Like a River Glorious Page 4

“Thanks, Hampton.”

Jefferson’s sorrel mare looks as sorry as ever, with her head drooping and her tail limp like it’s the worst day of her life, but that’s just her way, ever since she was a filly, so I’m not worried.

“Roll out!” Mr. Hoffman says in his big, booming voice.

The Major whips his stick over the oxen’s heads, and the wagon lurches away. The rest of us follow, me on Peony, Jefferson on the wagon bench, the rest on foot. Mrs. Hoffman carries the Joyner baby to give Becky a break, and Martin Hoffman hefts his tiny sister, Doreen, onto his shoulders, much to her delight. Tom Bigler and Henry Meeks slap Jasper on the back for another job well done.

I let everyone get ahead so I can watch them all and ponder a bit in solitude. I think of the nugget I sensed, still hiding in the riverbank. I hope she stays there, bright and shining and perfectly forgotten until the end of days.

“The place is all yours!” I call out to the trees. “Good luck with it.”

“Good luck to you, too,” a voice calls back. “Sorry about your friend.”

The hair on my neck stands on end. I can’t mark the man’s face, so I mark his voice—deep and gravelly, landing hard on his words.

Once I’m certain we’re out of sight, I grab my rifle and my powder horn and start loading.

 

Chapter Two

We head east along the American River, passing several promising camping sites, but no one suggests we stop. Can’t blame everyone for wanting to put some distance between ourselves and those cussed claim jumpers.

The sun is getting low, and trees fill our path with dapple shade as we come to a swift tributary creek. Mr. Hoffman wades in to check the depth and figure the best ford for the wagon. “It’s shallow,” he says, knee deep in icy water. “We can roll right through.”

Jefferson flicks the reins of the oxen and hollers them forward.

“Wait!” I call out. “Stop.”

Everyone turns to look at me.

My gold sense is humming, strong and pure. “This is a good area. For claims, I mean. Maybe up the creek a ways.”

The Major twists on the wagon bench to face me. “You sure, Lee? Why here?”

My face warms as my companions stare. It’s innocent staring; no one except Jefferson knows what I can do. Still, I feel like a deer in their sights. Especially when I notice how keen the Major is on my face, or maybe my eyes, which probably look like gemstones right now.

“I . . . er . . . well, it’s the rocks. And the high bank.” I gesture toward the creek. “See how smooth they are? And how deep the bank cuts through the land? This creek floods big every spring. And flooding means gold.” I allow myself a steadying breath. Nothing about that was a lie.

It’s just not the whole truth. The surface gold will be gone after a season. But here, gold runs deep too. I feel it pulsing way down in the earth, like a toothache in the root of my jaw. Back in Georgia, after the surface gold played out, everyone took to the mines, and them that own the mines make the money. There’s going to be a mine here someday, for sure and certain.

“I agree with Lee,” Jefferson says, with a knowing look that no one else would understand.

“Well, okay!” the Major says. “Let’s start looking for a campsite. Any objections?”

“Their word is good enough for me,” Becky says.

“For me too,” Mr. Hoffman says.

Jefferson and the Major turn the oxen upstream along the creek bank. The older Hoffman boys, Martin and Luther, scout ahead to clear branches from the wagon’s path. Gold continues to sing, loud and sweet.

Becky’s voice echoes in my head: Their word is good enough for me.

I have to tell them. I have to tell them all, and I have to do it tonight.

We agreed to stick together, at least until we found a nice amount of gold. We’ve been through too much, Mr. Hoffman said, to give up on one another. Besides that, Jefferson pointed out, people you can trust with your life are hard to come by out here in the West. “We’re family now,” Becky Joyner concurred. So after reaching Sutter’s Fort, we headed into the hills to find a prospecting spot that would allow us to stake adjacent claims.

I almost told them the truth then. But keeping secrets is such a habit. Especially when your mama and daddy died for them.

My new family has a right to decide whether to throw in their lot with a witchy girl like me who could get them all killed. We got lucky with those claim jumpers. If they’d been working for my uncle, we wouldn’t have gotten away with a single bullet graze.

I glance at Jefferson, riding on the wagon bench. His hand grips the edge to brace against bumps. Everything about that hand is so familiar. The shape of his knuckles, the exact color of his skin. My eyes start to sting, and I have to blink fast to keep the tears back, because if anyone else got killed over my secret, it would break my heart into a million pieces.

“Whoa!” the Major calls, and the wagon jerks to a stop. He sets the wheel brake and hops down. I knee Peony forward to see what’s halted us.

The creek is dammed by a warren of branches and mud. Above the dam, the creek widens into the prettiest pond I ever saw, teeming with cattails and buzzing dragonflies. The pond’s headwater is a stair-stepped rapids, frothing white. There, a huge blue heron stands sentry like a statue, eye on the surface, waiting for his next meal to wriggle by. A lone grassy hill overlooks it all, well above the flood line, big enough to pitch a whole mess of tents.

“Glory be,” Becky Joyner whispers, staring agape.

Jefferson’s big yellow dog, Nugget, gives a delighted yip and rushes forward, scattering a whole mess of sparrows.

“Beaver,” I tell Becky. “They always pick the nicest spots.”

“Beaver dam means fish,” Major Craven says, with a fever in his eyes, same as my daddy always got when he talked of gold.

Mr. Hoffman ambles over, frowning. “You sure there’s enough distance between us and those claim jumpers?”

“This is California Territory,” Tom says. “Can’t set up camp without taking a risk.”

“But if we make camp on that hill,” I say, pointing, “we can see folks coming at us. And we’ll set a watch, just like when we were with the wagon train.”

No one protests. “Let’s get to work,” the Major says.

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