Like a River Glorious Page 26

The extra gunpower, I mean, and everyone knows it.

Jefferson adds, “As long as you respect our claims and don’t make any trouble.”

Old Tug grins, flashing his tooth. “As long as you respect our claims and don’t make any trouble. We’ll settle in tomorrow.”

 

 

Chapter Eight


Lumber to rebuild doesn’t come easy. We cut so much down for the cabin and the store of firewood—all of which was lost in the fire—that we have to hike a ways to find good trees and then use the horses to lug everything back. Our hill is now scarred black, and the autumn mud has a particular stickiness to it, being full of ash. As we fell more and more trees, even the hills around us turn barren. The wind and rain hit us harder now, and the mud never dries.

The beaver disappear from our pond, and I don’t blame them. We lived in peace with them for a while on opposite ends, hearing their tails smack the water occasionally. With all the Buckeyes setting up tents, I suppose there are just too many people.

The banks of the pond and the outlet creek below lose all their grass, churned up by miners’ boots. Deer that used to visit our meadow in the evenings are nowhere to be seen. Hampton, with the help of a few Ohio men, expands the corral to make room for the new horses. Within a week, the meadow is grazed out. Feed will be a lot more expensive from now on.

The world is changing around us, and we’re the ones changing it. A funny feeling in my gut says we’re not making it better.

I don’t see a single Indian. It niggles at me that even though they’re near enough to help us, they never show themselves. Becky is frightened of them, but I rather suspect they’re frightened of us. Maybe Jefferson is right and this is their land we’re squatting on.

I’m so tired from panning and pickaxing and chopping and carrying and keeping extra watch shifts that my very bones ache. I sleep on cold, wet ground in a threadbare blanket I got in trade for two rabbit skins. Some nights it’s so cold that I take my blanket and sleep in the corral with Peony. The ground is just as churned up with mud, the air just as cold, but she stands sentry over me all night, fast asleep herself more than half the time, and she never steps on me once. It puts a warmth in my heart, if not my skin.

Becky says I can sleep in the cabin with her and the children once it’s rebuilt, and I’m not going to decline. The rebuilding might take a while, though. The college men leave for Mormon Island with our leftover gold and come back with the sad news that most everyone has gone to Sacramento looking for work to wait out the winter, and everything we need is in short supply, especially canvas, hammers, and chickens.

So no shanties, no eggs, no chicken coop, and no cabin for a good long while.

They bring back plenty of oats, bacon, beans, flour, and coffee, though, and the Buckeyes don’t complain one bit about getting the same breakfast almost every morning.

One day I’m late abed after a long night on watch, sleeping close to Jefferson this time, on a hard patch of rock that makes my neck ache but is relatively clean of mud. We’re far away from the noise of camp; it’s the morning sun, shining against my eyelids, that makes me stir. Beside me, closer than is necessarily proper, Jefferson snores as loud as a locomotive.

The camp is as clean as we can make it, and rough lean-tos are starting to replace the shanties that burned down. I’ve found more gold for everyone, carefully and quietly so as not to arouse the Buckeyes’ suspicions. There’s nothing holding me back from making good on my word. Today will be the day I start finding out who tried to burn us out.

I’ll begin by heading downriver to see if those cussed claim jumpers are still there. If anyone knows what’s going on, it’ll be a crew of nosy good-for-nothings whose claim spot allows them to see river traffic all day long. Jefferson will put up a fuss about it. Claim jumpers are dangerous, sure, but so am I.

I blink against sleep, trying to gather the gumption to get up, but my limbs feel as heavy as lead. Maybe just a few more minutes of shut-eye. In his sleep, Jefferson rolls over, and his big arm flings across my shoulders.

I freeze.

Jefferson and I slept side by side the whole way to California, under the Joyners’ wagon or beside it. But it feels different now. Every little accidental touch sets my heart to pounding and my cheeks to flushing.

His snoring abates, which I find suspicious. Maybe he’s just pretending to sleep.

“Jeff?” I whisper.

“You shouldn’t pester a man who’s trying to rest,” he grumbles.

I don’t know what comes over me, but all of its own accord, my body turns over and curls up against his chest. “I’m cold,” I say weakly.

His breath catches. Then his arms pull me even closer, so that our thighs press together and my nose is under his chin. His hand comes up to caress the back of my head, his fingers tangling in my hair. He’s like a woodstove, for how much heat he puts out, and he smells of damp earth and campfires and the tallow he’s been using to protect his saddle.

“Better?” he murmurs into my ear.

“Yes.” Strange how being pressed close makes me so aware of myself. His breath on the curve of my neck, his arm wrapping the small of my back, the way his warm skin makes my lips buzz with the need to—

“May I kiss you?” he whispers.

One heartbeat. Two.

“Okay.”

His lips press against my cheek first, a soft, gentle kiss that sets my belly on fire. He kisses me again, just as gently, but closer to my lips. He smoothens my hair from my forehead, then lets his hand linger against the side of my face, his thumb caressing my cheekbone.

He looks me boldly in the eye, leaving no doubt as to his intentions. “It’s about damn time,” he says. Then his lips meet mine.

They’re soft at first, tentative as if filled with questions, and I wouldn’t know how to answer with words, but other parts of me seem to have plenty to say, because I press into him and snake my arm around his neck so he can’t get away.

He groans a little and deepens our kiss. His hand slips under my shirt to splay against the skin of my back, and just like that I’m lost, not knowing up from down from sideways. I just know Jefferson, who is familiar and strange to me all at once, and this sudden feeling that I can’t get close enough to him. There’s too much space between us, too much air, too many clothes, too much heartbreak.

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