Like a River Glorious Page 52

He grunts, which is downright loquacious of him, and guides me off to the left, toward the Chinese tents.

The tents are mostly empty. I figure everyone is at work, either in the mine or down by the creek, classifying all the ore being brought out and ground up by the arrastra. But a few folks remain behind. We pass a man hammering at a horseshoe; on a table beside him are more horseshoes, along with pickaxes, all in various states of wear. An older man with white hair and beautifully embroidered trim on his long shirt sits inside an open-faced tent that is filled with glass jars on shelves. Each jar holds something unfamiliar. One contains a bright red plant with spread leaves, another something soft and pink—maybe pigs’ feet? He stares at me as we pass, his gaze shameless and appraising.

The older man is the only one who stares. Everyone else becomes deeply involved in their current task, clearly avoiding me.

There are no other women, and there is no sign of Mary.

Beyond the Chinese tents, the land slopes downward toward the creek edged in cottonwoods and willows. A slick, muddy path takes us through the trees and opens up onto the muckiest, sorriest, most godforsaken stretch of water I ever saw.

Thirty or so men are scattered about—Chinese, Indians, and whites—all squatting with pans at the edge or knee-deep in muck with their shovels. The water is thick brown gray, the banks devoid of vegetation. Everything is coated in mud—the miners’ pants, the boulders lining the creek, forearms, pans, and even a long wooden rocker. The air smells of swamp and piss.

It’s an easy mistake, to dig down into a creek bed without giving the water a place to go. It accumulates, like in a swimming hole, except churned up with dirt and mud, making it nearly impossible to see. And based on the smell, everyone is squatting to do their business in this sorry mudhole of a creek instead of taking it to an outhouse or privy trench where it belongs.

I’m deciding whether or not to have a stern talk with Hiram about this when I notice that all work has ceased. Everyone is looking at me.

“Why are they staring?” I whisper to Wilhelm, before remembering that he never answers back.

I suddenly see myself in their eyes, and I realize I stand out like a goldfinch among starlings. I’m wearing a fancy dress, for starters, with less than a quarter inch of mud on the hem. I’m the only girl in sight, and though I’ve worked hard my whole life, I don’t have the sunken wiry limbs of these men, or wind-weathered skin like a poorly tanned hide.

A burro clatters down the bank, pulling a cart full of crushed ore from the arrastra, which shakes everyone out of their stare and sets them to working again. A strange relief fills me as Wilhelm and I continue on. It’s not like I was in any danger. But something about the way they all gawked gave me the wriggles.

Downstream, the water begins to clear as it opens into a broad meadow that was probably once a field of waving golden grass but is now so grazed out it’s little more than a flat of mud. They’ll eventually mine this whole meadow, once they realize it’s a flood plain, where the mountains have been sending the bit of gold they cough up each year during the rains.

The back of my throat buzzes with it, and my limbs tremble a little. Very few nuggets here, but there’s plenty of fine dust, just waiting to be discovered. I close my eyes for a moment, savoring. It’s nice to feel something so familiar and true out here. With my eyes shut and the breeze on my face and the gold tingling my skin, I can almost imagine I’m back home in Georgia, that I’ll open my eyes and it will be Daddy standing next to me instead of the hulking beast of man who never speaks.

But Daddy’s not here with me now, nor Mama, nor any of my friends. I’m alone, with only one thing left to me, the thing no one can take away.

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I’ve never needed my gold sense like I need it right now. We don’t have a plan to escape, and the one skill I can offer the group that Mary or Muskrat or Tom or Jefferson can’t do better is sense gold. If only I could figure out a way to make a plan from that.

I listen with it now, searching. Something lies off to the right. The tiniest nugget, barely the size of my pinky fingernail. It sings to me, clear as a bell, and something in me responds, reaches out to it.

The earth tilts.

My eyes fly open, and I’m suddenly breathless. Something happened just then, though I’m not sure what.

Wilhelm has halted—or maybe I was the one who stopped—and he glares down at me, a question in his eyes.

Did I lose time again? How long was I standing there? I nearly lost my balance, I think. Another moment and I would have tumbled to the ground. It felt like the earth tried to toss me away.

No, it’s like the gold feels my need and is trying to answer me. My magic is changing. Becoming more sensitive.

Or maybe I’m imagining things. Wishing, because nothing else is working.

I’ve never been a fanciful sort of girl, though, and if my daddy were here, I would tell him straight out what happened, and he would listen. Suddenly, more than anything, I want to see Jefferson. No, I need to see him, like I need water and air. I need his warm, sympathetic gaze, his softly smiling mouth, his sharp and interesting mind. Together we could figure this, for sure and certain.

Wilhelm tugs on my arm.

“Sorry,” I mumble. “My heel caught in the mud.”

I yank him forward. Wilhelm’s step hitches, but he catches himself quickly. I give him a sidelong glance; I didn’t yank that hard.

His scarred lips are pressed thin, his eyes cast determinedly forward, as a blush of pink spreads on his cheeks. Something pains him, and he’s embarrassed that I noticed.

We press on toward a large stockade made of logs sticking upright out of the ground and lashed together. It’s the sturdiest structure I’ve seen aside from my uncle’s cabin, and my heart quickens. Maybe Peony is there. Maybe I’ll finally see my horse.

The log fence is tall, taller even than Wilhelm. We reach a swinging gate, guarded by two sentries with bayoneted rifles. One of them is Jonas Waters, who was Dilley’s second-in-command on our journey to California. Jonas ignores me, but he nods to Wilhelm, and he reaches up to unlatch the gate and swing it wide. He smells strongly of rotgut, which is no surprise; Jonas always did love his moonshine.

But the stink of moonshine is nothing compared to the air from inside, which hits my nostrils, forcing me to step back. It’s like a stable that hasn’t been mucked in months, mixed with the scent of rancid vegetables.

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