Like a River Glorious Page 25

“Hampton is a free man,” I say, and it comes out snappier than I want.

“Came west with us all the way from Missouri,” Henry chimes in. “We all vouch for him.”

“Glad to hear it,” Old Tug says. “Being from Ohiya, most of us are of an abolitionist spirit. We don’t hold with slavery.” There are murmurs of agreement from the other Buckeyes, and I breathe a sigh of relief. Tug shoots a line of tobacco into the dirt, rubs any residual off his beard, and says, “Having cleared that up, me and some of my boys, we’re thinking of moving our tents here.”

No one says anything.

“We’ll keep our claims where they are,” he continues, “but we’d live here. That is, if you all don’t mind. It’s a mighty fine spot for a town.”

“Wouldn’t have to walk so far for breakfast, neither,” another says.

The college men put their heads together and whisper among themselves. Becky and the Major exchange a look and a nod. Jefferson leans over and whispers, “We should think about it.”

Suddenly all of my companions are looking at me, and I know why. It’s my secret. And it’s probably my uncle who got Martin killed.

Keeping my secret from these men will be hard with them so close. But given recent events, I’m not sure it would put us in any more danger than we’re already in. In fact, having a few rough-looking men hanging around might be a mercy.

I clear my throat. “Well, Mr. Tug, I’m not sure any of us are staying. We haven’t made a decision about whether or not to rebuild and keep trying at our claims.”

He frowns. “Why not?”

“We just lost someone very dear to us,” Becky says gently, a lot more gently than I’d manage. “I don’t know that we can stand to lose even one more soul.” Her voice wavers a bit with that last. She leans down and kisses her baby girl’s forehead, possibly to hide tears.

“Someone set those fires on purpose,” Henry says. “They knocked out the men we had on watch, shot our dog, and set those fires. We’re just not sure it’s safe to stay.”

Old Tug chortles. “Course it ain’t safe, you lily-livered pretty boy. It’s California.”

“It’s particularly not safe for us,” I say.

My companions turn to me, the big question in their eyes: Will I tell him the truth?

“Why? Because you’re a bunch of soft—”

“Because . . . because these are rich claim lands, as you well know. You are your boys are doing just fine, aren’t you? Able to afford a paid breakfast every single day.”

Several nod agreement.

“You can’t keep something like that a secret,” I continue. “Everyone is going to want our land.”

“If it’s anyone’s land,” Jefferson mutters, “it’s the Indians’.”

My face warms. He’s right, and it was a thoughtless thing to say.

Hampton stands. Jasper leans forward, ready to launch himself to help Hampton if he needs it, but the man is steady as an oak on his feet.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Hampton declares. “Just a few days ago, I had a roof to keep my wife comfortable, and a few fixings besides. Almost everything’s gone now, but I’m not giving up. I’m going to get it all back. Every bit.”

He sits back down.

“I’m not leaving either,” Jasper says. “I’ve been doctoring for months now. Maybe even . . .” He shuffles his feet a bit, looking sheepish. “Maybe even saved some lives. I’m doing what I came to do. No sense giving up.”

Tom says, “I haven’t decided.”

“Tom and I are thinking of going to San Francisco,” Henry adds.

“I want to practice law,” says Tom. “That’s what I came to do. San Francisco seems like the place to do it.”

Jefferson says, “I’m going where Lee’s going.”

“Major?” I say, mostly to divert everyone’s sudden attention from Jeff and me.

The Major has a few bits of thick leather in his hand, along with a large bone awl. He’s making shoes for Olive, who recently grew out of her last pair. He takes a deep breath. When he looks up, it’s in Becky’s direction, and his pleading heart is in his eyes.

I catch my breath. He’s carrying a torch, for sure and certain. No, it’s more than that. Major Wally Craven has fallen head over heels in love with Widow Joyner.

“Becky?” he says, his voice almost a whisper.

Becky blinks at him, her cheeks coloring. “I’m frightened,” she admits. “Maybe I ought to go back home to Tennessee, if that’s what it takes to keep my children safe. But . . .” She looks the Major straight in the eye. “I don’t want to.”

Old Tug rubs at his tobacco-stained whiskers. “What do you want, Mrs. Joyner?” His voice is kinder than I’ve ever heard it.

She smiles back. “I want to keep serving you breakfast, Mr. Tug. And all the rest of you Ohio boys. I want to make a home here in California for my children. I want . . .” This time, she looks at me. “I want to stay with my friends.”

I swallow the sudden lump in my throat. “I want to stay, too,” I say. Jasper gives me a wide, relieved smile, but I hold up a hand to forestall any celebration.

There’s no getting around the fact that our very lives are in danger. My friends have gone mad, wanting to stay. Gold fever has made them take leave of their senses. Maybe it’s made me take leave of my senses, too. It’s amazing what a body will risk when there’s a smidge of hope to be had.

“I’m staying on one condition,” I tell them. “I’m going to find out who did this to us. And I’m going to end him. It’s the only way we’ll be safe.”

Old Tug nods agreement, but I only care about the reactions of my friends. They’re nodding, too, even though they know exactly who I suspect, exactly who I’m talking about. My uncle Hiram Westfall did this, as sure as the sun sets over the Pacific.

“Fine by me,” Jefferson says. I look up to find his eyes alight, his face fierce.

“In that case . . .” I turn to Old Tug. “If my companions don’t have any objections, I officially invite you and your boys to join us here. We’d be glad of the extra company.”

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