Like a River Glorious Page 51

The sound of the bench scraping the floor awakens me, and I lurch up with a start. I’ve almost slept through breakfast.

My stomach growls in response to the scent of flapjacks as I hurry to dress and smooth my hair. Right before swishing aside the curtain, I pause to collect myself, straightening my spine and taking a deep breath.

My uncle looks up from his breakfast of flapjacks and honest-to-God maple syrup. “Good morning, sweet pea,” he says, and his voice is as flat as the grassy plains.

“Good morning, Uncle Hiram.” Mary has already set out a place for me. I sit opposite my uncle and carefully spread the napkin across my lap, trying very hard not to notice the way his eyes follow my every movement, like he’s a coyote and I’m a juicy, helpless rabbit.

“You had an adventure last night,” he says.

My heart stops. Every sound in the cabin is a clanging cymbal in my ear. The scrape of his knife against his plate, the sizzle of flapjacks on the stove, the creak of Hiram’s bench.

At the stove, Mary is frozen like a statue, wooden spoon hanging in the air. Hiram turns toward her, a question in his eyes, and Mary becomes suddenly engrossed by the frying pan.

“An adventure?” I manage lamely.

“You were seen leaving the cabin,” he says, still eyeing Mary. His voice is as dark as midnight.

“Oh, that,” I say, waving my hand as if it were nothing. Surely he can hear the way my heart pounds in my throat? Surely he sees the fib making gooseflesh of my skin? “My slop bucket was full. Couldn’t sleep for the stench.”

He frowns.

“Oh, Uncle, I apologize!” I say. “I shouldn’t mention such things at the table. Mama would tan my hide if she heard.”

“You were gone a long time,” he says.

Who saw me? Who told? Hiram did say I would be watched. I guess I wasn’t imagining it after all, when I felt someone’s gaze creeping along my neck. What else did this mysterious person see?

I force myself to breathe. What if I’ve gotten my co-conspirators in trouble?

“It’s true,” I admit, after too long a pause. “I couldn’t remember exactly where the outhouse was, and I didn’t want to dump it anywhere near the cabin.”

Mary places a plateful of flapjacks in front of me, and I give her a grateful glance. With my fork, I spear a lump of food and shove it into my mouth, as if the conversation is over and I’m a girl with nothing to hide.

As I chew, I look anywhere but at my uncle, and my gaze rests on Mary, who is back at the stove frying up some more. But that’s not a safe place to gaze either, because I can’t help but compare this tiny, quiet-seeming girl to the one I met in the dark who spoke perfect English and ordered us around like she was born to it. And I can’t help but think of her with all the men in camp, and what that might mean. After talking to her last night, I know her even less than I did before.

I force the next bite down, though my appetite has fled.

“Tonight, you’ll be tied to the bed,” Hiram says.

“What? That’s not fair! You said you wouldn’t hurt—”

He raises a hand to forestall argument. “My word on this is final. After a few days of good behavior, you may earn back the privilege of sleeping untied.”

I’m about to protest further, but his glare deepens.

“I know you think me cruel and unreasonable,” he says in a perfectly measured tone. “But know one thing: I love you. I love you, Leah, like you were my very own.”

I fight to keep my first bites of breakfast down. It feels like worms are crawling around where my food ought to be.

Hiram smiles. “You will come to love me in return. But don’t worry; there is no hurry. I know children need time for these things, and I am a very patient man.”

That’s not what Mama and Daddy said about him, but I know better than to speak my piece.

He rises from the table. “Wilhelm will escort you anywhere you want to go today,” he says, pulling on his gloves. He reaches for his coat and hat. “Even if it’s to the outhouse to dump a slop bucket.”

I remain frozen in place as he bends down and plants a kiss on my forehead that leaves a cool, wet spot on my skin.

“I’ll see you later this evening, my darling girl,” he says, and finally, finally he leaves.

I grab the napkin from my lap and rub at the spot where he kissed me, rub and rub as though he’s left a poison that will burn my skin. Tears prick my eyes, and I’m still rubbing when tiny dry fingers close around my wrist, stopping me.

“We’ll figure something out,” Mary says softly, even though we are alone. “Don’t go to pieces on me.” For the first time, I sense sympathy in her gaze. Maybe a little openness.

I nod up at her.

“It always feels like that,” she says. “When they touch you.”

I swallow hard, not wanting to think about it too much. “Well, we’re getting out of here.” I say it in the tightest whisper, as though even the walls have ears. “Both of us.”

“Yes,” she agrees.

I straighten my shoulders, take up my fork, and doggedly force myself to down more tasteless flapjacks.

I find Wilhelm standing sentry outside the cabin door.

The sky is low and dark with gray clouds, the air thick with chilled moisture. Wet mud sticks to Wilhelm’s boots. It must have rained before dawn.

By way of greeting, I say, “I have some extra flapjacks. Cooked just right by Mary. You want some?”

After a pause, he nods once, sharply.

I hand him the bundle I had already prepared, wrapped in a napkin. He shoves it into his coat pocket for later.

“I’d like a tour of the camp today, Wilhelm,” I tell him. “Every bit of it. Mr. Westfall wants me to continue to familiarize myself with our operation.”

He doesn’t wear a hood today, and I can see his eyes clearly—cold and hard as deepwater ice. His scarred lips are pulled into a frown, but he offers his arm to me.

I take it gingerly, as if I’m about to wrangle a viper, but when nothing awful happens, I clasp it a little more firmly, and together we step down from the porch.

“I’d like to see where the Indians live,” I say.

He pauses, as if considering.

“They do the majority of our labor in the mines, so if I’m to familiarize myself with everything, I need to see them.”

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