Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 68

Everyone joins in, softly at first, and then with conviction. I hang back as I always do, letting the hymn wash over me. Then I remember that I’m a girl again, and there’s no shame in it, so I pick up a verse and let my voice soar above everyone’s:

“And thou most kind and gentle Death,

Waiting to hush our latest breath,

Oh praise Him! Alleluia!”

After the last note fades, I glance up to see Reverend Lowrey staring at me, looking a little stunned. Maybe I was too loud, like Annabelle Smith back home.

I turn away from him, my neck prickling, as everyone drifts toward their respective wagons. The college men help Jefferson and me tip the Joyners’ wagon upright. Miraculously, nothing’s broken that can’t be fixed. Even more miraculously, Mrs. Joyner’s dining table, the one she always covers with fine china and a checked tablecloth, does not have a single scratch on it, even though it tumbled out of the wagon and landed upside down.

I’m shaking with exhaustion, and I could use something to eat, but I would rather keep busy to avoid the images in my head. “Jefferson, can you help me with the furniture?” The sooner we get loaded, the sooner we can leave this place.

“Leave it behind.”

Mrs. Joyner stands there, holding the hands of her children, one on either side. Olive is carefully matching her mother’s grim expression. Andy’s face is red from crying, and his bottom lip trembles. His chubby hand is fisted at his chest. He’s clutching my locket like his life depends on it.

“Beg your pardon?” Jefferson says.

“It’s junk. Worthless. Take what we need to finish the journey and dump the rest.”

I’m careful to keep the surprise off my face. “Yes, ma’am.”

She pries her children’s hands from her own and strides over to the wagon, where everything lies scattered and spilled. She picks up Mr. Joyner’s rifle and shoves it into my hands.

“Your contract is with me now,” she says. Looking at Jefferson, she adds: “Both of your contracts. Same conditions as before.”

“With back wages to Independence?” I ask.

“To the start of the journey, with no interruption of service.”

“That’ll do.” I pause. “Do we need to . . . shake on it?”

“Please,” she says brusquely. “We ladies can manage an agreement without spitting into our palms.” She turns away and crouches to comfort Andy.

“Well, I’ll be,” Jefferson whispers.

“I wouldn’t mind rescuing that one table for her,” I say. “And the tablecloth.”

He nods. “I’ll help.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

It’s nighttime, with a waning moon to light my view. It took us three days to catch up to the Missouri men, but catch up we did, and we are now camped in a beautiful grove between the Soda Springs, which bubbles gently with soda water, and Steamboat Spring, which shoots steam high into the air. Reverend Lowrey has been telling the little ones that demons’ work engines are hidden underground. But I think anything so wondrous must be the work of angels.

The springs whoosh and spout while I lie hidden beneath a cottonwood tree, my rifle aimed at our wagon. I’m covered with brush, which makes me itch, and I fight the temptation to scratch the back of my neck. At least the itching keeps me awake. I’ve been lying here for hours, watching, seeing nothing. But that’s all right. I am patient.

The regular theft of supplies has continued. Since Mr. Joyner died, we’ve twice awakened to discover that the loaf of bread Widow Joyner cooked overnight in the Dutch oven is gone. Last night, Widow Joyner prepared another loaf and left it sitting by the coals. I could never shoot an Indian, or any man, but I plan to catch someone in the act and be as frightful as possible.

Jefferson sleeps beneath the Joyner wagon. He promised to jump up at my warning cry and help me make a dreadful racket. If the thief doesn’t come tonight, we’ll swap places tomorrow; Jefferson will keep watch while I sleep with my rifle beside me.

Yawning, I break off another piece of chicory root and put it my mouth. Chewing it floods my tongue with invigorating bitterness.

I expect our thieves to approach from outside the camp, so I almost miss two dark shapes creeping among the animals inside our wagon corral. I shift my rifle in their direction.

They’re not Indians; I can tell even in the dark. Their silhouettes are rumpled and bulky, like argonauts. One wears a broad-brimmed straw hat, just like the one worn by Henry Meek.

Coney is curled up in his usual spot between Peony’s front legs. He lifts his head as the shapes approach. The man with the hat crouches to scratch his ears, and Coney thumps his tail before lowering his heads back to his paws. My low opinion of the dogs’ guarding abilities is somewhat mitigated. At least they know friend from foe.

The men glance around and tiptoe over to the cook fire. The one in the hat bends to remove the Dutch oven’s lid.

I rise from my hiding place. The loose brush and sage drop away like a dead skin. “Stop right there, Henry Meek, or I will shoot you and your companion.” My voice is clear but soft; I don’t want to wake Jefferson or alert anyone else before I hear Henry’s explanation.

They turn to face me, and I’m the one who jumps in surprise.

With Henry is Hampton, the slave who belonged to Mr. Bledsoe from Arkansas.

“I thought you ran away,” I whisper.

“I’m still running away,” he whispers back.

Henry puts a finger to his lips and gestures for Hampton and me to follow. He grabs Widow Joyner’s bread loaf and leads us away.

I follow warily, past the Soda Springs and down an incline. Once we’re out of sight, we huddle in a small grove of birch trees. The stolen blanket is wrapped around Hampton’s shoulders.

“What’s going on?” I ask. “And talk fast before I decide to rouse the camp.”

Henry offers a chunk of bread to Hampton, who grabs it and shoves it into his mouth. He gulps it down without chewing. After a long sigh, he says, “I’m going to California to find gold, same as you.”

“But . . .” I close my mouth. I’m not exactly sure what my protestation is.

Hampton continues, “I’ll send every speck of it back to Arkansas. Buy my freedom, clear and legal. Maybe I can buy freedom for my wife too.”

Can’t blame him for that. If I still had folks back home, I’d do everything in my power to have them with me again.

“No man should have to pay for his freedom,” Henry says. “It’s a natural right—‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ So we’ve been helping him as much as we can.” He tears off another piece and offers the loaf to me. “Go on,” he says. “Take a bite. In the spirit of true Christian communion.”

I’m not sure what makes me take it. The bread is still warm when I put it in my mouth. “I wish you fellows still had Athena. Some butter would make even Widow Joyner’s bread taste good.” But I feel wrong. I’m eating stolen bread.

Henry smiles at me. I don’t return his smile as I pass the loaf back to Hampton. “I guess the rest is yours.”

“I’m sorry we took from you,” Henry says. “But our rations are running low. We’ve been helping Wally since his leg came off. Frank Dilley ‘lost’ most of Wally’s supplies right after his leg was broken. We’ve used every persuasion at our disposal, but he remains unmoved.”

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