Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 73

“Of course.” He pulls his knife from his belt.

We resume our plodding journey. Jefferson stands beside the ox, waiting for us to get out of sight before doing the deed.

All the animals are struggling. For the last three hundred miles, the ground has been hard and rocky, wearing out joints and splitting hooves. Jefferson and I walk all the time now, to spare our horses. He might be sneaking his water rations to the dogs, but most of mine are going to Peony. I won’t lose her, no matter what.

Dust coats our trail, sometimes gravelly and coarse, sometimes fine as flour. We wear kerchiefs over our noses, but I still chew grit all day. My eyes crust over every night, and I wake each morning to find them blurry and swollen. The back of my throat is a patch of desert. My lungs burn. Andy started coughing a few days ago and hasn’t stopped. And all day long the sun pours fire on our heads.

The occasional grass is rough and sparse, and the mules ahead of us eat the best of it. Whenever I find a missed clump, I yank it up for Peony or the sorrel mare. We burn sagebrush for fuel, but it turns to ash too fast for proper cooking. My belly aches from eating little more than prickly pear.

Our trail follows the lazy Humboldt River, which was lovely and clear at first, but the water has slowed and thickened until it’s little more than a marsh, and too brackish to drink. We soak our kerchiefs in it to keep out more dust, but that’s all it’s good for. The poor oxen drink it until they fall down sick. Soon enough, we’ll start drinking it too.

“Wagon train ahead,” calls Major Craven from the bench. I crane my neck. The Missouri wagons are taking a short break, circled near a wide puddle. Men and animals alike stand knee-deep in the water to cool off. With a start, I realize we’ve come to the end of the river.

“This godforsaken trickle of a river just ends,” Therese says. “It turns into nothing.”

“Know what we’ll find when we get there?” Craven says.

“All the good grass eaten and all the best water drunk or gone?” she says.

“Besides that.”

“I don’t know.”

“We’ll find them packing up to leave without us,” he says.

Therese mutters a few words under her breath that I’m pretty sure she learned from Frank Dilley.

As our weary group of five wagons—two for the Hoffmans, one for Reverend Lowrey, one for the college men, and one for the Joyners—rolls into the camp, Dilley steps up onto an abandoned trunk to address everyone.

“Fifteen minutes until we roll out again,” he calls out.

“Fifteen minutes?” I can’t believe my ears. “We need longer than that.”

“We can’t afford to wait. That’s fifty-four miles of waterless desert ahead of us. We’re going to go straight through, day and night, until we reach the other side.”

“Which is why we need more than fifteen minutes,” I insist.

“Don’t get your skirts in a twist, Georgia. Just take it or leave it. We’ve cut most of the grass already, but there’s a bit left on the other side of the sink.”

I lead Peony through the water, muttering curse words that would make my mama ashamed. Peony snorts and kicks up her knees to splash water onto her baking hide. On the other side, we find an abandoned wagon, its wood splintering from the heat. Its shade has allowed a large clump of grass to thrive unnoticed. I let Peony free to graze.

Major Craven gestures for everyone to gather round, so I hurry back to the wagons. “We need to figure out what to do next,” he says. Jefferson and the dogs catch up just then. Nugget and Coney are bouncing with their recent meal, tails wagging and ears pricked.

“Our oxen are weak,” Mr. Hoffman says gravely. “We’re going to put everything in one wagon, leave the other behind. They should be able to pull us through. Maybe we’ll have enough to start over, once we get to California.”

The Hoffmans definitely have enough to start over, if the gold I’ve sensed is any indication.

“That’s smart,” Major Craven says. He looks at the college men, and they look at me. They’ve got something planned.

“Therese took the boys downstream to cut and bundle any grass they find,” Mr. Hoffman says. “But we don’t mean to take it all. We’ll share.”

We nod in thanks. It saves time to have his children do the work.

Reverend Lowrey says, “This is the last water we’ll see for days. The Missouri men have fires already going. We should mix dough now, cook all our flour into bread, so we can feed it to the animals while we cross.”

It’s the most sensible thing I’ve ever heard him say. “Can we do it in fifteen minutes?” I ask.

“I’ve got baking soda left—I can make quick bread if I get started now,” he says.

“That’s a good plan,” Jasper says.

The reverend runs off to his wagon.

“I’ll go mix up whatever we have left,” Henry says. “It’s not a lot.”

“What about the Widow Joyner?” the Major asks.

I shake my head. He knows the answer. “She’s as big as a house that’s about to give birth to a woodshed,” I say. “The road’s been shaking her hard for days. She’s in no shape to cook.”

“I know that,” the Major says. “What I’m asking is, her being a particular sort of lady, do you think she’ll mind if I interrupt her to get the flour out of the wagon?”

How should I know? I say, “I’m sure she’ll understand.”

He looks unconvinced. Major Craven has been considerate and respectful around Mrs. Joyner, but I’ve no doubt that dealing with a sharp-tongued widow is a lot harder than he expected.

“I’ll help carry the barrel,” Tom says.

They head off together.

Jefferson says, “I’ll go find . . . something to burn, I guess.”

“I’ll help you,” I say, but Jasper grabs my arm before I can turn away.

“How are your oxen?” His voice is urgent.

“Down to six. Two are weak. All in all, holding up better than I expected. Mr. Joyner had a good eye for animals, and he bought the hardiest stock he could find.”

“We’ve got four left, and they’re almost played out.”

I nod. He’s not telling me anything I haven’t seen.

“You’ve got the strongest oxen,” he says. “We’ve got the lighter wagon. Our chances are better for getting across the desert in one shot if we combine them. Ten animals, one light wagon.”

He’s right. Except . . . “But the Widow Joyner, she’s going to come down sick anytime now.”

“She can have the back of the wagon when she needs it. We’ll just have to make space. Major Craven says he can walk with his crutch. The rest of us are already walking.”

“Why are you asking me about this?” I say.

“Because you can talk to her, woman to woman, and explain things.”

I frown. Seems to me that men only say things like this when they want to get out of doing something unpleasant. “I’ll tell her the plan, but it’s up to her. I won’t make her do anything she doesn’t want to do.”

“Fair enough,” Jasper says.

I circle around to the rear of Widow Joyner’s wagon and knock on the board like I’m calling at a fancy house.

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