Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 74

“Yes” comes her voice.

I pull open the flap. She sits propped up on her mattress, hands wrapped around her belly as if to protect it. Her blond bun is skewed, and her hair is sweat-plastered to her head. Andy and Olive huddle at her feet, looking frightened but too listless from the heat to do anything about it.

“Jasper wants to combine our efforts to cross the desert. Our oxen, his wagon,” I say. “I told him I can’t make any promises, but—”

“Do it,” Widow Joyner says. She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes. “The Major and Tom came by for our baking supplies. They hinted at the plan. It makes sense.”

“All right. We’re going to make the shift quickly.”

“Speed is of the essence,” she says with a wan smile.

“We’ll be back to move you shortly.” It’s odd; Mrs. Lowrey was walking alongside her wagon right up until the day she died in childbirth. Widow Joyner hasn’t walked in a week.

I hop down from the back of the wagon, turn around, and jump five feet in the air—Jefferson is standing right in front of me.

“I thought you were looking for something to burn.”

“And I found it. Right here. This wood’s so dry it ought to burn hot and clean.”

I can’t argue with that. “Let’s get the oxen into the water before we move them to the other wagon.”

All we do is unyoke them, and they rush into the water of their own accord. Once they taste it, they low pitifully enough to break your heart into a thousand pieces, but they drink up.

Therese and her little brothers return carrying three large bundles of cut grass. “Vati says these are for your animals.” She and Jefferson exchange a furtive look. The three of us walk together every single day, and she and Jefferson still talk to each other casually, though they’re careful not to get too close. So far, her father hasn’t made a fuss.

“Thank you,” I say. “We’ll put them in the wagon.”

“No, we can load it.” She leads her brothers off, casting another longing glance Jefferson’s way. I don’t blame her; he’s become quite a sight. His thick black hair curls slightly at the nape, framing a strong jaw—inherited from his Irish da—that balances his sharp cheekbones perfectly. His sleeves are rolled up, exposing muscled forearms burnished dark with sunshine.

Therese’s eyes catch mine.

“I’m ready,” someone says.

I turn around. Widow Joyner stands in the back of her wagon, ready to topple over the edge. The children’s heads pop up behind her like prairie dogs.

I hurry over to help. So does Henry Meek. Together, we carry her to their wagon and raise her gently inside. Olive clambers over the backboard to be with her mother. Andy reaches up with his arms, so I lift him and give him a quick snug before putting him beside his sister.

“What do you want from the wagon?” I ask Mrs. Joyner.

“Food and water,” she says. “And the small trunk—the one with my initials. Nothing else.”

I gather all the supplies, but I grab her red-checked tablecloth too. I waste a precious moment gazing at the dining table, silently saying good-bye.

Cracks splinter the air as Jefferson attacks the Joyners’ wagon with an ax. The Major feeds the pieces into his fire to bake his bread. I run over to take one last reading from Mr. Joyner’s road-o-meter.

“Sixteen hundred eighty-seven,” I say.

“What’s that?” asks Jefferson.

“The number of miles this wagon has traveled since Independence.”

“Is that all? I was worried it might be a lot.”

“We aren’t done yet,” I point out.

Across the camp, Frank Dilley and his men are combining their own wagons. Like us, they’re leaving half of them behind. Unlike us, they’ve packed the remaining wagons with pickaxes and shovels and mining supplies. I’ll have to witch up some gold to pay for our own equipment.

“Are our fifteen minutes up yet?” I yell at him.

“You’ve got a few more if you want to come with us,” he says.

I turn to Jasper. “What do you think? Do we hurry up so we can leave with them?”

“The oxen go faster, more consistently, when they see other wagons in front of them. And I know we’ve had our disagreements with those men, but all in all, I want to believe they’re decent specimens of humanity. If something were to happen to one of our wagons, they’d no sooner leave us behind to die than we would them.”

I hope he’s right.

Tom approaches, his sweat-soaked shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest. He takes off his hat and waves it beside his red cheeks. “You trust them more than I do,” he says. “But the longer we wait, the weaker our animals will be.”

That makes sense to me.

Major Craven hobbles over. “Do you want me to tether the weakest to the back again? Rotate them in yoke when we take breaks?”

“They won’t get stronger by trailing behind,” I say.

“So we yoke them all and let them pull until they drop,” the Major says. We all nod in agreement. “Seems cruel, but the least cruel thing to do.”

“Let’s hook them up,” Jefferson says.

We have the wagon loaded and ready to go by the time the last of the Missouri wagons is pulling out. Frank Dilley was yanking our chain with his “fifteen minutes” line, but I’m proud of how fast we worked and how well we all worked together. The smell of fresh quick bread fills the air as we square our shoulders and walk into the blinding, yellow-white desert.

“That’s making me hungry,” Jefferson says, walking beside me.

Therese sidles over, careful to keep me between herself and Jefferson. “If my mouth wasn’t so dry, I’m sure it would water,” she says.

We lead our horses. The dogs trot along beside us, tongues lolling in the heat. “How long do you think it will take us to cross?” Jefferson asks.

“According to the Major, about three and a half days,” I say, looking at the sky. “It’s Monday afternoon. Maybe we’ll be across by Thursday at sunrise.”

He whistles. “I was happier before I knew that.”

“Think of it this way: Once we cross, we’re in California. Give or take a mountain range or two.”

Therese says, “Then we’re practically almost there.” Suddenly she tenses. Ahead, Mr. Hoffman has twisted on his wagon seat to stare at the three of us.

I almost glare back at him. Instead, I shift away from Jefferson, draping an arm across Therese’s shoulders, like we’re just two girlfriends out for a stroll.

“Thanks, Lee,” she whispers.

“If your daddy asks, I specifically requested your companionship, you being the only female of appropriate age with whom to keep company. You couldn’t say no.”

She nods solemnly. “It would have been rude.”

September days are still way too long. The heat is like a blanket on my skin, weighing me down and drying me out until finally the sun sets and the desert air starts to cool. The wagon train takes a short break to feed and water the animals, so we can push on through the night. We all have a few bites of the Major’s quick bread and sip some bitter slough water. I’m feeding grass to Peony when I hear my name.

Prev Next