Like a River Glorious Page 40

“Many of them haven’t seen a woman in months, much less a lady.”

“What about Mary?”

He shrugs. “Not the same.”

That makes no sense to me—Mary seemed as mannered and beautiful as Becky Joyner on her best day—but sure enough, some of the miners’ gazes are desperate, like I’m a glass of sweet tea on a hot summer day.

“Where are Tom and Jeff?” I ask.

“This way.” He guides me away from the mine, past the smaller cabin to a rickety stable that’s little more than a giant lean-to with four stalls. “There’s a pasture to the east where we keep the mules and burros. We’ve plans to erect a proper barn come spring. For now, this keeps our finest stock out of the worst weather.”

Sorry nickers in greeting as I approach, tossing her sorrel mane. Beside her is Tom’s horse, Apollo, and next to him is my uncle’s huge black gelding, whose name is Dark Wind or Black Storm or something hackneyed that I can’t quite recall.

The fourth stall is empty.

“Where’s Peony?” I ask, panic edging into my voice.

“Abel Topper has her.”

“What?” Abel Topper is a former mine foreman from Georgia, and my uncle’s lackey. He spotted me when I was fleeing home and followed me all the way to Tennessee before turning back. He’s wanted my pretty palomino since the first day he laid eyes on her.

My uncle’s tone is so patient and reasonable as he explains, “I promised her to Abel a long time ago, before you stole her and ran off.” He puts a hand on my shoulder and looks me straight in the eye. My skin crawls. “I always keep my promises, Leah. Always.”

I clench my jaw because I will not cry in front of him. I raised Peony from a foal. No one understands her better than me. I thought my uncle had taken everything, but I was wrong. There was still something left, and he found it, and he took it.

My fists curl tight. He’d never look at me this way again, so patronizing, so smug, if I turned his face into a bloody pulp and took out a few teeth.

“Where is Topper?” I manage in a tight voice.

He barks a laugh. “So you can steal her back? I think not.”

Bloody pulp. Two black eyes. No teeth left. “No, I was thinking I could offer to buy her back.”

His eyes narrow. “I’m not an idiot. You’re up to no good.”

He’s right about that. “Think what you want. I’ll find him later,” I say, with a wave of my hand. “Anyway, you promised you would take me to Jefferson and Tom?”

His lips press thin, but he grabs my elbow and leads me around to the back of the stable, where a long tying post made from a tree trunk can accommodate more stock if necessary. Tied to it is a chestnut mare I don’t recognize. Beside her are Tom and Jeff.

They sit on the bare earth, their arms tied overhead to the post. Tom slumps against his bonds, chin to chest, eyes closed. Jefferson looks up as we approach. “Hello, Lee,” he mumbles.

I gasp. His left eye is as swollen and black as a rotten plum. His skin is blanched, his cheeks sunken. He looks at me like a drunkard, focusing on a space right in front of me, as if the real me is impossible to pinpoint.

“Oh, Jeff,” I whisper. “Who did this to you?”

“Nice dress,” he says.

I crouch in front of him and tip up his chin. “Who did this to you?” I repeat. “Was it Frank?”

“Yep. Said he’s been wanting to box me for a long time.”

Uncle Hiram jumps in with, “I didn’t order them beaten. Your friend must have done something to deserve it.”

I launch to my feet and get right in his face. “The only thing Jefferson ever did to antagonize Dilley was get himself born to a Cherokee mama. Frank Dilley is a bad seed, Uncle. Mark my words.”

My uncle frowns. “I know you favor the boy, but . . .” I stop listening. He deserves no more of my attention. I turn back to my friends and squat down again. “Anything else hurt, Jeff?” I say. Tears pool in my eyes. So many people I care about, hurt or killed because of Hiram Westfall.

“Jaw,” Jefferson says. “Can’t eat. Can hardly talk. But I don’t think it’s broke.”

I turn his chin to one side, then the other. His left side is definitely swollen. I wish Jasper was here.

“They still feeding you laudanum?”

“Yep.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll put a stop to it.” I don’t know how yet, but I will. Besides, laudanum is expensive. Dilley can’t keep it up forever. If I could find his stash and destroy it . . .

Strangely, my mouth is suddenly watering, my skin flushed, my heart racing.

I shake my head as if to shake it out of my mind and move over to Tom. He’s so quiet and still that for a brief, awful moment, I think he’s dead. When I put my hand to his still-warm face and feel his breath against my palm, I almost sing a hallelujah.

“Tom? Tom, can you hear me?”

He stirs a little but doesn’t respond. His skin is hot with fever.

“He’s still sleeping,” Jefferson slurs. “Been sleeping a long time.”

I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Then I scoot over to Jefferson, lean forward so that my forehead presses against his, and I say, so quietly that only he can hear, “Stay strong, Jeff. We’ll figure this.”

“Lee,” he whispers. “My Leah. Best girl. My . . .”

“Hush.” I press my lips to his forehead. Then I stand and face my uncle.

There’s a bit of uncertainty in his eyes, or maybe I imagine it.

“Uncle Hiram,” I begin. “You must treat my friends better.”

“I don’t know what they did to deserve this, but I’m certain—”

“I’ve said I’ll cooperate with you, and I will. I’ll make you the richest man in California. But only if you give them regular water and victuals and a place to lay their heads.”

“Don’t, Lee!” Jefferson pleads at my back. “Not worth it. I’ll be fine. I’ve taken worse.”

It hurts my heart that Jeff would flee his mean, drunken da only to fall into the hands of another good-for-nothing intent on using him as a punching toy. I will either get him out of here or die trying.

“And another thing,” I say to my uncle. “I want them untied. They shouldn’t be kept here like cattle. A true gentleman would treat them with respect.”

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