Like a River Glorious Page 30

Old Tug says, “You think maybe we can go over your uncle’s head to whoever is pulling his strings.”

Becky frowns. “Isn’t that leapfrogging a demon to make a deal with the devil?”

“I hope not,” I say.

“We need you here,” Jasper says. “You’re—” He glances around at the Buckeyes. “Um . . . essential to our undertaking.”

I glare at him. He’s about as subtle as a charging buffalo.

“Lee’s right,” the Major says.

“What?” Becky practically shrieks, and the Major winces. “You can’t possibly think—”

“He won’t kill her,” he insists. “And if anyone can talk to him, maybe it’s his niece. But Lee . . .” He turns to me. “If you leave, and you don’t come back in a reasonable amount of time, we’re coming after you.”

A few of the Buckeyes nod agreement, trying to look serious and fierce. But it’s just bluster. They hardly know me at all.

“You saved my life,” the Major continues, indicating his amputated leg. “You and Jasper. Don’t think I’ve forgotten. So just because I think sending you to Sacramento is the right strategic decision, it doesn’t mean I’m turning my back on you.”

“I’m going with her,” Jefferson says.

“No, absolutely not,” the Major says. “Next to Lee, you’re the best marksman in this outfit. We need you here.”

“Jeff, I vowed I’d find out who did this to us and end him. If that means confronting my uncle, then it’s something I’ve got to do. If I don’t go, my uncle and Frank Dilley will keep hurting people I care about. And the Major is right; they need you here.”

“No.” He snaps out the word so hard and angry that I recoil. He takes one long stride forward and grabs my shoulders. “I’m not getting separated from you again, understand? Be as stubborn as you want; it doesn’t matter. Where you go, I go.”

He’s a whole head taller than me now, with shoulders that block the sun and a black-eyed gaze as fierce as I’ve ever seen. I should feel small next to him, but I don’t. I feel bigger, too, like we can do anything together.

Jeff says, “Those weeks traveling to Independence, after I left Georgia. They were a torment. I thought I’d made the worst mistake of my life, leaving my best friend behind. But then you showed up in Independence, and I got a second chance, and hell take me, but I’m never leaving you all alone again.”

Everyone around us has gone silent. The Major glares at us both. Old Tug studies me, eyes narrowed beneath his bushy brows. If he has any brain in his head, he’s trying to reconcile Jefferson’s little speech with the fib I told him about a beau back in Georgia.

“I’m going, too,” Tom says, stepping forward.

“What? No!” Henry exclaims.

“They’ll need someone with knowledge of the law,” Tom says, his voice gentling. “Property law, especially. Lee’s uncle will try to make a claim on her. Someone needs to make sure he has no legal recourse.”

We talk it out awhile longer, arguing back and forth, but in the end it’s decided. Jefferson, Tom, and I will gear up and leave for Sacramento in two days.

The Major sits on a log, whittling at an oak branch. I can’t tell what he’s making, but he goes at it with the same fervor that Nugget and Coney get digging a hole, forgetting the world around them. He’s a man with busy hands, that’s for sure. He’s always carving, hammering, or sewing something. I’ve seen him create tables and benches, shoes, halters, and even a leather tie necklace for Olive, which he made by boring a hole into a bit of quartz and working the leather strap through. Afterward, he declared himself the finest jeweler in all of Glory, California.

“What do you want, Lee?” he practically growls.

“You’re spitting mad at me, Major, and I ought to know why.”

He sets the branch down in his lap, pointy end sticking off to the side, and looks up at me. “This trip to Sacramento,” he says. “It’s an awful risk. And you’re taking my best man with you.”

“Well, he’s my best man, too.”

His gaze softens. “I know, Lee. I truly do. It’s just . . .” He stares off in the direction of Becky’s breakfast table. She bustles around, refilling coffee, avoiding stray hands, checking on the porridge, wiping up a spill. All the while, she smiles and smiles. No power in the world can shake that smile.

“You’ve got the Buckeyes to help now,” I remind him. “They’re pulling their weight just fine. They never complain about watch shifts. They’re only drunk sometimes. Some of them even help rebuild.”

He sighs. “But they’re doing it all for her. Their intentions are . . . I just don’t trust them, not one bit.”

Ah. So that’s it.

I settle beside him on the log and stretch out my legs. “You’re sweet on her,” I say softly. “Aren’t you.”

He grabs his branch and starts whittling like the fate of all California depends on it. Swick, swick, swick, goes the knife.

“You mean like Jefferson’s sweet on you?” His tone is accusatory, but his cheeks are burning red.

“Yes,” I say honestly. “That’s what I mean.”

“Don’t matter,” he says, scowling down at his branch.

“How so?”

“She’s the finest lady I ever knew. Too fine for me.”

“I don’t think—”

“She’s beautiful and young and so learned. Did you know she speaks Latin? Latin! Those fine manners, that smile . . . She’s bewitching every bachelor west of Indian Territory without even trying, and probably a few married men besides.”

“Not the college men,” I say with a smile.

He snorts. “No, not them. But Widow Joyner will never look twice at me when she can have her pick. She’s had four proposals already, and those are just the ones I know about.”

I almost laugh. Becky has been looking twice at the Major, all right. And three and four times besides.

It’s a glorious morning, with a sky blue as cornflowers touching down on distant mountain peaks that shine white with snow. The oaks and aspens are losing their leaves, making the distant woods feel stark and barren, but it’s a beautiful barrenness, all wild and thick. A giant condor circles above, and I reckon we appear tiny and insignificant to him, like ants on a hill.

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