a long time ago.” I peer inside her near-empty bucket. “No luck?”

She shakes her head.

Not as many buffalo pass through this arid place, and the wagon trains ahead have gathered up the easy pickings. “We might find more over there,” I say, pointing down a slope.

“How do you know?”

It’s the first thing you learn about hunting, how to spot a watering place. “That dry creek leads toward water, at least some of the year. They’re likely to gather there and do their business.”

She calls to the children and indicates that they should head toward the creek.

“Here, let me carry that,” I say.

“No!” she snaps. “I can do it.”

“I didn’t mean—”

“You have a horse, you ride wherever you want, you shoot things with your gun, you go out in the night and find lost children and jump under wagons to save little girls.” Her face is fierce, her blue eyes bright.

“Well, I did. I don’t know that Mr. Joyner will let—”

It’s like talking to the wind, because her words just keep coming. “I’m always watching little ones or helping Mutti cook or washing clothes. Lee, I have washed so many clothes I have lost track. I might be the only person who is glad to be going into the desert. No water means no washing. Maybe my hands will heal a little.”

“Washing is important too.”

She shrugs. “But not very heroic. And not much fun.” Ahead of us, Doreen takes a tumble, then she bounces back to her feet, laughing. Gazing at her sister, Therese adds, “I miss fun.”

“Well!” I put an arm through hers, and we continue down the slope, our elbows joined. “When we get to California, I’ll teach you everything I know about the fun, fun job of panning for gold. Squatting for hours on end is really fun.”

She nods solemnly. “I’m sure getting your skirts soaked to the knees is fun.”

“Oh, yes. And all the mud and gravel getting lodged under your nails? No church social was so much fun.”

She is silent a long moment, watching her siblings disappear down the slope. Then: “Lee? I’m glad you turned out to be a girl.”

From the base of the South Pass, a twisty road leads up the Rocky Mountains. It’s a well-earned name, because the steep slopes are covered in giant rocks split open and turned on edge every which way, like God started a quarry and got distracted. Major Craven calls it the backbone of America. I tell him it looks more like a backbone breaker.

Our oxen and mules strain to pull the wagons uphill, which turns out to be the easy part. The first downhill slope is so steep that we unhitch the animals and lower the wagons on ropes. We’re lucky to make four miles all day.

We repeat the process the next day and the next. The Missouri men lead the way each morning—first out, first up the slope, first down into camp. Their mules move so much faster than our oxen, and I worry that Jefferson was right, that they’ll leave us behind someday.

I tell myself that I’m glad they’re so far ahead. I hate the way they stare at me now, especially that Jonas Waters.

On the fifth day into the Rockies, the Missouri men are well out of sight by the time we top the first rise. The downward slope is the steepest yet, and mostly gravel, interspersed with dry brush and stunted pines. Peony balks at the path, and I don’t blame her. I don’t know how we’ll get our wagons down safely.

Mr. Joyner and the men all confer, deciding on wagon order. I stand off to the side with the women, too far away to hear what’s being said. I kick at pebbles with the toe of my boot, glaring at them as they skitter away.

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