Like a River Glorious Page 7

I grab my rifle from Peony’s saddle holster. “I’ll take first watch.”

“Wake me in a few hours,” Jefferson says.

But I’m still sitting on the hilltop, wide awake, rifle across my lap, when morning blushes the sky.

A condor soars high above. It’s a giant of a bird, bigger even than an eagle, with magnificent black-and-white wings. Like everything else in this territory, it’s both familiar and odd, and it makes my old home in Georgia seem like a very small, distant place.

After breakfast, we split up our gear. The Hoffmans agree to let us keep all the tents, the mining gear we bought at Mormon Island, and Mr. Hoffman’s gray gelding. In exchange, they’ll keep the wagon and half the oxen, which they’ll take to San Francisco and sell.

Everyone says their good-byes. The four Hoffman boys are stone-faced as they hitch up the oxen, except Otto, whose lower lip quivers. Martin goes about the work with jerky, slapdash movements, yanking on the hitch so hard that an ox lows in protest.

Mrs. Hoffman hugs Becky fiercely.

“I’d dearly love a letter from you, Helma,” Becky says.

Mrs. Hoffman promises to write. “Take care of that baby girl,” she admonishes. “And you must write me when you’ve finally settled on her name!”

As the wagon rolls away, Olive Joyner runs after it, doll swinging at her side. “Doreen!”

My heart stops as the Hoffman girl leaps from the back of the wagon and tumbles to the ground. But she jumps nimbly to her feet and runs toward Olive, bonnet whipping at her back. The two little girls throw themselves into each other’s arms.

Olive pulls away. She shoves her rag doll into Doreen’s arms. Without another word, she turns and dashes into the nearest tent.

Martin Hoffman strides back toward us to fetch his little sister. Doreen doesn’t protest when he swings her up, but tears stream down her cheeks, and she’s still staring at us over her brother’s shoulder, Olive’s rag doll dangling from her tiny hand, when the Hoffman family disappears into the trees.

 

 

Chapter Three


Becky wipes at her cheek and smooths her blond hair. “Well,” she says, checking a hair pin. “The cure for a heavy heart is industry.” With that, she turns toward the fire and begins scraping the breakfast dishes.

No one else moves for a moment. I look around at all the folks who are willing to risk their lives to stay with me: Jefferson and Hampton; Jasper, Tom, and Henry; Widow Joyner, with her two little ones; and Major Craven. I swallow the lump in my throat. “So, who wants to learn how to pan for gold?”

“Me!” Andy shouts, raising his hand like he’s in a schoolroom.

“And me,” Jasper says, a bit sheepishly. For all that he’s a doctor and wants to help people, he’s caught the fever like everyone else and wants to feel the weight of heavy pockets.

“I’ll go with Jefferson and stake all our claims,” Hampton says.

“There’s nothing to it,” Jefferson says, nodding. “Folks at Sutter’s Fort said to pace it out, pound some stakes into the ground, and connect them with string.”

Tom rubs at his chin. “Doesn’t seem right, having everything so informal.”

Henry cuffs him on the shoulder. “Not everything in the world is a law written in stone.”

“Well, it should be! Especially with California destined for statehood. We need the law more than ever in tumultuous times. What if—”

“What if you come and help me lay out the foundation for our cabin?” Henry interrupts gently, to everyone’s relief. Once Tom gets on a tear, there’s no stopping him.

“Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” Tom says. “Putting up cabins seems like a much more secure way to make our claim than stakes and strings.”

“Won’t do us any harm to do both,” Major Craven says. He waves his crutch at us. “I’m not much for heavy lifting or hammering or digging these days, but I’ll tend to the animals and then stand watch.”

“Watching the widow,” Jefferson whispers at my side, and I hit him with an elbow.

“Olive, go with Lee,” Becky orders her daughter. “Later, you’ll teach me what you learned about panning for gold.”

Olive has crept out of the tent, and though tears still streak her cheeks, she stands stoically, hands clasped against her pinafore. “Yes, Ma.”

“Don’t sound so disappointed,” Jasper says. “We’ll have fun.”

He pats her head, and she jerks away. She doesn’t care for that any more than I would.

I stare for just a moment toward the trees that swallowed up the Hoffman family; then I grab a wide, shallow pan, a bucket, and my hat. “All right, Andy and Olive. Are you ready to get soaking wet?”

“Yes, ma’am!” Andy says, while Olive regards my pan suspiciously.

“I’ve got the shovels,” Jasper says.

“Then let’s go.”

If we were back in Georgia, trying to pan for gold in those played-out creeks, we could be at it all morning and not have anything to show for it but sunburned necks, blistered hands, and a few flakes of shiny dust. Here in California, my gold sense is humming all the time, like my school bell has been pulled, and there’s ringing in my ears that won’t go away.

Jasper convinces the children to stand quiet long enough for me to concentrate, and I pick us a prime spot. It’s a wide, flat place in the creek, shallow enough for Andy and Olive, with a tinkling like chimes bouncing up through the ripples.

As expected, the gold comes easy. Mostly I supervise and explain what to do. Jasper shovels the gravel and black sand, and he and Olive take turns shaking the pans in water until the heavy pieces sink to the bottom. Olive hums as she works, some old hymn. It’s her favorite tune—I’ve heard her humming it while she helps her mother.

“Slow down,” I tell Olive. “You have to let the gold settle. Do you see it?”

“Where?” she asks.

All I mean to do is point, but it seems as though the flake lifts out of the water and sticks to my finger, just as if I called it. It’s the strangest feeling, like a static shock when it touches my skin.

“Did you do that on purpose?” Jasper asks.

“Do what on purpose?” I say. “Give me your hand.” I brush the tiny speck of gold into his palm. “You hold on to what we find. Now both of you, get back to work. This gold isn’t going to pan itself.”

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