Like a River Glorious Page 18

He wipes his mouth with the back of his sleeve and clears his throat. “I got something to say,” he informs us, and everyone looks up expectantly. “I’ve found enough gold, with Lee’s help here”—he indicates me with a lift of his chin—“to buy my freedom and that of my wife back in Arkansas.”

Becky gasps. “Hampton, that’s wonderful news,” she says.

The Major reaches over and claps him on the back. Jasper raises his tin cup, which is purportedly filled with water, though my money’s on whiskey. “To Hampton’s freedom!” Jasper says, and we all lift cups or forks in echo.

“Are you going to leave us?” I ask.

Hampton shakes his head. “Not yet. Maybe never. I need to figure out how to go about this. Do it in a way that doesn’t put the slave catchers after me.”

He’s made himself scarce the whole time we’ve been in California—leaving for the corral to care for the oxen and horses before the sun is up, working his claim all day, joining us only after dark for meals. Talking to folks at Mormon Island, it became clear that the general mood of California is anti-slavery, that once it joins the union, it will probably be as a free state. But I don’t blame Hampton for not wanting to take any chances.

Tom Bigler sits at the rough-hewn table behind us, the one Major Craven made for Becky. He places his elbows on the surface and leans forward. “Want some help?” he asks.

Hampton shoots him a grin. “That’s why I brought it up. I want everything clean and legal. Unbreakable.”

“It would be an honor,” Tom says. “I need to consult with one of my books first, but I think I can figure out how to draw up the sale offer without revealing your location.”

“I’d appreciate that.”

“After the sale’s done,” Becky says, “will you go for your wife?”

“I was hoping we could send somebody white for her. I don’t ever want to set foot in Arkansas or any other slave state again if I can help it.”

“We know some abolitionists who could help with this sort of thing,” Tom says. “I’ll write a letter in the morning to Reverend Sturtevant.”

Hampton leans forward. “Who’s that?”

“He’s the president of Illinois College, and my mathematics professor. He’ll know who to contact, and he’ll be wholly circumspect. I won’t even mention your name.”

Hampton settles back with a nod, but I can see the gears spinning in his head. Sometimes when you say something out loud and ask for help with it, it becomes real in a way it never was before.

Becky’s smile is soft and yearning. “I’d dearly love to have another woman around to talk to.”

Jefferson chokes on his biscuit.

“Not that Lee isn’t a woman,” she amends hastily. To me she says, “It’s just that you’re always out working the claims, as God ordained for you to do.”

I smile to show I take no offense. “I wouldn’t mind some female company either,” I tell her, with a pang for my friends Lucie and Therese. Both gone home now, one to Oregon, the other to that great beyond.

Therese’s brother, Martin, is bouncing the baby on his knee, and the tiny thing babbles happily. “I need to get to Sacramento sometime this winter,” Martin says. “See if I can figure out how to send some of my money home. It would be a nice surprise if it was waiting for my family when they got back to Ohio.”

“I’m confident there’s a way to do that,” Tom assures him.

“I’m short on medical supplies,” Jasper says. “I need a few things you can’t find at Mormon Island. I may have to go all the way to San Francisco for them.”

“Actually,” Becky says, “I need to go to San Francisco, too.”

“You do?” I say.

Becky drops biscuit batter into a cast-iron pan, where it sizzles and steams. “Before we left Tennessee,” she explains, “Mr. Joyner had our entire house dismantled and sent to San Francisco by way of Panama.”

I had forgotten about that.

“My home and everything in it—furniture, dishes, knickknacks—are all waiting for me somewhere in the harbor.”

“Sounds like trips to Sacramento and San Francisco are in order,” Jasper says cheerfully. “I’m keen to see the Pacific Ocean. Can you imagine it? More water than even Lake Michigan.”

“It’s not that easy,” Becky says, wiping her hands on her apron. “Andrew passed on, God rest his soul. I have all his documentation in my trunk, but I’m just a woman. None of it belongs to me.”

We all exchange looks of alarm. That she could come all this way, children in tow, nursing her sick husband for more than half the journey—only to lose everything?

“I’m thinking they might hand it over on behalf of my son,” she continues, indicating little Andy. His face is smeared with mashed beans, and his feet knock the bench as he swings them back and forth. “As eldest son, he stands to inherit. Surely I have rights as his mother and guardian?”

Tom rubs at his chin. “Let me think about this, Mrs. Joyner. I’m sure there’s a way. If we get your property released, would you have it shipped here?”

She raises a chin and primly says, “I would indeed.”

“Anyone on that boat ever lay eyes on your husband?” Major Craven asks.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. Everything was handled through my father’s solicitor.”

The Major’s eyes take on a mischievous twinkle. “Then one of us can pose as Mr. Joyner.”

Becky gasps. “But . . . that would be . . . I couldn’t . . .”

“Just think about it,” he says.

“It wouldn’t be exactly legal,” Tom says, and the Major glares at him. “But sometimes, the law doesn’t embody justice the way we’d like,” he adds.

“It’s an elegant solution to a tricky problem,” Jasper says.

“Maybe,” she murmurs doubtfully.

“I’ve got no reason to go to San Francisco or Sacramento or anywhere,” Jefferson declares. “So I volunteer to stay right here and watch our claims.”

“If someone poses as my husband,” Becky muses, “then I could stay, too. Keep feeding those miner boys.”

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