Like a River Glorious Page 37

He frowns. “Wasn’t my plan to bring them here, but don’t worry. They’re fine. I expect they’ll be put to work soon enough.”

“Doing what?”

“I’ll have Mary heat up a bath for you. I want you clean and dressed like a proper lady.”

“I’ll dress however I want.”

“You’ll dress how I tell you. Or your friend, the Cherokee boy, will regret it.”

“If you hurt him, I’ll kill you.”

He cocks his head and folds his arms across his chest, studying me. Up close, I can see that he’s not quite so fancy as he was before. The elbows of his fine jacket are wearing thin. His black leather holster is now scratched and dirty. A not-quite-matching patch is sewn into one knee of his trousers, and his boots are scuffed and flecked with mud. He had a hard journey to California, just like the rest of us.

“You have a great future here, sweet pea. With me. Reuben let you run wild as a colt, but no more.” His voice turns sympathetic and soft. “I know how hard it is to change your ways. But I promise, you will be happy here. We just need to give it time.”

He leans down and grasps my arms, peering at my raw, welted wrists. I try to wrench them away, but he is too strong.

“I’m sorry about this, my girl,” he says. “I did not intend for any harm to come to you.”

Rage makes a red curtain of my vision. “Of course you did. You’ve intended nothing but harm from the beginning. You killed my parents. Stole everything that was mine. And now you’re worried about a few little rope burns? Go to hell.”

He releases my wrists, sighing. “Not everything is as it seems.”

“True. I mean, here you are, standing and talking like a human being, when the truth is you’re a venomous snake worth naught but the sharp edge of a shovel.”

The blow is so sudden and vicious that my neck snaps to the side and funny lights flash in my eyes. It’s a moment before I can get a breath, and when I do, I realize that blood is collecting on my tongue.

I spit it out onto the quilt; it’s going to stain, for sure and certain. “I thought you didn’t intend harm.”

“Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

I hate him. God forgive me, but it’s the truth.

“And now,” he drawls lazily, “I’m going to give the exact same blow to your friend Jefferson. Except he’ll get my fist instead of the back of my hand.”

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My belly heaves, and the tiny bit of breakfast I was able to get down threatens to come back up. If he’s willing to wallop me, his own niece, what would he do to Jeff? “No,” I gasp out. “Wait.”

He cocks an eyebrow, waiting. Oh, he looks so much like my daddy it’s an actual pain in my chest. Except when Daddy looked at me that way, it was because I had amused him, or made him proud.

“I’ll wash up. I’ll wear whatever you want.”

He smiles, looking smug as a cat with a helpless rat. I’ve revealed too much, I realize with a sinking gut. Jefferson is my greatest weakness, and now Hiram knows it.

“Glad to hear it. Once Mary fills your washtub, I’ll untie you. Don’t even consider trying to run. You’re to stay inside this cabin at all times, unless accompanied by me or Wilhelm. This camp is well guarded, and everyone knows you are not allowed to wander. If you try, Jefferson and the other one will be shot. Do you understand?”

I have a thousand questions—What is this camp? Where are we? Who is Wilhelm?—but more than anything, I want him away.

“I understand,” I whisper.

“Good. Finish your breakfast. Mary will be back shortly.”

I stare after his back as he departs.

I’ve killed deer, squirrels, a few pheasants, and more rabbits than I can count. Could I kill a person? The idea doesn’t set right with me, but if I’m ever going to do it, I know just who to try it out on.

The breakfast tastes like grit in my mouth, but I gradually force it down. Mary drags an oval-shaped copper washtub through the doorway while I eat. She returns every few minutes with a kettle of hot water, which she dumps inside.

A bath. A real bath. Inside the finest cabin I’ve seen in months. Becky would trade her red-checked tablecloth for a bath like this.

True to his word, my uncle returns when the tub is full and cuts the ropes with a long knife. For an instant, the cool skin of his fingers slithers across my wrists, making bile rise in my throat.

“Now wash up,” he says. “Thoroughly. I’ll have Mary bring some new clothes.”

I’m not too keen to undress in this place, even if I’m given my privacy. I wait until his boot steps fade. Then I shuck my clothes as fast as I can, step over the edge, and sink into the hot water. It’s so hot my skin turns bright red, and there’s barely enough room—I have to bring my knees to my chest to fit inside. But after days of riding tied down with little more than laudanum for sustenance, it feels like I’m absorbing the hot water into my thirsty bones.

Mary left me a bristle brush and some soap, and I get to work scrubbing everything, paying special attention to my face and dirt-encrusted fingernails. I soap down my hair and dip beneath the water to rinse, then finger comb it as best I can. Strands of hair come away from my scalp and float like water bugs on the surface. I keep combing, and more hair comes away. Then more. I decide to leave my hair alone.

I’m scrubbing my armpits when Mary strides in again. I whip my knees to my chest and wrap my arms around them to cover myself, sloshing water over the side and onto the floor. But Mary keeps her eyes averted. In one hand is a bucket of rinse water. In another is a heavy bundle of clothing, which she dumps onto the bed.

Without a word or glance, she leaves.

As lovely as the hot water feels, I don’t like being naked in this place, and I need to finish up. Carefully I wash the rope burns on my wrist. The skin is open and weeping, and soaping it up stings something fierce, so I go about it gently but quickly.

I listen to make sure no one is coming. Then I grab the rinse bucket and stand. I pour half the water over my head to get excess soap out of my hair, the rest over my neck and shoulders.

When I step from the tub, my skin turns to gooseflesh and the floor is icy cold on my feet. I stare down at the floor for a few seconds, marveling. Real plank floors instead of hard earth. A real bed instead of a bedroll. A real glass window. A copper washtub. Spare linens and clothes.

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