Like a River Glorious Page 11

“Take a gander at this,” he says. “Found it on my claim yesterday. And it’s just the beginning. Lot more where this came from.”

“Congratulations, Tug,” I say, trying to sound surprised. “I’m real happy for you. Now, if you don’t mind, I need to tend my horse.” I haven’t given Peony nearly enough attention lately, so I plan on taking her for a ride and then giving her the best rubdown of her life.

I stand, hefting the saddle over my shoulder, and I start to head up the hill, but he blocks my way. “I wanna talk to you first,” he says.

I take a step back. “Sure, Tug. What about?”

“Seeing as how I made my stake and all, I was thinking I could give this to you, like a ring or whatnot, and you and me could get hitched.”

I blink up at him as the words sink in. “Tug, are you—”

“I’m asking you to marry me,” he says, his grin bigger than ever. “As of this morning, I’m the most eligible bachelor in the area, and you’re the most eligible girl. Only makes sense we end up together.”

“No, sir, that doesn’t make sense at all.”

“Course it does.” His laughter has an ugly quality. “Imagine how jealous the fellows will be, me being the only one who snagged a wife, and a young one to boot!”

I think of my daddy’s boots, still on my too-small feet because I refuse to take them off. Specifically, I think of their steel tips and the damage they could do.

I put my chin up and look him dead in the eye. “No.”

His face flashes to angry. “When did I ever do wrong by you?”

At his raised voice, Becky’s other customers shift in their seats and glance our way.

“You haven’t never,” I say hastily. “But I don’t want to get married, not to you, not to anybody.”

“Ain’t natural!”

“Seems plenty natural to me.” How can people not see? A woman married is a woman with nothing of her own. Everything she’s ever worked for belongs to her husband, especially if Tom’s prediction proves out and California becomes a tried-and-true state.

“It ain’t the Indian boy, is it?”

“What?” I am ice-cold now. Steel chilled in a mountain stream.

“We all seen him hangdogging around, you chasing him off with a stick. I figured you were just waiting for a white man, or someone older and more respectable to come along.”

He’s exaggerating to make his point. Still, I glance around, half hoping Jefferson isn’t around to overhear, half hoping he is—because I’d sure feel safer if he were within sight. But he must have left for his claim already.

“I said no, Tug, and you need to take me at my word and walk away right now.” My five-shooter is only inches from my hand. After this, I’m going to practice with it. I’m going to practice drawing quickly and shooting accurately, every single day.

Tug spits on the ground. “What the hell is wrong with you? A girl as ugly and manly as you ain’t never gonna do better than me.”

Everyone is watching now. Some of the men at Becky’s table are giggling like schoolgirls at lunchtime. Major Craven grabs his crutch and starts hobbling over. Martin’s hand drifts toward the Colt at his hip.

Bolstered by the support of my friends, I’m about to say something unforgivable about his missing teeth and his rats’-nest beard, but at the last second I remember Becky and the Major being kind when he first appeared, and I choose honey instead of vinegar.

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“You are a fine, fine man, Mr. Tug,” I say gravely. “Any woman would be proud to have you. But I have a fiancé back in Georgia, you see.”

“Well, he ain’t here.”

“I shall remain true.”

Old Tug’s eyes narrow, like he’s sussing the lie. “Well, all righty then,” he says with reluctance. “I suppose it wouldn’t be right.”

Martin’s hand relaxes.

I force a smile. “I do thank you for the offer, though, and I hope we’ll see you tomorrow for breakfast.”

“That you will, little lady. That you will.” He plops his hat back on, then strides away as if it were all nothing.

My breath leaves in a whoosh. I’m not sure why that conversation made me so nervous, but it did, and I’m not looking forward to seeing him back in the morning.

“It isn’t true, Miss Leah,” Olive says, and I jump.

“I didn’t see you sneak up.”

“You aren’t ugly, and you can do plenty better.”

I laugh. “Thank you, Olive. But I don’t care what that no-good son of a goat thinks of me.”

“I knew he was going to ask you, after he asked Ma.”

I almost drop my saddle. “He asked Becky?”

She shrugs. “Ma won’t marry some stinky old man.”

“Is that what she told him?”

“No, Ma was nice. Said she still loved my pa, even though he’s gone, and Old Tug laughed at her and said it was just for practice anyway, and he was going to ask you.”

I glare toward Becky, who is serving up a second helping of lumpy porridge to an unlucky miner. “She could have said something,” I mutter. Another man proposed to me under Becky’s knowing eye, back on the trail. A reverend by the name of Lowrey. Becky didn’t bother giving me a warning then, either.

“That’s also not true,” Olive adds.

“What’s not true?”

“Ma didn’t love Pa.”

I put the saddle down on the log and crouch to face her. “Sweet pea, what makes you say such a thing?”

“She’s happy now.”

Becky Joyner never speaks of her dead husband, and I haven’t the foggiest notion how she felt about him. But Olive is right: Becky is happier than she used to be. She’s free now. Free of a man who controlled her utterly, who owned everything she worked for. Free to make her own decisions about her day, about her children, about her life.

I plant a quick kiss on Olive’s forehead. “I think she did love your pa. But I also think she’s happier now. And that’s important to understand, Olive. Even when we lose someone we love, we still have a chance at happiness.”

Olive’s chin trembles, but she doesn’t cry. “Okay, Lee.”

“Want to go for a ride with me and Peony?”

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