Like a River Glorious Page 69

“Sure. If you say so.”

“These oats are runny,” he growls in Mary’s direction.

Mary doesn’t even flinch. She just keeps toweling the dishes dry.

“They seem delicious to me,” I say.

“Don’t contradict,” he snaps.

“You’re in a foul mood,” I say. “Even for you.”

He starts to protest but changes his mind, his shoulders slumping over his bowl. “You’re right. I am. And I’ve no right to take it out on you.”

The apology startles me nearly as much as his backhand a few mornings ago.

“What’s wrong?” I say, in as gentle a voice as I can muster.

He sighs. “It’s the Chinese,” he says.

Mary has started a new batch of biscuits, and her stirring hitches before continuing on, faster and more determined than before.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“The headman is demanding higher pay for everyone. He insists they could make more if they went elsewhere and kept the gold they panned, instead of handing it over. Doesn’t seem to matter to him that they’re panning ore brought out of my mine.”

“You pay them a flat rate?”

He nods. “The blacksmith raised his prices, too. And the other day, Dilley tried to buy a barrel of salt pork from the headman and was charged double what he’d paid before.”

I shrug. “Everything is expensive in California, and it’s only getting more so.”

“The Chinese are greedy,” Hiram insists. “Here they have steady pay, a place to do business, and my personal protection. I’m glad tomorrow is Thanksgiving. If anyone needs to learn a little gratitude, it’s the Chinese.”

The air sizzles as Mary drops biscuits onto a hot griddle.

“Seems to me the Chinese work plenty hard,” I say. “I can’t remember seeing even one of them idle.”

“Appearances can be deceiving,” Hiram says.

Well, that’s for sure. Hiram, for instance, appears to be a rich man and a fine gentleman.

“My foremen are feeling the injustice of it,” my uncle continues. “They work so hard all day, but here come the Chinese, set to steal California right out from underneath them.”

I’m not sure how you can have something stolen that didn’t belong to you in the first place, but I’m afraid if I say as much, Hiram won’t let me out for the camp meeting tonight.

“I’m sure you’ll handle everything appropriately,” is what I say, and even though I feel dirty and deceitful, Hiram gives me a fond smile.

“Yes, I suspect I will,” he says.

The sun is long gone when we finally step out into the cold autumn air. Even though my arm is firmly lodged in the crook of Hiram’s elbow, I breathe deep of this tiny taste of freedom.

Our camp looks like it’s ready for a dance. Lanterns hang from every shanty and post, and candles surround a wagon turned into a makeshift stage. All this light is an enormous expense, but my uncle’s face shines like he’s a man with no regrets.

I think about the regrets he’ll have when James Henry Hardwick discovers that he can’t pay on time. Every additional extravagance is my uncle shooting himself in the foot again.

Chairs and stools surround the wagon. One log lies across two stumps in a fair approximation of a church pew. Even though the pew is empty, several Indians sit in the mud in front of it, their backs straight, eyes wary. They’re dressed in threadbare shirts and pants, and my step hitches a little. It’s the first time I’ve seen them allowed to wear clothes.

“You made the Indians come,” I observe.

“Muskrat advised against it, but Reverend Lowrey suggested that a sermon about gratitude might go some way toward correcting their poor behavior lately,” he says. “It’s the same reason we sent slaves to church in Georgia.”

“They’re wearing clothes. You’re not afraid they’ll steal from the collection plate?” If Hiram detects the sourness in my voice, he doesn’t let on.

“I’m paying Lowrey a generous fee tonight, to support his missionary work among the miners and the Indians, so there won’t be a collection plate,” he says. “And a church meeting demands modesty.”

He guides me to a pair of chairs and we settle down, side by side. Everyone else is trickling in, too—Chinese, foremen, and several more Indians, herded by watchful guards. I’m delighted to glimpse Jefferson, who gives me a quick tip of his chin. Beside him is Tom, who seems awful thin to me, but his eyes are bright, and when he sees me, he gives me a forced smile.

I twist in my chair and spot Mary. Beside her is Muskrat, dressed in someone’s threadbare long johns. My first feeling is relief—Muskrat is alive!—followed by hope. He and Mary exchange a quick word, and then they look up, as if sensing my gaze. Muskrat meets my eye with a confident, determined gaze and a slight nod of his head. I hope that means the plan is moving forward, that tomorrow will be the day.

Muskrat moves past Mary and joins his own people. They settle on the ground together and talk among themselves. Something makes Muskrat laugh.

Behind everyone stand several other foremen, including Frank Dilley and Wilhelm. All have rifles or revolvers held at the ready. Abel Topper carries his whip.

“Why all the guns?” I ask. Another expense. The night is damp, and most of those guns will have to be discharged of their gunpowder after Lowrey’s sermon.

“A precaution. Topper got word the Indians might be planning something.”

My breath is suddenly icy in my chest. “Then why allow them to attend at all?”

“For the sake of their immortal souls, of course,” Hiram says. “We cannot neglect God’s work even as we seek after industry.”

“How decent of you.”

Hiram gives me a warning look, and his grip on my arm tightens, but I’m spared any scolding because Reverend Lowrey climbs up into the wagon, straightens and smoothens his suit, and opens his huge Bible.

A hush descends, and Lowrey says, “As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, there is one thing we ought to be thankful for above all things: God’s saving grace.” And he launches into a sermon about the most fiery, awful, painful fate imaginable, and how we can avoid it by simply putting our faith and trust in the savior of man.

Lowrey isn’t remarkable as preachers go; I’ve seen better. But his hand-waving tirade about fire and brimstone is the most entertaining thing to happen to this camp since I arrived, and everyone sits rapt as Lowrey works himself into a lather.

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