Like a River Glorious Page 44

I didn’t mean for Martin to die either, or Nugget to get shot, or our camp to burn to the ground. But bad things keep happening around me.

I have to get out of this wet hole, and I have to do it now, before I crumble all to pieces. I whirl, gathering my skirts, and flee up the tunnel. I elbow men out of my way as I go, even Wilhelm, but I don’t care, and maybe some of them are just as stunned as I am because they let me go. I need air and light and a kind word. I need my friends. I need Peony.

I need my guns.

Because right now, I’m fit to kill Frank Dilley. Somehow. And Abel Topper. And my uncle with them.

 

 

Chapter Fourteen


A crowd has gathered outside the mine, mostly Chinese, but a few Indians and Missouri men.

“We heard a gunshot,” someone says, or at least I think so. My ears are still ringing something awful.

I turn to mark the speaker. It’s one of the Indians. He’s a little shorter than I am, and he’s dressed the same way as the people who helped us put out the fire, with beads draped down his chest. He must be important to my uncle if he’s not working in the mines with the rest of them. “Who was it? Who got shot?” His face is an agony of worry, and his English is perfect.

“Back off, Muskrat,” growls one of the Missouri men, and he shoves the Indian in the chest with the butt of his rifle. “You ain’t good enough to talk to her.”

Muskrat staggers back, but he recovers quickly and stands his ground. “Then you tell me. Who was shot?”

“How the hell should I know?” the Missouri man says, and he looks at me. “Who was it, Miss Westfall?”

I blink at him. My teeth are chattering, even though I’m not cold. I see it over and over again—the man’s head snapping back against the wall, his body slumping into the water, his white, dead eye staring up at me.

“I . . . It was one of the miners,” I say to Muskrat. “Down in the Drink. I don’t know who. Frank Dilley shot him.”

“Is he alive? I should go to him.” He makes as if to push past us, but the Missouri man blocks him.

“I’m sorry, Muskrat, sir,” I say, my voice tremulous. “But . . . it won’t do any good.”

Pain fills his eyes. He lost a friend today; he just doesn’t know which one.

Everyone mutters darkly, and it’s possible they’re talking to me, but I can’t hear well enough to parse it. Wilhelm rushes out of the mine, followed by several others. When he spots me, his shoulders slump with relief.

“Where is my uncle?” I demand of everyone. I have to tell him about this. Surely he would never condone what just happened.

“He headed upstream,” someone says. “To one of the other camps. Negotiating for . . .” The rest of his words are lost to the ringing in my head.

I cover my ears, as if it will help, and ram my way through the crowd toward my uncle’s cabin. I have to reach it before I lose my composure completely. Or my breakfast.

But when my foot hits the stoop of the cabin porch, I hesitate. With my uncle gone, maybe this is my chance to . . . I don’t know, do something. I’m not leaving without Jefferson and Tom, but maybe I can explore the camp, see what’s behind the cabin, figure out where Abel is keeping Peony. Find a way out of this hell.

Within a split second, Wilhelm is at my side, grabbing my elbow. I try to wrench it back, but he holds tight. He drags me up the steps.

We reach the door, and when he swings it open, I’m finally able to yank my elbow away. I slip under his arm into the cabin and whirl to face him.

“You will not follow me inside. I understand you’ve been ordered to keep watch on me, but you will respect my privacy and . . .” I get a better idea for which tack to take. “And you will not be alone with me inside my uncle’s cabin without his permission.”

Wilhelm’s jaw works, as if he’s grinding his teeth. I can see a little more of his face now that we’re in broad daylight and I’m not woozy with laudanum. His nose has a crick in it, like it’s been broke a time or two, and his eyes are gray blue like slate, set deep under thick blond brows.

He stares at me. I return his stare, refusing to flinch.

All at once, he slams the door shut and whirls away.

I collapse into Hiram’s rocking chair, pull my knees to my chest, and rock back and forth for a very long time.

I lie on my bed, staring up at the ceiling.

There was no chance to do any exploring today because Wilhelm stood outside the cabin like a soldier on sentry. Eventually Mary stopped by and turned a batch of soaked beans into honest-to-goodness pork and beans with molasses. She must be a quick learner, because that’s a Yankee dish, one Daddy used to make on our hunting trips. I suppose it’s a favorite of Hiram’s, too. I ate only a few bites before retiring to my room, leaving the rest for my uncle, who finally came home as it was getting dark.

I slipped under the quilt when I heard his boot steps, and turned my back to the bedroom door. I sensed the curtain being lifted, felt his dark presence looming over me, heard his soft breathing, but I pretended to be asleep because the hate inside me was so awful that I didn’t trust myself to pretend to be cooperative.

It must be past midnight now, and the moon is shimmering in the sky, casting bluish light through my single high window. It doesn’t open. I checked. The only way out of this cabin is through the front door.

Something tappity-taps on the window, faint like a chittering squirrel. Maybe I imagined it.

It sounds again, louder this time, and I push back the covers and get to my feet. Standing on the chest, I poke my head up over the windowsill and peer outside.

It’s Jefferson, with a grin on his face and a handful of pebbles, washed in moonlight for all to see. I glance around the camp, panicked, but it’s late and everyone’s abed. Still, it would only take one person to see him and report to my uncle.

“Hide!” I mouth.

“Open!” he mouths back, gesturing toward the window.

I shake my head. “Can’t.”

His eyes turn in on themselves, and his lips press tight. It’s Jefferson’s thinking face, and it’s so familiar and dear that my heart aches.

He steps up to the glass and stretches on his tiptoes so that his face is only inches from mine. It might be a trick of the moonlight, but his black eye is already turning sickly yellow—a good sign.

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