Like a River Glorious Page 17

 

 

Chapter Six


It’s been a week since Frank Dilley’s visit, and the weather has turned. Frost greets us most mornings, and panning in the creek turns my fingers and toes into icicles. Becky’s customers don’t thin out one bit, even though so many have headed into the valley to wait out the winter. Plenty of stubborn folk like us remain. Jefferson and I were raised in mining country, after all. We know the surface gold will play out soon enough, and we’ve only got this winter and the coming spring to find it before we have to start digging pit mines or diverting the creek.

Jefferson and I practice shooting our revolvers. Sometimes, Martin or Tom or Jasper joins us, but I like it best when it’s just Jeff and me. We set pinecones on distant rocks and take turns trying to make them burst apart or at least fly into the air. I’m a better shot than Jefferson, even with his Colt, which has nicer action than my old five-shooter. But I can’t bear to give it up in favor of a Colt of my own, even if the blasted thing is a burden to load all the time. I’ve precious little left of my parents and my life with them.

The college men make another supply run to Mormon Island. This time they find a cow, a milking shorthorn with a shiny red-brown coat. They name her Artemis.

Artemis’s milk nearly dries up the first few days she’s with us, on account of being terrified of Nugget and Coney. But one morning, Hampton finds Nugget curled up happily against Artemis’s warm back, and the big, dumb-eyed cow drops plenty of milk from that day forward. I teach Olive how to use Jasper’s new churn, and Becky is able to add buttered biscuits to her breakfast offerings.

Our lean-tos weren’t much—just pine boughs slanted across rough-hewn wooden posts to keep out the worst of the wind and rain. We’ve converted them into what Old Tug calls “right, proper shanties,” but they look like overgrown woodsheds to me, if woodsheds had canvas roofs.

Jefferson and Henry finish the walls of the log cabin and top it with yet more canvas, promising Becky they’ll build her a real roof come spring, with shingles and all. The cabin is dark as night inside, with a single window covered in paper for now, and a dirt floor that seeps wetness at the edges whenever it rains. It’s drafty—the walls need chinking badly—and it stands a bit lopsided, the peak of the roof rising slightly off-center. But it’s solid, mostly dry, and warm on account of the box stove, and after six months sleeping in or under our wagons, followed by another month in tents or lean-tos, Becky announces that it feels like the finest hotel in the whole wide West.

My chest swells with warmth and pride to return each evening from a hard day’s prospecting. With newcomers lending a hand, our camp has grown into a small town practically overnight, with several buildings, an awning for Becky’s customers, three outhouses, and a corral and pasture—all cozied up to the clear running creek that tumbles into our wide, beautiful beaver pond.

Frank Dilley’s visit with his weaselly land recorder in tow has got Tom fired up. He’s already scheming on how to make the land ours, straight and legal. He says the days of informal mining claims are numbered, that we’ll eventually have to file real claims at a land office, probably by next year. Once we do that, and California becomes a state, we ought to petition for a town charter.

I can hardly believe something as grand and official and permanent as a town can happen just because people settle down and make it so. But that’s how it seems to work, and every evening as I wander back toward the cabin and campfire to greet my friends, it feels like coming home.

Only Jefferson seems displeased. He works as hard as anyone, but whenever Tom gets to discussing property or claim rights or town charters, he goes silent and gloomy.

My job all this time has been to find gold, and I’ve found plenty. Piles of it. My own claim has yielded a fair bit, but Hampton’s has proved out better than anyone could dream. There, I found a small vein hidden in a big slab of slate with quartz outcroppings. It was easily accessible to our pickaxes, and both Martin and Jefferson helped us mine it out.

No one has done better than Becky Joyner, who seems to have found the mother lode by serving bad breakfasts to lonely prospectors. Now that she’s hit on the idea of selling extra biscuits wrapped in kerchiefs for the miners to take along with them, she makes almost fifty dollars per day. Sometimes the men pay in gold. Sometimes they offer goods in return, like a chicken for a hankie full of biscuits, or a sack of oats for a week’s worth of breakfasts. And if they don’t have anything else, they pay in labor, which we make good use of, too.

Everything is going so much better than we could have hoped. We’re going to be rich after a single season, every one of us. It’s marvelous to think on.

And at the same time, my mind just won’t take it in. I watch my flour sack fill with gold until it’s bursting at the seams, and I don’t believe it’s actually mine. I see our camp grow, watch everyone add luxuries—like a second woodstove, an apple sapling, a large henhouse with room to grow, a feed shed beside the corral and pasture. And none of it matters. It’s all temporary.

Because Frank Dilley is going to tell my uncle where I am, as soon as he finishes with his surveying job. Maybe he has already. Uncle Hiram might be on his way here right now. And this fancy little dream about a new home and a new family and more riches than a girl could imagine will meet a quick end.

It’s a brisk fall night that makes us button our collars and don our gloves, but the sky is clear, showing a million sparkling stars, which means we share supper outside the cabin beside the fire pit. We sit beneath Becky’s awning, which traps some of the heat, and use Becky’s too-hard biscuits to mop up platefuls of beans in molasses. An oil lamp hangs from a hook beneath the awning, lighting our meal and the faces around me in soft yellow orange. Crickets chirrup in chorus, punctuated by the occasional protestation from a bullfrog.

Jefferson sits beside me. Our thighs brush occasionally, but neither of us inches away.

While the rest of us finish up, Becky is already hard at work baking for tomorrow—another batch of biscuits, along with a meat pie she’s sure she can sell to someone. Martin Hoffman holds Baby Girl Joyner in one arm while he eats, occasionally giving her a taste of his beans. I suspect he misses his little sister.

Hampton sits at the table across from me. He’s hardly recognizable from the half-starved Negro who followed our wagon train at a distance, gleaning scraps when he could. Regular food and water have filled him out, giving his face a healthy roundness. His strength has grown, too. I’ve seen him flip sheep upside down with hardly more than a thought, and he can wrestle Sorry into submission with a few tugs on her halter.

Prev Next