Walk on Earth a Stranger Page 77

Her eyes roll back, and fear stabs through me. “Where are they?”

“I really wanted to see California.”

“Therese, where are—”

She seizes. Her leg shakes out of my grasp and plops to the ground.

“Hurry!” Jasper yells. He directs us to lay her down and turn her onto her side, then he dribbles water over her skin.

“Therese,” Jefferson whispers. His hand snakes out and grabs mine.

We watch, helpless, as she convulses for several minutes. It’s like seeing a contraction all over again. Except when she finally stills, her eyes are wide and sightless, and no breath passes her lips.

“What happened?” Jefferson asks. “Therese!”

Jasper shakes his head.

Henry says, “She cooked to death in her own body.”

It’s not true. It didn’t happen. Not to Therese. But she doesn’t move. She doesn’t even blink. I can’t amputate the badness from her. I can’t run to her rescue. I can’t give her a golden locket to keep her safe.

Jefferson opens his mouth, but nothing comes out.

“What’s going on?” Becky Joyner leans over the edge of the wagon, her new baby cradled to her chest. Olive and Andy peek out at her waist.

If I let out an answer, I won’t be able to hold anything in.

“It’s Therese,” Hampton says gravely.

Jasper rises to his feet, his face stricken. “Her family is in trouble. She ran through the desert to get help. She sacrificed . . .” His jaw trembles.

I squeeze Jefferson’s hand. Therese is a hero. Just like she wanted.

“Then we must go to them,” Becky says fiercely. “Right away.”

Chapter Thirty-Three

There’s no time to bury Therese properly, not if we want to help her family, but we wrap her tightly in the Major’s tent and weigh her down with rocks.

Her death can’t be for nothing. It can’t. So the only eulogy she gets is action. We have the oxen yoked and the wagon under way in record time. It heaves and jerks over the rocky trail, but Becky Joyner makes no complaint. She is so relieved to be alive that she cleans up and takes care of herself.

All through the night we press on, with only short breaks every hour to give the animals a few sips of water and some bites of bread. Peony’s head droops. The oxen cry piteously. Near dawn, the first one falters. Jefferson and I run to unyoke him and leave him behind.

We find the broken wagon around nine in the morning. The axle is shattered, but there were no spare parts—everything was discarded to lighten the load.

Jasper is quick to take charge. “We’ll organize our search from here,” he says. “We’ll take the horses and ride out in circles until we see their tracks or find—”

“No,” I say with certainty. The Hoffmans are not nearby. I don’t sense their secret gold stash at all.

“We shouldn’t separate,” Hampton says. “No one can survive out here alone.”

Everyone nods, except Jefferson, who stands with his head bowed, his shoulders slumped. I’ve never seen him look so defeated, not even when he was getting the worst of it from his da.

“Therese was clear,” I say. “Her father was trying to get through the desert on foot before he collapsed. We’ll keep to the trail until we catch up with them.”

“Are you sure?” Jasper says.

“I would gamble my life on it.”

Jefferson’s head snaps up. “Don’t say that.”

Jasper says, “Let’s grab the water barrel and any supplies from their wagon and go.”

In minutes, we’ve stripped it of everything useful and are pushing onward. An hour or so later, another ox drops to its front knees, then keels over to the side. We’re down to eight, with almost half of the desert yet to cross.

We pass one of the Hoffmans’ oxen, collapsed and dead. Then another. Above, huge buzzards glide in lazy circles. They’re the only creatures eating well in this godforsaken place.

The sun bakes us mercilessly as we plod forward—not just with heat but with light that sears my eye sockets. I’m so lost in the blaze of bright-hot determination, so focused on putting one foot in front of the other, that I almost miss it when my gold sense twinges. It’s the barest tickle in my throat, the softest siren call.

The Hoffmans’ hidden gold is at the absolute edge of my range. I close my eyes and concentrate. It’s off to the left, over a rise and out of view.

“I see tracks!” I shout. “Leave the wagon here, feed and water the animals. Some of you come with me.”

There are no tracks; anyone can see that, and I give a split-second thought to how careless I’m being, but it doesn’t matter. We have to find the Hoffmans. I have to do one last thing for the girl who was becoming my friend.

I don’t bother to see if anyone follows my instructions; I break into a jog and crest the rise. The rocky, ochre earth stretches for a mile. Beyond it is a shimmering expanse, like a lake of light. At the edge of the mirage are seven tiny, dark figures.

The silhouettes are as still as death. We’re too late. Like Therese, they’ve—

One of the figures shifts, moves into the shadow of another. Jefferson, Hampton, and Jasper are suddenly beside me, and then Tom and Henry. Together, we pour down the slope toward them.

They’re even farther away than they seem. We are heaving from effort by the time the figures become distinguishable—Mr. Hoffman laid out under a makeshift awning, Doreen curled up near his feet. Luther and Martin sit together with Otto while Carl leans against his mother’s side.

Martin waves as we approach, relief flooding his face, but Mrs. Hoffman is the only one who struggles to her feet. Her face is splotchy, like she’s been crying, but her body has no wet tears to spare.

“Therese found you!” Her eyes search behind us for her daughter.

I try to respond, but the words clog my throat.

Mrs. Hoffman stares at me, and then she stares at Jasper, who shakes his head. She stands stock-still for the space of three heartbeats. Then she wraps her arms around her belly, eyes squeezed tight, and says, “Gott hab sie selig.”

Mr. Hoffman remains unresponsive. Beside him is a giant, bulky knapsack. Its contents make my whole body thrum.

Jasper crouches beside him, pries open his mouth, and forces water from his own canteen between Mr. Hoffman’s lips. He chokes, and his eyes flutter.

“We need to get back to the trail,” I say.

“Ja.” Mrs. Hoffman rouses her children. The oldest boys can walk on their own, but the three youngest children must be carried. Doreen staggers over and climbs into my arms.

“Oof,” I say. She is too heavy, but all I have to do is put one foot in front of the other until we get back to the wagon. I can do it, for Therese’s baby sister.

Tom carries Carl, and Henry picks up Otto. Jasper and Hampton drape Mr. Hoffman’s arms across their shoulders. He tries to shrug them off, head lolling, but he doesn’t have the strength to resist.

“They have supplies,” Jefferson says.

“Grab any food and water and leave the rest behind,” Jasper tells him.

Jefferson slips Mr. Hoffman’s knapsack over his shoulder, staggering under its weight. “No wonder Mr. Hoffman collapsed,” he says, reaching inside. He pulls two tarnished candlesticks from the bag. “Do we need these?”

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