Like a River Glorious Page 15

We’ve reached the edge of the corral, with its resident horses and oxen. They’re mostly shapeless lumps in the dark, but I find Peony right away. I’d recognize her silhouette anywhere, as easily as I recognize my own hand. She’s asleep standing up, one back leg slightly cocked.

“You see,” Jefferson continues, “I was hoping you said what you did to Old Tug just because you found him objectionable.”

“You mean the part about having a sweetheart back in Georgia?”

“All of it.”

“You’re awfully well informed for someone who was away at his claim at the time.”

“Everyone was very forthcoming. Couldn’t stop talking about it.”

Of course they couldn’t. “I do find him objectionable. But some of it was true.”

“So you don’t want to get married.”

I snap, “Well, I’m not going to rush into it, that’s for sure.”

“But do you—”

“Once a woman gets married, she has nothing of her own. She can’t own property. She can’t make any decisions about her life.” Now that the words are coming, they’re like a burst dam, spilling so fast I can hardly catch a breath. “When Mama and Daddy died, everything went to my uncle. Everything I’d worked so hard for. I thought he’d stolen all our gold, more than a thousand dollars’ worth. Our twenty acres of land. The house, the barn, our horses and tack. But it turns out it was his all along, fair and legal. Because a girl can’t inherit. So here I am, all the way out in California, trying to rebuild some of what I lost. As a single girl, I can, you know. But once I get married, everything belongs to my husband. Even my own self. I have to give up the name Westfall and change it to my husband’s. Don’t you see? Once I get married, I lose everything all over again.”

He’s silent for such a long time. Maybe I’ve silenced him for good. We circle back toward the rapids and climb up a ways. So many of our claims lie upstream that we’ve worn a bit of a path. It’s treacherous in the dark, but we’re careful.

Finally he says, “Marriage doesn’t have to be like that.”

“It was like that for your mama. Your da owned her.”

Jefferson doesn’t like to talk about his mother. She left Georgia with the rest of the Cherokee when the Indians were forced to go to Oklahoma Territory. She could have chosen to stay, being married to a white man. Jefferson was only five years old, and she left him all alone with a no-good drunk of a man who beat her regular. No one in Dahlonega blamed her one bit, and by law, she had no right to steal a white man’s son. My own daddy, who rarely spoke ill of anyone, once said that Jefferson’s da was likely to kill her someday, that just because he married a Cherokee woman didn’t mean he didn’t hate Indians deep down.

“It wasn’t like that for your mama,” he counters.

He’s sort of right. My mama and daddy were partners. Best friends. I know they loved each other. I know they did. But it turns out that Mama married Daddy for reasons I may never fully know. She was in love with my uncle Hiram at the time, and no one expected she’d end up with Hiram’s brother instead. I never would have known, myself, if Daddy’s old friend Jim hadn’t found me in Independence and told me all about it.

“If I ever get married, I want it to be like that,” I concede. “But Mama was a bit of a puzzle, you know. She loved Daddy, for sure and certain, but she had secrets. Even in love, she was never quite her own self.”

Jefferson stops and lifts his head to gaze at the stars, and I follow his line of sight. The Big Dipper is bright above us. The Cherokee call it the Seven Brothers. Jefferson always wanted to have brothers.

“I would never take anything away from you,” he whispers.

My heart cracks a little. “Not on purpose, you wouldn’t. But that’s how the world works. It’s not something you can change just by being good.”

“Can’t you?”

I’m all talked out. I’ve got no words left in me, just a hint of sadness and a bucketful of stubbornness, and it occurs to me that maybe I’m ending up a lot like my mama.

As if sensing my thoughts, Jefferson’s arms come up around my shoulders, and he pulls me tight to his wide chest. He smells of campfire smoke and fresh dirt, and there must be a bit of gold dust caught in the seam of one of his sleeves because it sets my belly to buzzing.

His head bends toward mine, and his whisper tickles my ear. “I’m going to change your mind about marriage, Leah Elizabeth Westfall. Just you wait.”

And I have to consider that maybe there isn’t any gold at all. Maybe it’s Jefferson himself that has my skin all shivery and my breath a bit ragged.

I sleep late, finally missing a sunrise. That’s the rule—if you take a watch, you get some extra shut-eye. When the scent of sizzling bacon and the clang of breakfast dishes fill my lean-to, I turn over and pull my bedroll over my ears.

I’m drifting pleasantly away when Nugget and Coney start barking their furry heads off. I groan. From the lean-to beside mine comes the sounds of stirring; Jefferson and Martin can’t sleep through this god-awful racket neither.

I’m deciding whether to wait out the barking, or give in to the morning and fetch myself some breakfast, when Olive comes rushing over.

“It’s Mr. Dilley and his men,” she whispers, low and fast. “They’ve found us. Ma says you have to come quick.”

My sleep fog clears like it’s been whisked away by a violent wind. I throw off the bedroll and reach for my boots as Olive runs to pass the message to Jefferson.

I stumble from the lean-to and blink against the cold sunshine. I grab my rifle and start loading as I head toward the breakfast area. Nugget and Coney come trotting over and follow at my heels. I’m glad for their company.

“Well, if it isn’t Mr. Lee McCauley!” says Frank Dilley from atop his dun gelding. He’s clean-shaven now, except for a thick black mustache. Someone should tell him that he’ll never be a gentleman, no matter how much wax he uses to make it curl and point.

Nearly a dozen men are with him, all mounted. I recognize most of the faces from our wagon train. “No skirts today, pretty boy? You know what they say; nothing like a little gold mining to put hair on your chest.” He guffaws at his own joke, and his eyes drift meaningfully below my neck. Ever since everyone discovered that I’m really a girl, I haven’t bothered to wrap myself with Mama’s shawl. My true shape is plain as day to anyone with eyes.

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