Like a River Glorious Page 5

We skirt the pond and head uphill, where we unload the wagon, let the animals out to graze, and start ringing a fire pit. We move fast and with sure hands; we’ve all done it a hundred times before.

Hampton whistles jauntily, and Henry shares a joke and a laugh with the other college men. I’m the only one who sets about the work with heavy hands and a frown.

We’re well enough into the mountains that some of the oaks have given way to conifers, and our evening fire smells sharp of pine wood. The dogs, Nugget and Coney, are exhausted from exploring, and they curl up together as near to the fire as they dare. The Major caught a whole mess of trout, and he showed Becky how to roll them in flour batter and fry them up, which makes for the most delicious meal we’ve had in months—especially since the Major had a hand in cooking it.

I’m licking my greasy fingers clean when Jefferson says to everyone gathered around the fire, “Plenty of timber to be had. And this hill is sound.”

“The boys and I could have some shanties built in days,” Mr. Hoffman agrees. “Like the ones we saw along the river. Maybe even a cabin before winter.”

“I’d dearly like a cabin for the little ones,” Becky says. Her baby daughter sits in her lap, facing us all. The baby kicks her chubby legs out at irregular intervals, babbling at nothing in particular. “We’re well enough into the mountains to get a little snow.”

“A cabin would keep our goods a lot drier than a shanty,” Jasper says.

“It’s settled, then,” Mr. Hoffman says. “Tomorrow morning, my boys and I will lay out a foundation. Lee and Jefferson can help everyone else stake claims, all adjacent like we planned.”

Jasper lifts his tin mug as if it’s full of ale instead of pine-needle tea and says, “Here’s to finding our winter home.”

“What are we going to call it?” Henry asks.

“Call it?” Mr. Hoffman says.

“If it’s a settlement, it needs a name.”

Luther brightens. “We could call it Good Diggins.”

Martin, his older brother, snorts and cuffs him on the shoulder. “Numbskull.”

“Don’t call your brother names!” Mrs. Hoffman says from some distance away. When it comes to her children, that woman has the ears of a bat.

“But we passed too many other Diggins already!” Martin protests. “Smith’s Diggins, Missouri Diggins, Negro Diggins . . .”

“How about Prosperity?” the Major says. “That’s what it’s going to bring us.”

Becky frowns. “Shouldn’t count our chickens before they hatch, or weigh our gold before it’s shining. That’s just asking for the Lord to humble you.”

“You’ve a fair point there, ma’am,” the Major says. “What about Hope? Because if there’s one thing I already have a whole mess of, it’s hope.”

Maybe it’s a trick of the firelight, but Becky’s gaze on the Major turns soft. “I suppose that’ll work,” she says.

Jefferson speaks to everyone, but his eyes are on me. “Hope is too uncertain. I mean, hopes can be fulfilled, but hopes can be disappointed.”

I’ve got to change the subject, because I know he’s not referring to gold and I’m not ready for that conversation. “All that matters right now is we’ve got a glorious place to start.”

Mrs. Hoffman comes to sit beside her husband. She leans a head on his shoulder and smiles softly. “Glory be to God,” she says.

“All ehr und lob sol Gottes sein.” Mr. Hoffman nods solemnly.

Jasper lifts his mug again. “To Glory, California.”

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“Hear! Hear!” someone mutters. Everyone raises a mug or a spoon or something in salute, except me.

“Wait!” I say. “Please. I have to tell you something first.”

Everyone hushes. The fire pops. Something splashes into the pond below.

“I . . . You need to know . . .”

Jefferson’s eyebrows lift in surprise, but then he gives me an encouraging nod. He has wanted nothing but the truth from me since the beginning.

Locking gazes with him emboldens me to say, “My uncle is still after me. He didn’t expect to find me surrounded by friends. But he’ll regroup. He’ll try again.”

“Well, he’s not getting you,” Jasper says, and the others murmur agreement.

“And I appreciate that. I do. But you all need to know why. Before you decide to . . . whether or not I can stay with you.”

“What are you talking about, Lee?” Becky says.

“Bah!” says the baby.

I screw up my courage and blurt: “I can find gold! Not like normal folks. Like . . . a witch.”

The Major frowns, and the expression is so out of place on him that it turns my throat sour. “Never took you for a teller of tall tales,” he says.

Jefferson clambers to his feet, favoring his injured side. “I think a demonstration is in order. Herr Hoffman, you still have that bauble?”

Mr. Hoffman’s brows are furrowed deep enough for planting corn. But he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the heart-shaped locket my mama wore until the day she died. It’s changed hands a few times, but I’m glad that something of hers made it all the way across the continent.

Jefferson takes it from him. It dangles from his fingers, sparking in the firelight. “This locket is made of nearly pure gold. Lee, turn around.”

I do as he asks, guessing what he has in mind. While I face the dark, everyone shuffles around and exchanges muted whispers.

“Okay, we’re ready.”

I turn back around, and I pause a moment, memorizing my companion’s faces. They’re about to know everything about me. No going back after this. But I will do anything, anything, to keep my new family safe. Even if it means being alone all over again.

Solemnly Jefferson says, “Where’s the locket, Lee?”

It’s a lump of sweetness in my chest, calling as soft and clear as a whippoorwill.

“Beside the fire, in Becky’s Dutch oven.”

Mrs. Hoffman gasps.

“Fancy trick,” says Henry. “You’ve got keen hearing, I’ll give you that.”

Jefferson’s eyes narrow. “We’ll do it again. Turn around, Lee.”

I do so without complaint, happy to let him take charge. He’s not doing it to boss me; he knows how hard it is for me to tell the truth, and he’s easing my burden.

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