Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 29

I find myself reaching for Mama’s locket more and more. I pinch it between thumb and forefinger, trace the hinged edge and the lacelike filigree on the front, letting the gold sing sweet until I’m filled up again.

Weeks pass. Captain Chisholm does not put me to shore. The flatboat winds through rolling blue mountains and deep valleys like I’ve never seen. Small towns and lone farms hug the riverbank every bend or so. We pass flatboats heading down the river, and rowboats coming up. Even this far west, the river is the busiest highway I’ve ever seen, full of energy and purpose.

We’re halfway through Kentucky one sunny morning, and I’m in the stalls mucking. My belly has been feeling hot and tight for hours; I hope I’m not getting sick. Suddenly, wet warmth blossoms between my legs.

I freeze, pitchfork half raised.

No need to look at my drawers to know I’m in a heap of trouble. Mama told me all about it, and once she made me wash her monthly rags so I’d understand. She said my time would come when I was seventeen or so, that since I wasn’t planning on having babies anytime soon, it would be a regular visitor. With another start, I realize we’ve passed well into February, which means that sometime in the last couple of weeks, I turned sixteen years old.

“It came early, Mama,” I whisper, touching the lump of locket beneath my shirt.

I’m a woman now. A woman with a big problem.

I dash into Peony’s stall, where I hunker down and rip off Daddy’s pants. I check them over and am hugely relieved that they seem untouched. My drawers are ruined, though. I whip them off and use them to wipe myself down, then I put on my one spare. Using my teeth, I rip a strip from the blanket Joe gave me, then I fold it up and shove it between my legs. I re-don the pants, and I bury the stained drawers under a pile of straw. Tonight, when it’s dark, I’ll rinse them in the river, then lay them out to dry where no one can see. They’ll be spare rags now, though not nearly as many as I need.

There’s no doubt the crew has accepted me for a boy; Joe and Red and the captain relieve themselves around me without a thought, though I avert my gaze every single time. When Red teased me about it once, I told him my mama raised me to be modest.

Stained rags are a different business entirely. There’s no way I can explain them away. I’ll have to be very careful and very smart.

At night after dinner, I offer to help Mrs. Joyner clean up. While we’re scraping dishes and rinsing them in the river away from everyone else, I say, “Your pardon, ma’am, but I was wondering. Do you have a spare blanket I could buy?”

Her hands freeze over the cook pot. “You don’t have a blanket?”

“An old one. It’s small and . . . ripped.”

“I’m sure I can manage something.”

“Thank you.”

We finish the dishes in silence. Mrs. Joyner avoids me the rest of the night, refusing even to meet my eye. Maybe she’s taken offense at my request. But after I quietly wash up in the dark, I return to Peony’s stall and find a small quilt hanging over the low wall. It’s faded and patched, and one end is a bit ragged, but it’s a whole heap better than the blanket Joe gave me.

I’m not one for praying much, but I can’t help the bit of gratitude that slips heavenward. Then I get to work ripping strips from Joe’s blanket, which I hide in my saddlebag. Now I have all the rags I need.

The next night, while Joe is fiddling away and Red is strumming his guitar and the captain is singing to the stars, I try to slip Mrs. Joyner a dime. She closes my hand into a fist and pushes it away. She turns her back and takes little Andy onto her knee to bounce in time to the music.

I slink away. Mrs. Joyner did me a kindness, and I don’t understand why she won’t take my dime or even glance my way, but I’m grateful to her just the same.

In fact, all the Joyners have proved amazingly adept at ignoring me, even on this tiny boat. Just this morning I caught little Olive, their daughter, staring at me as I stacked poles. But the moment her mother noticed, her gaze darted away. I suppose it’s for the best. Wouldn’t do to have little ones milling about, pestering me with questions I’m not willing to answer.

In the end, I’ll never be fully crew or pioneer. The men are friendly enough, but they know I’m leaving when we reach the Missouri shore, and they have a whole history together before this trip that I’ll never be a part of.

The crew’s music is still going strong as I curl up in Peony’s stall, Mrs. Joyner’s blanket around my shoulders and Mama’s locket clutched in my fist. The tightness in my belly spreads to my lower back and sets it to aching. I remind myself that Jefferson will be waiting for me in Independence. He’s the closest thing I have to family now.

The morning sun hasn’t yet peeked over the hills, and the air is clammy with fog. We push off from shore, and I congratulate myself at being an old hand with the poles now. We slide past the sleepy, low-lying city of Cairo, and suddenly, impossibly, the river breaks wide.

I gape, my pole dangling uselessly. We’ve reached the massive, muddy confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers, and never have I seen so much water. With the fog clinging thick to the surface, and the shores a distant blur, I can almost imagine we’re poling through the calmest ocean.

A bell echoes behind us, chased by the sound of churning water. Captain Chisholm orders us to the sweeps and runs forward to the gouger. Together we steer the boat out of the main channel.

A giant paddleboat materializes in the fog. It’s two hundred feet long if it’s a yard, with a pair of giant chimneys belching black smoke. The Western Hope is painted in gold letters on the side, surrounded by the yellow rays of a rising sun. I’ve never been superstitious, despite being a girl with witchy powers, but the coincidence of this moment and our intentions could make me reconsider my notions.

“That’s a good omen,” Mrs. Joyner says in a wistful voice.

Maybe she’s wishing she were on that steamboat, and I don’t blame her. The decks are lined with clean, white railings. Crowds of people stand at the upper levels, packed as tight as cattle in a flatboat. I take off my hat and wave to them, and they wave back. A few cheer at us. Their captain stands outside of what passes for a crow’s nest but looks like a gingerbread house. Beside it is a big bell, which he gives a yank and sets to ringing. Olive looses a rare grin, and little Andy runs around in a circle yelling “Ding, ding, ding!” until he suddenly falls down, giggling.

Mr. Joyner frowns through the whole thing, and I can’t imagine what’s in that man’s head. I’ve never seen such luxury in my life— That steamboat must be as fine as the finest hotel in Savannah, and if that’s not worth getting excited about, I don’t know what is.

It glides beyond us as quickly as it arrived, and we steer our humbler craft into the middle of the river and aim for a shore I can’t see.

“Pa, I want to ride a boat like that one,” Olive says.

Mr. Joyner removes the cigar from his mouth and blows out a cloud of smoke. “It’s a fine sight, isn’t it, darling?”

The girl’s mother brightens. “Mr. Joyner, perhaps we should pass the next part of our journey on a steamboat. It will make a wonderful memory for the children.”

Andy and Olive regard their parents with wide, hopeful eyes.

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