Like a River Glorious Page 43

The tunnel levels and widens onto a muddy underground pond. Lantern light gleams off the surface of the thick brown water, which is choppy and fierce with all the splashing and digging going on.

The cavern is filled with Indians hefting pickaxes. Two carts stand wheel deep in water, half filled with ore so wet it looks like cow slop. Two Indians heft a giant log into a recently dug cleft to bolster it. They push the log into place, leveraging it between muddy floor and choppy ceiling, as if a single log can hold back the earth.

“Best to stop right here, Lee,” Frank says. “Any farther and you’ll soil those pretty skirts.”

At his voice, the Indian closest to us looks up at me, but his gaze darts back down just as fast. He’s digging into the wall near the entrance, but his swings are feeble. His limbs are skinny as a colt’s, his cheeks sunken, his skin covered with mud.

“Why aren’t any of them wearing clothes?” I ask.

“Can’t trust ’em with clothes,” he says. “They’d steal the gold sooner than mine it out.”

“But they’re people, not—”

A whip cracks. Everyone freezes. An Indian near the far wall collapses backward into the water, which sloshes up to his armpits. A line of blood wells up on his shoulder. He ignores the wound, fishing around in the murk until he comes up with his pickax, then he gets back to work.

Nausea threatens to overwhelm me. I’ve never seen a man whipped before. I’ve heard tales, though. Some of the mine foremen back home used to whip the Negros, when the plantation owners rented them to the mines during the cold season. It’s a rare Negro who hasn’t felt a whip’s bite at some point; Hampton has some nasty scars on his back and shoulders.

I peer into the gloom of the cavern, looking for the man doing the whipping. Lantern light doesn’t penetrate the back very well, and it’s hard to see how deep it goes. I’m about to ask Dilley to tell me who’s responsible when a figure appears out of the shadows and wades toward us.

It’s Abel Topper, the foremost foreman, the one who took Peony. A whip curls in his hand like a long, thin snake. My already low opinion of the man drops down a shaft without a bottom.

“Hello, Miss Westfall,” he says, cheery as a summer’s day.

“That’s no way to treat people,” I say.

“I ain’t asking your opinion.”

“How’s my horse?” I ask, because I know it will needle him.

“My horse is doing fine. Found her a nice patch of clover, so she ain’t missing you at all. Hoping she’ll foal come spring.”

“Peony’s not a foaling horse!” I practically shout. “She’s too valuable as a ride-and-train. Daddy broke two cantankerous colts to the harness with her on lead!”

Abel’s grin widens. “All mares are foaling horses. If she drops a pretty palomino like herself, it’ll be just like striking gold.”

I couldn’t stand it if something happened to Peony. I could have bred her lots of times, but never wanted to risk her. I add Abel to the list of faces to bust.

“Does my uncle know you’re whipping these poor souls?” I ask.

Frank Dilley jumps in. “He knows, and he approves.”

I open my mouth to protest, but something catches my eye. It’s the Indian nearest the entrance, stealing glances at me. No, it’s not me he’s looking at. It’s my tin cup. Maybe he’s thirsty. There’s water all around us, but it’s hardly fit to drink. Or maybe it’s the sugar he’s desperate for.

“Lee!” calls a familiar voice. Two more figures appear in the gloom.

It’s Jefferson and Tom, wearing nothing but soaked trousers. Jefferson holds a pickax, Tom a shovel. They are too pale, and bruises mark Jefferson’s chest and right shoulder, but I’m so glad to see them awake and alert that tears prick at my eyes.

“Get back to work,” Abel growls.

“It’s all right!” I say quickly. “My uncle agreed that I could check on my friends and . . .” I enunciate my next words clearly: “And make sure they are fit and unharmed.” My gaze roves Jefferson’s bruised chest. He’s got the muscle for mining, that’s for sure. I wish I could grab a shirt and cover him up. It must be killing him to have the marks of his beating exposed for the whole world to see. “Abel, my friend Jefferson does not appear unharmed. I’ll have to tell my uncle so.”

Abel’s eyes narrow. In the lantern gloom, they look like devil eyes. “You’ve gotten mighty uppity all of a sudden,” he says.

I take a sip of sugar water, just to give myself something to do while my mind pokes at my problems. Somehow, I have to get Tom and Jefferson out of here. Maybe if I find a nice chunk of gold for my uncle, or a new vein, he’ll listen to reason. That, or his greed will just make things worse.

The Indian nearest me continues to steal glances at my tin cup. “Here,” I say, offering the cup to him. “It’s yours.”

His hand darts out and snatches it from mine. He’s practically trembling as he tips it to his lips.

The whip cracks again. The tin cup tumbles out of the Indian’s hand and splashes into the water. He dives after it, grabs it, returns it to his lips. Blood pours from his hand as his tongue reaches inside the cup to lap up the slightest remnant of sugar.

“What’d you do that for?” I bellow at Abel. Jefferson and Tom are staring aghast at him.

“A soft heart doesn’t find gold,” Abel says. “These lazy Induns will walk all over you if you let them.”

“It was just a cup of sugar water!”

“Back to work,” Abel says to the Indian, brandishing his whip.

The Indian ignores him, so intent is he on my empty cup.

So Frank Dilley pulls out his Colt and shoots the man in the head.

My mind screams agony, from the sight of murder, and from a gunshot so loud in such a small cavern. My ears ring like church bells as the man slumps into the water, leaving a huge wet stain on the rocky wall.

Abel is yelling something at Frank, and the Indians are yelling at one another, but I can’t make anything out for the ringing in my head and the torment in my belly. I press my hands to my ears, trying to stop the pain. The Indian’s face is half submerged. One dead eye stares up at me, accusing. My cup gradually sinks beside him.

I’m sorry, I whisper to him. Or maybe I only think the words. I didn’t mean for that to happen.

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