Like a River Glorious Page 2

“Lee?” Jefferson whispers, his eyes glazing. “I think I’m shot.”

I have to find cover. I have to get him somewhere safe. A shot zings past my ear. The horses neigh in panic. I drag Jefferson back toward the line of pines, his heels digging furrows in the damp earth.

“Everyone, get behind the wagon!” the Major yells.

Gunpowder scent fills my nose as more shots ring out.

We reach the trees. I spot the thickest trunk and yank Jefferson behind it. He settles gingerly to a sitting position. “It’s not that bad,” he says, but his dark Cherokee complexion has gone white like curdled cream.

I crouch beside him. I itch to grab my gun, to run and make sure the little ones are hidden away. But not until I know Jefferson is safe. “Show me,” I demand.

He shifts to reveal his right flank. His shirt is in tatters and soaked in blood.

“The bullet’s not in me,” he says, and I’m glad to hear the strength in his voice. “It burns a fair bit, but I’ll be fit in no time.”

I yank my kerchief from under my collar and untie it. “Here.” I thrust it toward him. “Wad it up and press it against the wound. I’ll be right back.”

Crouching to make myself small, I creep through the trees toward our wagon and the campsite.

“You be careful, Leah Westfall,” Jefferson whispers at my back.

Through a break in the pine branches, I see the wheels of our wagon. More gunshots rip the air, and I dare to hope some of my people are firing back. I’m desperate to lay eyes on them, to make sure everyone is all right. But until I figure out who is attacking and where they’re coming from, I have to be patient. I have to be a ghost.

I inch forward on silent feet.

There, tucked behind one of the wagon wheels. Little Olive and Andy Joyner are huddled tight, like a ball made of limbs. Olive’s face is streaked with dust and tears, but when she catches my eye and sees me put a finger to my lips, she gives me a quick, brave nod.

The younger Hoffman boys are crouched behind the opposite wheel, their tiny sister, Doreen, sheltered between them. Otto holds his daddy’s pistol clumsily in one hand, like it’s a snake that might bite. I can’t see Mr. Hoffman, but I know he’s nearby; I know it because he carries my mama’s locket now. But not even the sweet siren call of gold can tell me whether he’s alive or dead.

Beside the wagon is the Major’s triangle tent. It’s caved in a bit, and a tiny flag of fabric waves in the breeze near the top—a bullet hole. I hope to God no one is inside.

There’s no sign of Becky Joyner and the baby, the older Hoffmans, the three college men, or Hampton. We left the horses tied up in a nearby meadow, including my precious Peony, but there’s no way to know how she’s doing. I’m not the praying type, but I can’t help slipping a little something heavenward: Please, please let everyone be all right.

More shots crack the air—two from across the river, one due south. Just three people shooting at us, far as I can tell, and only the one rifle between them. The revolvers aren’t much of a menace at this distance, but I need my own rifle and powder horn if I’m to take care of the fellow who winged Jefferson. They’re in the holster of Peony’s saddle, which is laid out across a log on the other side of our still-smoking campfire. Out in the open.

A cry pierces the air. The Joyner baby. It’s followed by shushing and murmuring, which does absolutely nothing to quiet the tiny girl but fills me with so much relief I’m suddenly a little unsteady. Becky and the baby. Both alive.

The guns go silent all at once. The birds have fled, and my companions are as quiet as the grave in their hiding spots, so it’s just Baby Girl Joyner, wailing her little head off to the open sky.

A man’s voice rings out. “Didn’t realize y’all had a baby!”

Only the daft and the desperate attack a camp full of people without scouting it first.

From somewhere to my right, Tom Bigler shouts, “We have six children under the age of ten and some womenfolk besides!” Tom studied law at Illinois College, and he’s been speaking on our behalf more and more since we arrived in California Territory.

“You Mormons?” the strange man calls out. “We don’t hold with Mormons.”

“No, sir,” Tom says. After a pause . . . “Is that why you’re shooting at us?”

I hold my breath. We’ve heard a lot of grumbling about the Mormons since we got here, though as far as I can tell they’re just regular folks who don’t make any trouble. I’d hate to hear we were attacked because someone thought we were Mormons.

But I’d hate it even more to learn they’re my uncle’s men, looking for me. Because that would mean this is all my fault. We haven’t seen Uncle Hiram since that day at Sutter’s Fort, but I’ve been expecting him to come calling, and not in a friendly way.

“This here a good spot for color?” the man hollers. “Found anything?”

Tom doesn’t respond at first, and I know he’s considering his answer. The man’s voice came from the south. Maybe I can creep around our camp and come up behind him. I’ll have to be very slow and careful, like I’m hunting a deer.

I start to creep back, away from the wagon, but Tom’s voice stills me. “This is a very good spot,” he lies.

Our group has been waiting on word from Jefferson and me that we’ve reached a promising location. This stretch of river does have some gold. But not a lot. Not enough to stake claims here. The others think we’ve got an eye for prospecting, us being born and raised in Georgia gold-mining country. But the truth is, I’ve got witchy powers that lead me to gold as sure as the west leads the sun.

“Well, maybe we want this spot for ourselves,” the man says.

Not my uncle’s men, then. Just a few cussed claim jumpers.

“We haven’t staked claims yet,” Tom says. “Got here last night. Already found a bit of dust without even trying. But if you let us pack up and be on our way, we’ll find ourselves another spot, and you can have this one with our blessing.”

A long pause follows, interspersed with mutterings. They can’t get away with this so easily. Not after they shot Jefferson. I’ll be glad to get everyone safe, sure, but I’d almost give up Daddy’s boots to mark their faces. I want to know trouble when it comes at me next.

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