Like a River Glorious Page 19

“What about you, Lee?” Hampton says. “Staying or going?”

“I’d love to see the ocean, too,” I admit. “But if Jefferson’s staying, I’m staying.”

My neck warms as everyone stares at me, Jefferson hardest of all. But it’s true. He’s the best friend I’ve ever had, and those months traveling all alone were some of the worst of my life. I’m not losing him again. Besides, I feel safe here, where I know the people and every hill and tree. I don’t want to go someplace strange right now, where I might turn around a corner and run into Frank Dilley or my uncle.

“Blast!” Becky exclaims, and we all look up, startled. I can’t remember hearing her cuss before. “Burned them again,” she says, frowning down at her pan. “You know, one of these days, those miners are going to figure out that I’m a terrible cook.”

No one says anything for a moment. Then Henry starts to giggle, then little Olive, and soon we’re all laughing like it’s the Fourth of July.

I’m snuggling down into my bedroll. From the shanty beside mine come the sounds of movement—a dropped boot, a snuffed lamp. Jefferson is settling down, too, and I close my eyes against a sudden pang of lonesomeness. We used to sleep side by side, Jefferson and me, when everyone thought we were just two friends traveling together. Sometimes we’d whisper long into the night, or at least until Becky’s husband thumped the floor of his wagon to tell us to shut it. I guess I got used to the sound of Jeff’s breathing, of feeling his presence beside me all through the night. Once in a while, he’d even reach out and hold my hand.

I didn’t think much of it then. I thought he was sweet on Therese, that the hand-holding was just his way of showing kindness to an old friend. But I see the truth of it now. It was a declaration, maybe even a promise.

Jefferson wants a lot more from me than a little hand-holding. He wants me. And as I lie here all alone, feeling colder without him, I have to admit that maybe I want him right back.

I need to put it from my mind and get some shut-eye before Hampton comes to wake me for my watch shift. I close my eyes tight and try to think of pleasant things, like the way Peony’s winter coat is coming in, making her look like a fuzzy cat with hooves, or the genuine mirth in Becky’s face when we all laughed about her cooking.

In the distance, Coney barks. Which is nothing curious, but then Nugget joins him, and soon the two of them are caterwauling something awful. With a sigh, I throw off my bedroll and reach for my boots. Someone has to check it out, just in case something is truly amiss, and since I’m not sleeping, it might as well be me.

I stumble from my tent, rubbing at sleepy eyes. It’s darker than dark, with not even a moon to light my path as I feel my way through our shanties in the direction of the corral. I grab the oil lamp from its place beneath Becky’s awning and take a moment to light it.

The acrid scent of smoke pricks at my nostrils. We stomped out the fire pit hours ago, and the woodstove inside Becky’s cabin sends its smoke high into the sky. Maybe it’s one of our neighbors, a mile or more distant. The wind through these hills can be tricky.

Nugget’s barking takes on a frenzy. A sick worry wriggles at the back of my head.

“Jefferson!” I holler, without thinking. He needs his sleep too, but something is wrong out there in the dark, I just know it, and Jeff is always the person I think of first when I’m in a predicament.

The Major barrels out of his shanty holding a lantern. He swings forward on his crutch, moving faster than I can believe. “What’s going on?” he says.

“Not sure. The dogs are after something. Hampton and Martin should be walking the perimeter out there.”

Jefferson comes running, rifle in one hand, ramrod in the other. The strap of his powder horn is clutched in his teeth, and the horn bangs at his chest. “Martin and Hampton still making their rounds?” he says around a mouthful of leather.

“Haven’t seen either.”

He starts loading his rifle. “Let’s find them. Major, wake the college men and make sure they’re ready for anything. Then check on the Joyners in the cabin.”

“I’ll join you afterward,” the Major says, and heaves off in the direction of the college men’s shanty. Those boys would sleep through anything if we let them.

“You got that five-shooter loaded?” Jefferson asks, with a chin lift in the direction of the gun at my hip.

“Yes, sir!” I say with a mock salute.

His glimmer of an answering grin fades quick. “It’s probably nothing, but . . .”

“Better safe than sorry,” I finish for him.

We head down the hill toward the corral and pasture. “With Hampton and Martin out there, we can’t just shoot at any old thing,” he says as we walk. My lantern barely lights our way, and we have to step carefully. “So keep your eyes open and your ears pricked.”

“Always.”

“Sure wish you’d consider replacing that old thing with a Colt. Better range, faster loading, and beautiful to boot.” I can’t see his face in the dark, but I hear the smile in his voice. He knows why I won’t give up my five-shooter. “Wait.” He puts up a hand. “Do you smell smoke?”

“Thought I smelled it earlier. But there are camps all through these hills. No telling where it’s coming from.”

“The oxen are making a bit of a racket.”

“Let’s hurry.”

We near the bottom of the hill. The pine trees break onto a meadow, which is just a wide smear of darkness to our eyes. Hampton’s fence posts enter the circle of light cast by my lantern, then the oxen, and just beyond them are the lumpy shapes of our horses. All our creatures are milling about, tossing their heads. Peony dances back and forth, stepping high.

“Hampton!” I call out. “Everything all right?”

No answer. Jefferson and I exchange a worried look.

“Maybe he walked a wide circuit tonight, to see what had the dogs all worked up.”

“Maybe.” The dogs’ barking is distant now. “Nugget!” I call out. “Coney!”

Jefferson whistles for the dogs, a trick I haven’t mastered. I climb over the log fence into the corral and make my way toward Peony. The scent of smoke grows stronger.

“How are you doing, girl?” I say soothingly. She tosses her head, but she settles and lets me plant a kiss on her nose. “I smell it, too,” I say when she snorts.

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