Like a River Glorious Page 35

My belly roils with nausea, and my very bones groan with pain. Dilley feeds us hardtack and coffee, but what I need is water. One night after we’ve made camp, I vomit it all up into the dirt.

Dilley’s solution is to force more laudanum into me, and it’s glorious. I swallow it eagerly, even though I know it will be worse when I wake, even though my tongue is thick and my lips splitting from thirst. It’s just like when we crossed the desert into California; if we don’t get real water soon, we’ll die.

It’s morning. I stir long enough to realize the Missouri men are packing up camp. Jefferson and Tom are already tied to their saddles, listing sideways in their drug-induced hazes. I pretend to be asleep still, so the ghostly man won’t come chasing after me with another dose so soon.

How much laudanum have I had? Too much, for sure and certain. A girl’s head was not meant to feel this god-awful. My bowels cramp like everything inside is as dry as a summer gourd. My muscles ache and my wrists are rope charred and my fingers tingle with numbness.

Quietly, carefully, I take stock of my surroundings. Fewer pines, more oaks. Rolling hills smothered in golden grass. We’ve come west a ways, well out of the mountains. The river is nowhere to be seen.

We could be anywhere, I realize with a sinking heart. And maybe we’ve only traveled for a few days, but I haven’t been conscious often enough to be sure. Maybe it’s been a week. Maybe longer.

The ghostly man approaches. He grabs me by the armpits and yanks me up.

“Wait!” I cry out. “I need water. Jeff and Tom, too.”

He ignores me, dragging me toward Peony, who is already saddled up. An arrow of panic pierces my heart. Have they been taking care of her? Have they watered and fed her properly? Rubbed her down? Checked her hooves? How do they know the new saddle isn’t giving her a rub?

“Please!” I try again. “My uncle wants me alive, right?”

He pauses, and I take the opportunity to get my feet under me. My legs are so wobbly that even if I got out of these bonds, I’m not sure I could escape.

“My uncle needs me,” I gasp out, suddenly grateful for this pounding headache because it cuts through the opium haze and helps my mind work. “He needs me alive and hale. If harm comes to me, there’ll be hell to pay, and you know it.”

The ghostly man’s gaze sweeps the camp until he finds Dilley, who nods once.

All of a sudden, he lets go and strides away. My wobbly legs give out, and I drop like a stone into the dirt.

He returns moments later with a canteen, which he lifts to my lips, and sweet mother of Moses, it’s the coolest, clearest, most wonderful water I ever drank in my life.

I force myself to slow down. No sense drinking it only to toss it back up again. So I take a breath. Another sip. Another breath.

“Now Jefferson and Tom.”

“Your lover boys are leverage,” Dilley says. “To keep you cooperative. Nothing more. So I don’t give a rat’s furry arse if they die of thirst.”

I glare at him. “If they die, you’ll have no leverage at all.”

He ponders that a moment.

“She’s right,” says Jonas Waters, sauntering over. He looks me up and down in a way that sends a shiver spider-crawling down my spine. “Frank, she don’t look so good, to be honest.”

“Fine,” Dilley says. “Water for Bigler and Kingfisher, too, but don’t take too long about it.”

I’m careful not to show even the smallest bit of relief. It’s my only victory since we’ve been captured, and I won’t risk him taking it away.

The ghostly man gives Tom and Jeff water, who gulp it down like dogs at a pond.

Then he returns to me. “Time for your breakfast, boy!” Dilley calls out, laughing.

As the ghostly man tips the laudanum to my lips, I realize that I’ve yet to hear him speak a single word.

The moon is a glowing orb in the velvety sky, and a lonely owls echoes low and soft as we reach our destination. My mind is fogged with laudanum, so I can’t see much, just the shapes of buildings, a few tents, the whitish expanse of a steep cliff side. I should mark my surroundings better. I should look for exits, weaknesses, but I can’t make myself focus, and after a moment, I don’t even care. Dear Lord, I’m weary. If I could just close my eyes and sleep for a week . . .

“I told you to bring just the girl,” says a low, slick voice. I know that voice. A dart of fear penetrates the fog of my mind.

“You hired me for my improvisational nature, sir,” Frank Dilley says. “We couldn’t have these boys running back to everyone, telling how the girl was taken, now could we? Besides, the girl cares for them. Especially that one right there. She’ll do whatever you want, so long as they’re around.”

“I see.” A pause. I can’t see the speaker in the dark. Not sure I want to.

Warm, strong fingers tip my chin up, and I roll my eyes around, trying to focus, but I can’t do it for all the gold in California. It’s so much easier to just close them.

“Is she drunk?” the familiar voice asks. He sounds like he’s fit to smash someone’s nose. I just hope it’s not mine.

“We gave her some poppy juice so she wouldn’t make a fuss.”

“What?”

“She’ll be fine.”

“Laudanum is a dangerous—”

“I know this girl. We were six months crossing the continent together. She may be uppity and irksome, but she’s clever as a fox and good with a gun. I wasn’t going to take any chances.”

Another pause. “If she is damaged in any way, I’ll skin you alive and throw you in a bear cage.”

Frank must believe it, because his voice is tremulous when he says, “We did our jobs, just as you asked. The girl is fine. I promise.”

“We’ll see. Tie up the boys behind the stable. Girl goes in the cabin. Second bedroom.”

Peony lurches forward. After a short distance, the ropes tying me down are loosened, and strong hands grab my waist and slide me from my horse. I’m half dragged, half carried across a porch, through a doorway, and into a dark place that smells of fresh-chopped wood and linseed oil and dried tobacco.

That tobacco smell. Sweet, and a little bit spicy. Familiar.

Someone guides me to a bed and pushes me down until I’m lying on a straw tick. A bit of straw pokes at my armpit, but I don’t care because it’s a bed. Not hard ground or muddy ground or rocky ground. A real bed.

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