Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 79

Mr. Hoffman sways on his feet. “What was that about Therese?” he asks. “Where is she?”

Mrs. Hoffman stares at her husband, unable to speak.

“She didn’t make it,” Jasper says gently.

“What? She . . . My girl . . .” Mr. Hoffman looks around desperately, as if Therese might suddenly appear. I see our group through his eyes: filthy lumps of weakness and despair, huddled low as if hoping the earth will swallow us and take us away.

Mr. Hoffman wilts, like a drying summer flower. He collapses to the ground and buries his face in his hands. His shoulders shake, and he rocks back and forth, keening in chorus with the Joyner baby.

“I’m telling you, we should go back,” Henry says, shouting to make his voice heard. “We’re falling apart here.”

“No!” Becky yells.

Everyone starts arguing again, except Hampton and me, who watch helplessly, and Jefferson, who ignores everyone.

“We’re going to die here, don’t you get it?” Henry says. “Fine. Go on if you have to, but I’m going back.”

Fear tears through me. We can’t separate. We can’t. I open my mouth to protest, but I’m not sure what to say. I don’t know that I have the right to tell someone how they ought to die, whether going forward or back.

Little Andrew Joyner, who has been huddled at his mother’s side this whole time, rises shakily to his feet. His tiny nose is peeling from the sun, and his cheeks are flushed bright red. He ambles over to Mr. Hoffman, who continues to rock back and forth, back and forth.

“Herr Hoffman,” Andy says, and for some reason, his quiet child’s voice silences everyone. I didn’t realize the boy had picked up any German.

Andy reaches beneath his shirt and pulls out my locket. He lifts the chain over his head.

Mr. Hoffman stills.

Andy holds it out to him. Solemnly, he says, “This locket has given me strength and courage. You should carry it for a while.”

We all stare at him. Wind whips against the canvas of the wagon. A buzzard screeches somewhere high above.

As Mama’s locket dangles between the little boy and the grieving man, her voice fills my head. Trust someone. Not good to be as alone as we’ve been.

Shakily, I unfold my legs and gain my feet. My limbs thrum—with the gold of my locket and with purpose. “Take it, Mr. Hoffman,” I order.

He looks at me, back at Andy. Slowly, he extends his arm, and the boy pours it into his open palm.

“Now, get on your feet.” I look around. “All of you. On your feet.”

No one moves.

“Now!”

Becky Joyner rises first. Then Major Craven.

“I’m going back,” Henry says. “I’ll take one canteen and—”

“No, you’re not, Henry Meek,” I say. “You’re coming with us, and that’s that, because you’re my friend, and I’m not leaving you behind. You wouldn’t leave a man behind, would you?” I say, with a pointed look toward Hampton. “We go together. All of us. We’ll help one another. We’ll trust one another. Together, we can make it to California. We can. Even if we have to crawl on our hands and knees. Even if I have to drag you by that fancy beard.”

Mrs. Hoffman is on her feet now too, along with her boys. To my surprise, Jefferson suddenly fills the space beside me. “Break’s over,” he calls. “Roll out!”

Becky hitches her baby onto her shoulder and starts walking west, Olive following at her heels. Martin Hoffman trails after them.

“Do you want to ride Peony for a while?” I ask the Major.

He leans on his crutch. “The rest of you are using two legs, but I’m only using one—I think that means I can walk twice as far.” He heads off after Becky before I can tell him that’s the worst logic I’ve ever heard.

One by one, everyone heads west, even Henry Meek. Even Mr. Hoffman, aided by Mrs. Hoffman and Luther.

“My knapsack,” he mutters to his wife. “We left it behind, didn’t we?”

The candlesticks are so close that my insides hum. I walk over to the wagon and reach inside.

Mr. Hoffman’s eyes go wide when I pull one out to show him. “How . . . ?”

“I know what these are,” I say. “I . . . could tell by the weight. My father used the same trick once.” Maybe it’s the hunger and thirst, maybe it’s the way everything else has been stripped away, but the gold purrs like a living thing in my hand.

Mrs. Hoffman looks to her husband, confused. “Those ugly things?”

I can’t return Therese to them, but maybe I’ve helped a little. I put away the candlestick and fall back to allow them their privacy. The presence of gold fades with distance, but never leaves me. Maybe, in California, it will infuse me constantly, like the warmth of my own private sun.

I’m the last in line, giving me a clear view of everyone stretched out on the trail ahead of me, shoulders braced against the desert. The air cools rapidly with nightfall, and the stars brighten in the sky like beacons leading us onward. For the first time in days, I feel like we might make it.

Chapter Thirty-Four

We started across the Humboldt Sink on Monday evening. When dawn rises on Friday, we see the lush grassy meadows and bright waters of the Truckee River straight ahead. Real water, clear and running, not at all like the mirage that led the Hoffmans astray. It’s September 14, 1849, and we are in California.

We unyoke the oxen and set the horses loose. Miraculously, every single animal finds enough strength to pick up their hooves and dash toward the river, where they all stand neck deep. The oxen cry rapturously. Peony and Sorry paw at the water and splash it over their backs with their tails. The dogs chase each other through the shallows, flinging spray that soaks a delighted Andy. We all drink deep of the clearest, cleanest water we’ve had in weeks. If all of California is this sweet, golden times are surely ahead.

We agree that we’re in no danger of meeting winter in the mountains if we stay a few days and get back our strength. So we let the animals graze their fill while Jefferson and the Major spend the days fishing.

It’s tempting to let myself be idle, to rest up a bit, but I don’t dare. Idle time brings idle thoughts, and mine turn inevitably to my uncle Hiram. He’s probably in this territory already. He could be waiting around the next bend in the trail. It’s a big place, I tell myself. You could fit three Georgias in California Territory. I might go the rest of my life without running into him.

I know it for a dangerous lie as soon as the notion takes me. So to keep my thoughts from my uncle, I busy myself with hunting. Game is scarce this late in the year, but I still bag a small deer, two snowshoe rabbits, and five golden squirrels. Becky makes stew from the squirrels. It’s terrible—watery and oversalted, with spongy onions and a single shriveled turnip for flavor. We eat every single drop.

“You named that baby yet?” I ask her one night as we’re scraping dishes.

“Not yet,” she says.

As I set out to hunt the next day, I find myself remembering the people we’ve lost, like Therese and Mr. Joyner. Even Lucie, who left. So on the last day of our respite, I start collecting rocks. I pile them one atop the other until I’ve made a noticeable mound.

“What are you doing?” Jefferson asks, happening by.

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