Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 67

Finally, the men gather their ropes and gloves and get to work. They tackle the Robichauds’ wagon first. Though it’s the lightest, it still takes all the men braced together against the ropes to lower it. Reverend Lowrey’s wagon goes next. The men pour sweat, and gravel clatters down the slope ahead of the wheels, but the lowering goes smoothly. The dogs sport around at the bottom of the incline while Olive plays tag with Carl and Otto, as if it’s a holiday and not the most dangerous part of our journey so far.

Mrs. Hoffman and Therese roll two barrels from the back of one wagon and toss a trunk out of the other. The abandoned goods of previous wagon trains litter the slope too: a box stove toppled onto its side, several broken barrels, spare wagon parts, a dressing table with a cracked mirror. Mrs. Joyner runs a finger over the wooden frame of the discarded mirror. I’m suddenly terrified she’ll see everything as a treasure, needing to be rescued.

“You ought to think about doing the same thing,” I say quickly. “That big carved headboard, the table and chairs.”

She looks back and forth between the dressing table and her own wagon. “I . . . We will not live like savages,” she says, but her voice lacks its usual conviction. “It’s up to us to bring civilization to California.”

“They’re just things.”

“It’s Mr. Joyner’s decision.”

I hold back a retort. I never know if she says this because she truly believes it, or if she just wants to end the discussion. I stare after her as she gathers her children and waddles down the steep slope to wait.

The Hoffmans’ wagons bounce down a little faster but reach the bottom safely. As does the college men’s wagon. Morning turns to afternoon. I catch Jefferson staring at his hands. They’ve become raw from the rope sliding through sweat-slippery palms.

“I have an idea!” Therese says. She runs back to her abandoned trunk and lifts out some linens, which she distributes to everyone who has thin gloves or no gloves at all. Jefferson gives her a grateful smile.

The remaining women and children skid to the bottom. I let Major Craven ride Peony down, on the promise that he’ll watch her for me. I remain at the top of the ridge, ready to jump in. Jefferson wipes sweat from his forehead and gives me a nod. But when I look to Mr. Joyner for permission to help, he ignores me.

“C’mon,” he says, clapping his hands. “One more wagon to go. Let’s get this done and get back on the road.” He whips off his gloves to study his hands. Scabs have ripped off, and when he wipes his palms on one of Therese’s linens, they come away bloody.

He re-dons the gloves and lashes the rope around the wagon’s tongue so it can be lowered backward. His hands tremble as he knots it, but his face has a fierce determination I’ve never seen before. This is probably the hardest he’s ever worked in his life.

They push the wagon over the lip of the ridge and let it start rolling. It slips forward and then jerks to a stop, slips and then jerks. Jefferson shoots me a worried look.

Permission be damned. I run to the end of the rope, behind Mr. Hoffman, who’s the biggest member of our group, and loop it around my waist and brace my legs.

The rope slips again and nearly pulls me off my feet.

“We have to slow it down,” Mr. Joyner yells.

Nobody answers. We just grit our teeth and strain as more rope slides through our hands.

Something crashes, splinters apart.

“No!” Mr. Joyner says. The wagon blocks my view, and I don’t dare let go to have a look, but I assume some bit of precious furniture has tumbled from the wagon bed.

“Hold on, hold on,” Mr. Joyner says. “I’m going to push that dresser out of the way so we can keep lowering it.”

“Andrew, no!” Mr. Hoffman yells. I grip the rope with all my strength. My heels start to slide. The veins in Mr. Hoffman’s neck bulge.

Jefferson yells, “Hurry!”

“Be careful, darling!” Mrs. Joyner shouts from the bottom of the slope, but she’s wasting her breath. She might as well tell a dog not to lick up its own mess.

“Almost got it,” Mr. Joyner calls out.

The rope slips again. “Get everyone out of the way now!” Jefferson hollers.

The wheels hit a dip. Reverend Lowrey is jerked off his feet. He slams into Jasper, and both of them tumble to their knees. My shoulders wrench, like they’re about to pop out of their sockets, and the rope around my waist squeezes the breath from my body. Jefferson and Martin squat low for leverage, but the weight of the wagon drags them to their bottoms. All of us slide slowly, inescapably, dragged by the wagon’s weight.

“Get out of the way,” I yell at Mr. Joyner.

“Almost got it,” he yells back.

Another rut, another lurch. The rope burns through my palms. I roll on the ground, twisting away before it can strangle me. Gravel fills my mouth and scrapes my cheek.

I’m flat on my stomach as I watch, horrified, while the wagon bounces down to the bottom, rope trailing behind. It crashes into a rock, and topples over. The headboard flies out and splinters.

Shakily, I get to my feet, looking for Mr. Joyner. I see the dresser first, a shamble of busted wood and dirtied shirts. Beside it is a man’s boot, empty and alone.

“Daddy?” I whisper.

I slide down the hillside, Jasper right behind me. I’m heedless of the gravel imbedding itself into my palms or the tears blurring my vision. I know it’s not Daddy, of course it’s not, but I’m going to be too late again. I already know what I’ll find.

I round the dresser’s remains. Mr. Joyner is a broken and bloody mess, lying mashed into the gravel where the wheels rolled over him. He doesn’t even look like a person anymore, and I have to turn away.

“Damn fool,” Jasper says at my shoulder just as Therese rushes up.

“Mein Gott,” she says breathlessly. She must have started sprinting the moment she saw him go down.

My stomach is roiling, but I find my voice. “We have to take him down to Mrs. Joyner.”

Jasper wipes sweat from his brow. “You don’t have to do this.”

“I still work for him,” I say.

“I will help you,” Therese says in a voice nearer to a squeak.

Jasper gets a grip beneath Mr. Joyner’s shoulders. Therese and I each pick up a leg. Slowly, we half carry, half drag what’s left of him to the bottom of the hill, preserving as much dignity as we can muster. In my care to avoid looking at the area of his chest and abdomen, I notice the trail of blood that scars the slope behind us.

We reach the bottom, and I look to Mrs. Joyner, expecting to find her inconsolable.

Andy and Olive have disappeared, already ushered away by some kind soul. Mrs. Joyner just stands there, her hands neatly clasped above her enormous belly, her face as stony as the mountain her husband died on.

There’s no digging in this soil, but there are plenty of rocks, so we bury him in a hastily made cairn. Jefferson finds some crooked pine boughs, which he strips and lashes together into a rickety cross. Reverend Lowrey says a few words, but when he starts to sing a psalm, he chokes up and falls silent. We all stare at the pile of rocks, not sure what to do next.

A small voice rises, high and lovely. It’s Therese, singing “All Creatures of Our God and King.”

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