Like a River Glorious Page 22

Minutes pass, or maybe an hour, as we slap and shovel and douse.

Gradually the fire succumbs to our will. The shanty flames fade, though choking black smoke still billows from hidden embers. The cabin turns to cinders. Even the tree torch is conquered, when the Indians do something I can’t see that makes it topple—burning branches and all—onto the remains of the cabin, where they’re able to safely beat out the fire.

The eastern horizon is hinting at dawn when a light rain begins to fall. Henry lets out a whoop of relief.

The Indians glance around at one another. They exchange a few angry words I don’t understand, then they begin to leave, as swiftly and surprisingly as they came.

“Wait!” Jefferson calls out.

One of the Indians turns back, an older woman with a marked face—charcoal-colored lines stretch from her bottom lip to her chin. Her necklace is thicker and longer than any of the others.

One of the men comes up and stands behind her. He’s a short but muscular man, with a beaded necklace and a pattern of dots on his bare chest. He makes no obvious threat, but it’s clear he’ll allow her to come to no harm.

Jefferson rushes back toward his half-burned shanty, to the pile of items I rescued. He grabs his bedroll, which is an enormous buffalo hide we acquired on a fateful hunt, months ago. He brings it back and offers it to the Indian woman.

“Thank you,” he says.

Her black eyes widen. She runs a forefinger over the thick brown fur, as if considering. After a moment, she and the man nod to each other. She takes the hide in her arms, and the two of them turn away and disappear into the trees with the rest of their companions.

 

 

Chapter Seven


We are left alone in the predawn chill. The remains of our camp, of everything we’ve worked so hard for, smolder around us.

“All the chickens are dead,” Tom says. Then he bends over, coughing.

Jasper and the Major crest the hill. Hampton is dragged between them, his arms wrapped around their shoulders for support. His head lolls, and his gaze is oddly unfocused, but his eyes are wide open and blinking. I’m so glad to see him alive that a tear leaks from my right eye and dribbles down my cheek.

“Is he . . . Will he . . .” It’s Olive, slunk up beside me. I look down to see her lower lip trembling.

“He’s fine,” Jasper says. “Concussed, is all. Small burn on his arm. He’ll have an awful headache for a few days, and he won’t be keeping food down anytime soon, but he’ll make it.”

“Something hit me,” Hampton murmurs. “Back of my head.”

Jefferson’s eyes find mine. Hampton wasn’t the only one on watch tonight. “Martin,” we both say at once.

The Major pulls his Colt from his holster. “I’m coming with you.”

“Me too,” says Tom.

Becky looks around at our ruined camp. Faint daylight is changing everything from black to sick gray. “I’ll just . . . I guess I’ll start to clean. . . .” All of a sudden she crumples to the ground, into a lump of sooty skirts. Her face falls into her hands, and her back heaves as she silently weeps.

“I’ll stay with Widow Joyner,” Henry says meekly.

The rest of us fan out to search. If everyone is as tuckered as I am, they can hardly lift one leg to put in front of the other, and every smoke-scarred breath feels like a major battle. That doesn’t stop any of us from breaking into a jog, or from calling Martin’s name at the top of our lungs.

The Major heads back toward the corral, Tom skirts the pond and veers south toward the American River. Jefferson and I climb upstream past the rapids. It’s still too dark to see well. As we clamber over tumbled boulders and weave through the trees, I worry that we might pass within a few feet of Martin and never notice.

We’re well past my claim now and into Jefferson’s. The land is even rockier here, shale poking out of the sod, ready to trip unwary feet. The only trees able to grow in this landscape are sprawling, monstrous oaks, with their relentless roots and heavy trunks. Clumps of mistletoe hang in their highest branches, and I realize it must be getting lighter if I can make out the mistletoe.

“Martin!” Jefferson calls again. His voice is scraped, like he’s swallowed a bucket of sand.

“Martin!” I echo, but my voice is too raw to carry far.

We pause at the edge of Jefferson’s claim, where it borders Hampton’s land. One of the stakes has been snapped in half, the splintered end sticking up from meager golden grass. We exchange an alarmed glance.

“Lee,” Jefferson says in a near whisper, “I’m scared.”

His words give leave for fear to come pouring into my own self. “Me too.”

“I mean, after what happened to Therese . . .”

“I know.” I reach out and grab his hand. It feels gritty in mine, and I wince when he squeezes back; my blisters must be enormous. But as we step forward, neither of us lets go.

The ground turns hard beneath our feet, and my gold sense goes from bees swirling a hive to raging tornado. Hampton’s claim has always been the best. Even if Martin was carrying a little extra gold on his person, I wouldn’t be able to find him in this maelstrom.

Jefferson stops suddenly, yanking on my hand. “Did you hear something?”

Just the usual: mountain jays joyously greet the day, while the creek rushes over the rocks and wind teases the tree branches. “There’s a lot of gold here, and when I’m buzzing like this, I don’t hear and see so well.”

He is silent a moment, listening. Then: “This way.” He drags me toward a lone digger pine, growing against all odds out of a rocky slope. Giant pinecones litter our path. We kick them aside, and they go rolling down the hill toward the creek.

I see his hand first, pale and bloody against a patch of dark shale.

“No!” Jefferson shouts, and the pain in his voice echoes my own. I rip my hand from Jefferson’s grasp and run forward, then fall to my knees at Martin’s side.

He lies on his back, eyes wide and blinking rapidly at the morning sky. Blood pools on the rock beneath his head; it’s already sticky and dark. His right leg bends in a bad place, just below the knee, so that his foot is unnaturally canted to the side.

“I’ve been calling,” he whispers, in a voice even rawer than mine. “Calling and calling for hours.”

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