Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 78

“They’re just heirlooms,” Mrs. Hoffman says. “Rubbish. Leave them.”

Jefferson drops them onto the hard-packed ground, where they roll a ways before lurching to a stop against a jutting boulder. He hefts the pack over his shoulder again. “Better. Let’s go.”

I hang back while the others head toward the barren slope and the wagon. Beneath that layer of dull brass, the candlesticks are solid gold. A small fortune, disguised for travel. And Mrs. Hoffman doesn’t know.

I put down Doreen and pick up the candlesticks. They sing to me, vibrating through my fingertips.

“You heard her,” Jefferson says, and I jump. “We can leave those behind.”

“Mr. Hoffman has come so far,” I say. “And he just . . .” I swallow hard. “He lost his daughter. I don’t want him to lose these too.”

His stares at me. Then at the candlesticks. His eyes narrow.

Ignoring him, I drop one into each pocket, and their weight makes my suspenders feel like knives at my shoulders. I gather up Doreen again. This time my “oof” is even more heartfelt.

Jefferson walks beside me. “I’m a better tracker than you are,” he says. It’s true. He always tracked; I always shot. We bagged dozens of critters that way. “I didn’t see any tracks leading this way.”

“I must have stomped over them,” I say.

“That’s your story?”

“We found the Hoffmans—that’s proof right there.”

He mutters something angry under his breath.

My heart races, with heat and exhaustion and guilt. Not telling Jefferson is one thing. But lying feels worse, somehow. Once an omission becomes a straight-out lie, you can never take it back.

We stumble onward. My lungs heave, and my legs are brittle and aching, like they’re about to snap. Maybe this time, the Major will be the one holding my shoulders down as Jasper does his work.

Jefferson struggles beside me, carrying a supply bag even heavier than Doreen. His breaths are gasping and dry, and his steps skid and slide, like he doesn’t have quite enough strength to lift his feet.

I think of Therese, and I keep going, one foot after the other.

When we arrive, the dogs lie panting in the shade of the wagon, not bothering to stir. Becky relinquishes her spot to the Hoffmans, and I’m more than a little relieved to hand Doreen over and drop the candlesticks inside the wagon bed. The oxen groan when we whip them forward.

Still so far to go. Everyone is weak, moving slowly, feet dragging through the dust. Our lips are cracked, our eyes swollen, our skin bright with sunburn. Waiting for the Joyner baby cost us dearly, but maybe not so much as our dash to rescue the Hoffmans in the full heat of midday. I don’t know how we’ll make it.

After a mile of slow plodding, the Major pulls the wagon to a stop. “If we don’t lighten the load, the oxen will die. How about we put the children on Peony and Sorry and let them ride?”

I stare at him, puzzled. “‘Sorry’?”

“Ain’t that the name of Jefferson’s horse? Sorry mare.”

“Sorrel mare,” Jefferson says.

“Well, she’s awful sorry looking, if you ask me.”

I laugh, though it sounds more like a wheeze.

“We have been saving the horses in case we need them,” Jefferson says.

No, I saved my horse because I couldn’t bear to lose one more thing from my life before. “And now we need them,” I say, staring at Peony’s ribs and drooping neck. “Oh, Peony, my sweet girl.”

Peony snorts and tosses her head when we put Carl and Doreen in her saddle, but with the children riding, the wagon moves a little faster.

Becky Joyner walks beside me for a spell, her tiny daughter swaddled in her arms. I can’t believe how quickly she’s on her feet after such a hard labor. Or maybe riding in the shade for so long put her in better shape than any of us.

“Have you given her a name?” I ask, even though it hurts to talk around my swollen tongue.

She shakes her head. “Not until she’s lived long enough to earn one.”

“All right.” Some families are like that, especially during hard times. My baby brother never got a name.

“Listen, Lee, I said some things to you. In the wagon, when I was in my way. About being married and having babies and . . .” Her voice trails off.

“You did.”

“They weren’t proper,” she says. “And I didn’t mean them.” Her finger traces a soft circle on the baby’s forehead.

“She’s so beautiful,” I say, peering over at her bundle. She’s been a good baby on this first day of her life, with wide-clear eyes and little fuss, which is a wonder given this godforsaken heat. Unlike her brother and sister, she’s dark-haired.

“I shouldn’t have complained. I ought to face my lot with faith and courage.”

I’m plumb out of faith and courage. I don’t think I have anything left but stubbornness. Maybe that’s all I ever had. “Everyone’s afraid of something,” I tell her.

“Oh? What are you afraid of, Lee?”

I don’t have to think even one second. “I’m afraid of my uncle Hiram, the man who killed my parents. And I’m afraid of being alone again.”

Her smile is humorless. “And I’m afraid that my children will be alone.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re still with us.”

“So am I.” She sounds surprised by the fact. Then she looks up at the sky, where buzzards continue to circle. “For now.”

We take a rest when the sun goes down. The moment we stop walking, everyone collapses to the earth. Jefferson plunks down beside me, back against the wagon. He folds his arms on his knees and lays down his head.

Major Craven half jumps, half falls from the wagon bench. He hobbles a few feet and lowers himself to the ground to massage the back of his short leg. “Only one barrelful of water left,” he says.

One barrelful is not nearly enough for us and our animals.

“We should turn around and go back,” Henry Meek says. He lies on his back, staring at the darkening sky. “Before it’s too late.”

“Are you daft?” Tom says. “We’re more than halfway there. If we go back, we’re dead.”

“We’re dead if we go forward,” Mrs. Hoffman says bitterly. “If we go back, at least we know there’s water at the end of our journey.”

The Major shakes his head. “We’d never make it. We covered too much ground today, too fast, chasing after you and your family.”

“If your husband hadn’t run off after that Frank Dilley—” Henry starts, but Becky Joyner jumps in.

“They were just doing what they thought was best for their family!”

Her baby starts to wail. Jefferson raises his head for a moment, but then drops it back to his forearms, shutting the rest of us out.

“Henry has a point,” Tom says. “Therese would still be alive if—”

“Don’t you dare talk about Therese!” Mrs. Hoffman yells. Her son Martin jumps to his feet and strides toward Tom, fists clenched and murder in his eyes.

“Martin! Stop!”

It’s Mr. Hoffman, clambering, with Jasper’s help, from the back of the wagon. He is wan and haggard, with red blisters swelling his chapped lips. Becky’s baby wails and wails.

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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