Like a River Glorious Page 24

“He broke his back,” Jasper says gently. “His spinal cord was near severed by the fall. His organs were shutting down. If that didn’t kill him, the blow to the head would have. His skull was in tatters. It’s a wonder he survived as long as he did.”

“Oh,” Becky says. I’m glad she asked, because I had the same questions.

Jefferson turns back around. His eyes are wet. “His Colt’s missing,” he says. “It wasn’t enough they killed him. They robbed him, too.”

Henry squeezes his shoulder. “Come on, give me a hand with him.”

Henry and Jefferson lift Martin—Henry at the shoulders and Jefferson at the feet. Jeff’s face is desolate. He looks so awful that I yearn to run over to him, wrap my arms around him, let him cry into my shoulder. Or maybe I want to cry into his. First Therese and now Martin. The poor Hoffmans will curse the day they decided to head west. To come all this way for nothing, except to lose two children.

But I can’t let myself float down that river right now. Instead I get to my feet, heaving Olive up with me. She clings tight, so I continue to hold her as I follow everyone back to our burned-out camp.

The Major returns just as we do. He carries something on his back, wrapped around his neck.

“No!” Jefferson yells. He sets Martin’s feet down and runs forward.

It’s Nugget, and her golden fur is slick with blood.

“She was shot,” the Major says.

Olive squirms from my grasp and I let her go, suddenly numb. I’m not sure I can stand on my own feet anymore. I’ve known Nugget since she was a wriggly puppy. She came all the way across the continent from Georgia with us.

Jefferson leans forward to kiss his dog’s muzzle. Nugget’s tail thumps once, weakly, and her pink tongue snakes out to lap clumsily at his face.

“She’s alive!” Jefferson exults. “You dumb girl, what did you go and get yourself shot for?”

“It’s her back leg,” the Major says. “She can’t walk right now, but I don’t think the bone’s broke.”

That does it. Tears burst from me like a dam breaking. I don’t know how I’ve held it together until now, only to lose it over a bit of happiness, but I fall to my knees and quake with sobs.

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Through tears, I note the Buckeyes, led by Old Tug, start to trickle into our camp. They’ve worn a path up the creek and around the pond by now. I hastily wipe at my face and try to get myself under control.

“I’m so sorry,” I hear Becky say in a shaky voice. “I don’t have breakfast for you gentlemen today.”

The Buckeyes survey our camp, faces grave. They seem to come to a silent agreement. Old Tug grabs a shovel. Another man dons his gloves. Without hesitation, without a word, they get to work cleaning up.

Olive’s gaze turns fierce. She strides over to the Major and Jefferson, who are now kneeling over Nugget’s prone form. “I’m going to fix you up, Nugget,” she says, hand on her hips. “Just you watch and see.”

We bury Martin in the meadow. The dirt is too shallow for a proper grave. Like we did for his sister months ago, we bury him as best we can, then pile rocks on top, high and thick to mark the resting place of our friend. I take the Major’s ax and chop down a couple of pine branches, strip them, and lash them together to make a rickety cross, which Jefferson pounds into the ground like a claim stake.

It takes two days of light rain for the ruins to cool enough to sort through properly. The woodstoves fared the best. They are ugly now, tarnished black, and one of the door hinges is stuck, swollen and slightly melted by the heat. The Major takes a file and spends a day working it out until it opens and closes with barely more than a hiccup. All our oil’s burned, so there’s nothing he can do about the final little squeak.

Everything inside the cabin was lost—all the Joyners’ remaining furniture, their bedding, Becky’s cooking supplies and food stores, her stationery and fancy feather pen, and a whole box of ammunition. Her quick dash inside as the fire was raging wasn’t for naught, though. She still has the papers proving her husband’s ownership of the cargo in San Francisco, and she still has a small bag filled with coins and bits of gold—payments she received for her breakfasts.

There was another bag of gold she didn’t find when she dashed inside, the one filled with dust panned by Olive and Andy, along with the occasional pinch of gold from one of the miners. But on the second day, Tom lifts up a blackened pine branch and the remains of a chair to reveal a thin, lumpy sheet of golden metal on the ground. The gold dust melted in its bag and re-formed into this flat, round thing, like one of Becky’s clumsy flapjacks, except it shines in the light when the ash is brushed away.

Gold doesn’t melt easily. Something made this fire extra hot.

The chest I dragged from the college men’s shanty turns out to be full of odds and ends—clothes, tools, candles, pens, and ink. But it was so heavy because it also contained books from their time at Illinois College. When they realize I saved the books, Henry bursts into tears, and Tom wraps his arms around me and hugs me so tight I worry he’ll never let go.

Peony, Sorry, Apollo, and Artemis wander back to their half-burned corral without being rounded up. We find the Joyners’ gelding a mile away, nibbling happily on a thick patch of poison oak. He seems plenty glad to see us, though, and lets us halter him and lead him back home.

We’ll likely never see the oxen or the cart horse again.

With the Buckeyes’ help, we clean and salvage and sort. The children pitch in when they can, but sometimes they’re so underfoot that Becky sends them off to pan for gold. She makes them stay within sight, though. No one goes anywhere alone anymore.

On the evening of the second day, we all hunker around the fire pit on logs recently cut to replace our destroyed furniture. Becky didn’t much feel like cooking, and no one blamed her, so we eat cold oats soaked in water, with a bit of bacon and salt for flavor. Old Tug and a few of the Buckeyes are with us. They worked hard all day, and the least we can do is let them join us for supper.

Even Hampton has joined us. Jasper isn’t comfortable letting him off alone, not until he’s sure that concussion is long gone, and not while people are shooting at us and setting fire to our camp.

I watch the Buckeyes close. A few of them give Hampton measured looks.

“Didn’t know you had yourselves a Negro,” Old Tug says.

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