Like a River Glorious Page 16

“What are you doing here, Dilley?” I glance around our camp, weighing our options. Jefferson and the Major stand nearby, guns at the ready. Martin Hoffman is holding the Joyner baby, but he eyes the powder horn hanging from the corner of his lean-to. Hampton is out of sight, to my relief—Dilley and his men would surely recognize Bledsoe’s former slave—and the college men are late abed, having taken second watch. Becky Joyner bustles around her breakfast table, serving miners as if nothing is amiss, but her shoulders are tense and her lips are pressed thin.

“Just thought we’d call on some old friends,” Dilley says.

“Friends?” Martin exclaims, loud enough that the baby starts to fuss. “My sister . . . You left us to die in the desert, you good-for-nothing son of a—”

“I thought you’d be out prospecting by now,” I interrupt with a warning look in Martin’s direction.

The miners at Becky’s table are murmuring among themselves, casting unfriendly glances toward the newcomers. Old Tug whispers something to Becky, and she whispers something back. He pulls his Colt revolver from his hip and places it on the table beside his plate.

“Only fools try to mine once the weather turns,” Dilley answers. “Anybody with common sense is in Sacramento, looking for work before the rains hit. But we heard about a mixed group of folks up this way, Northerners, some Southerners, a German boy, and we figured it had to be you. Wanted to see for ourselves, didn’t we, boys?”

“So you aren’t mining, and you aren’t working,” Jefferson points out. “Who’s the fool?”

“Your shirt has a bullet hole,” Dilley says. “Shooting your mouth off finally get you shot?”

The Major swings forward on his crutch. “I see you’ve come to make friends, like always.”

“Wally.” Dilley acknowledges him with a tip of his hat. He spits a stream of tobacco onto the ground beside his horse, and the gelding flicks his tail in irritation. “Nice to see you up and about, even if you’re not the man you used to be.”

“I’m twice the man you ever were,” the Major says cheerfully. “Even with half as many legs.”

“Tidy little settlement you got here. Looks like you’ve found some color.”

“Not much,” the Major lies. “But we’re hopeful.”

“Then where’d you get all this gear?”

“I sold some heirloom jewelry,” Becky pipes in, bringing a pot of porridge from the box stove to the table.

“Glad the baby turned out fine,” Dilley says, with a chin lift in Martin’s direction. The Hoffman boy is patting the baby’s bottom to keep her quiet. “Hope he got the right number of fingers and toes.”

“She does,” Becky says, spooning lumpy porridge into Old Tug’s bowl. “No thanks to you.”

“You still haven’t said what you’re doing here, Frank Dilley,” I say.

“We’re following all the streams to their sources, seeing who has which claims. My boy Jonas here”—he tilts his head in the direction of Jonas Waters, his foreman—“he’s recording everything, official-like.”

“Official for who?”

“For somebody who knows his business. When all the placer gold plays out, and you’re going hungry, he’ll be ready to buy up the good claims and get to some real mining.” He waves a hand dismissively at our camp. “I ain’t made up my mind yet whether this claim looks like it’ll amount to anything.”

“That so?” I say.

“But the gentleman we’re working for, a fine rich man who knows gold mining, from Georgia, he’s also been asking around about his niece.”

The world tilts.

“Pretty sure he means you,” Dilley continues, grinning like a kitten that’s snuck some cream. “Pretty sure he’ll be awful glad when I tell him where you’re holed up.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I whisper.

Old Tug rises from the table. Several others stand with him. “Well, sir, I expect you best get on with it,” Tug says. “Lots of streams, lots of claims, lots of miles to cover.”

Dilley’s mustache twitches. “And who’re you?”

“Name’s Tuggle. Me and the rest of these boys”—he gestures around the table—“hail from Ohiya. But nowadays, we Buckeyes are neighbors to Widow Joyner and Miss Leah here, and we come to pay our respects every day.”

Frank Dilley and Old Tug stare at each other for a spell. Dilley’s eyes make a sweep of Tug’s companions, noting their shiny new Colts.

Finally Dilley tips his hat. “A good day to you, Mr. McCauley. And you, too, Jefferson.” He smirks at his own joke. “I won’t say good-bye—I expect we’ll see you again.”

“I expect so,” I mutter.

The Missouri men turn their horses to skirt the pond and head upstream. I gasp with the realization: when they reach the top of the rapids, there’ll be a vantage point, a brief break in the trees that will allow them to see our entire camp and most of our claim land. It means they’ll be able to spot Hampton.

“Andy!” I whisper. He’s helping his ma take up the dishes, but he comes running. “Go to the corral and find Hampton. As fast as you can. Tell him to get out of sight and stay out of sight.”

“Okay, Lee.” He gestures to the dogs. “C’mon, Coney. C’mon, Nugget.” And he’s off, pumping his chubby legs as fast as he can, the dogs at his heels.

A hand settles on my shoulder. “That was good thinking,” says the Major.

“Frank Dilley’s going to tell my uncle where I am,” I say.

The Major gives my shoulder a squeeze. “We all knew he’d come looking, once he settled in.”

“We’ll be ready,” Jefferson says, his face fierce.

Becky clears her throat. “Well, would you look at that,” she calls out. “I made too many eggs today. Free seconds for everyone!”

Old Tug and his friends whoop and cheer and slap one another on the backs, and for the first time, I’m glad to have them around. Becky was right to cultivate some goodwill.

The college men tumble from their lean-to, bleary-eyed, suspenders hanging at their hips. Jasper yawns and stretches. “What’d we miss?”

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