Like a River Glorious Page 10

My mama would have smacked my knuckles with a wooden spoon if I’d shown the table manners of these men. They shove food down their gullets like it’s the last meal of their lives, letting crumbs and gobs of butter stick to their beards. All the while, they look back and forth between Becky and me, with an occasional glance at Olive. It makes me twitchy, the way they stare. Like they’re starving animals, and I don’t mean for food.

Major Craven and Jefferson stick close by the whole time, rifles within easy and noticeable reach.

The men leave Becky with two dollars and a couple of pinches of gold dust.

“We need to send someone back to Mormon Island,” she says cheerfully as she clears the table. “I’ll need more flour, salt, and coffee. Eggs, too. And bacon, maybe? If they’re paying me two dollars for flapjacks, think what I can get for eggs and bacon!”

Runny eggs and burned bacon, she means, but I hold my tongue.

“It would be better to get a milk cow and some chickens,” she continues happily. “I guess I have to learn how to raise chickens and . . .” She frowns, looking up at me. “Lee?” her voice is suddenly shy. “Do you think Tom or Henry could teach me how to make butter? They made the most delightful butter, back when Athena the cow was still with us.”

I hide my smile. Mrs. Rebekah Joyner was a fine lady back in Chattanooga, and I reckon she didn’t work a day in her life before hitting the trail. “If they don’t, I will,” I tell her. “And anything else you want to learn. I should warn you that I never was much for cooking. The Major would be a better teacher on that count. But I can show you all you need to know about raising chickens and keeping dairy cows.”

Her relieved smile flutters away as she stares at me. No, she’s staring beyond me. I turn, dread coiling in my gut.

A man walks toward us, hat brim low, a saddlebag thrown across one shoulder. Something about that walk is familiar, and for a split second I’m certain my uncle has found me, that it’s one of his men bearing down on us. I’m about to dash for my rifle when Becky exclaims, “Martin!”

I peer closer. It is Martin Hoffman, weary and faltering, tall and skinny as a pine. His sister Therese appeared just like this, that day she hiked through the desert to get help for her family. She stumbled the same way, held her chin with the same determination, the same blazing sun on her shoulders. I sprint toward him.

“Martin! Is everything all right? Your family . . .”

He looks up and grins.

Jefferson’s boots pound up behind me. “Martin?”

“They let me come back,” Martin says.

“They’re all right?” I persist.

“Last I checked. We parted ways.”

Becky and the Major have caught up to us, along with little Andy.

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“Martin, your ma must be beside herself!” Becky exclaims.

The boy straightens. “I’m almost fifteen years old. She said I’m a man now. That she can’t keep me from trying for my fortune here in California.” He pats his hip, where a shiny new Colt revolver hangs from a leather holster. “Vater lent me his gun, on the condition that if I haven’t made something of myself in a year, I’d go back home to Ohio.”

The Major leans on his crutch and claps the young man on the shoulder with his free hand. “Son, we’re happy to have you back.”

Jefferson is grinning fit to burst, and it occurs to me that he and Martin probably became good friends, and I didn’t even notice on account of trying so hard not to see how much Jefferson liked Martin’s sister, Therese. “There’s room for you in my lean-to,” Jefferson says. “You can help me convert it into a shanty. And I’ll show you where I staked my claim so you can—”

“Give the boy a rest,” Becky says sternly. “Come along, Martin. I’ll fix you some coffee and flapjacks. Plenty of time to set up later.”

Andy runs forward and throws his arms around Martin’s thighs. Martin reaches down and sweeps him up, and Andy hides his face in Martin’s neck so we can’t see his glad tears. Everybody is looking at Martin, and that’s why they can’t see mine. It feels like my family is whole again.



Chapter Four

During the next week, we keep busy making a home. Hampton marks out a decent pasture and starts putting up fence posts; he was a shepherd before his owner died and he ran off to join us. The Major and Jefferson spend most of their time digging a foundation and felling trees to build a log cabin. The college men, Jasper and Tom and Henry, leave on a supply run for Becky, armed with the most perfectly penned and beautiful grocery list I’ve ever seen.

Andy and Olive pan in the creek, accompanied by splashing dogs, under Martin’s watchful eye when he isn’t off hunting.

I spend the days sifting through everyone’s claims, casting out with my sense for easy gold. Anything I find goes to the claimant. That’s the rule, and I stick to it. By the end of the week, everyone is at least a hundred dollars richer. But Becky is richer still. On top of her claim findings, she makes an additional seventy-five dollars selling breakfasts to hardened miners, meals that would pucker the tongues of lesser men.

When the number of morning guests reaches five, the Major vows to make Becky more furniture. We don’t have the tools to make good lumber, and the nearest mill is more than a day away. So he splits a few logs in half, turns them flat side up, and starts rigging a rough table and chairs.

On the seventh day after Martin’s return, Old Tug finishes his breakfast, smears the food on his beard around with one of Becky’s napkins, and stands from his chair, adjusting his suspenders. I’m sitting on one of the Major’s log benches, working polish into the leather of Peony’s saddle, when Old Tug starts toward me. He holds his hat in his hand and grins like a boy at Christmas.

He’s lost a fair number of teeth, with one standing like a sentinel front and center on the bottom row. He’s probably Daddy’s age, if my daddy were still alive, and he hasn’t washed his shirt or trousers in weeks. He’s tried to mat his hair down with grease, but his beard sticks out like a wire brush covered with gray ash. His breath reeks of Becky’s coffee and unscraped teeth.

“Found somethin’,” he says, eyes twinkling.

“You don’t say.”

He reaches into his pocket, but I already know what he’s fishing for—a gold nugget the size of a juicy ripe strawberry, niggling at me like an itch under my skin.

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