Like a River Glorious Page 76

Hiram’s men are going to be awful surprised when they find the stockade empty, which means Jefferson and I have to work fast.

“Now!” I say, as soon as my uncle is out of sight.

Jefferson grabs a flake of flint and strikes it against an old busted horseshoe. A shower of sparks rains down on his char cloth, but it doesn’t ignite. Neither does it catch fire on the second try.

“Might be a little damp,” he says, and he reaches for the powder horn at his hip to measure out a tiny pinch of gunpowder, which he sprinkles onto the cloth.

His next strike ignites the char cloth in several places. He grabs some tinder, places it carefully on the tiny flames, and begins to blow and coax it into a decent fire, adding small sticks as he goes.

While he does that, I find a nice rock about half again the size of my fist and wrap my torn rag around it. I tie it off so it looks like a ball with a tiny waving flag on the end.

“I guess we could have just borrowed from the fire at the barracks,” I say.

“It’s better this way,” Jefferson says. “If someone is still hanging around, and they see us running for the barracks, it’s all over. Okay, this fire is good for now. Time to move those barrels.”

He stands to go, and I grab his hand. “Be careful,” I tell him.

Jefferson grins. “You’d be heartsick if something happened to me, wouldn’t you?”

I glare at him.

“Back soon. Keep that fire going.”

My pulse is in my throat, now that he mentioned the possibility of someone hanging around. What if he’s seen?

Jefferson reaches the barrels and yanks off the top one. All that work to steal little bits of gunpowder, and now in the chaos we can take as much as we want. He pulls the plug, and gunpowder streams out. It keeps right on streaming as he drags the barrel into the mine.

This is the most dangerous part of my plan. If anyone sees us, we’re done for. If gunpowder gets anywhere near the lanterns inside the mine, we’re done for. And once my uncle’s men realize they’ve been tricked, they’ll come rushing back. If we’re not finished with our work by then, we’re done for.

The barracks fire is burning itself out. The camp is still washed in firelight, but shadows hug the edges now, and maybe that’s a good thing. I’m staring past the barracks toward my uncle’s cabin, gladdened with the thought that I’ll never see the inside of that awful place again, when something flickers in the shadows. A shadowier shadow, moving with purpose.

I should warn Jefferson that we are not alone. I can’t call out to him. I’ll have to sneak into the mine myself.

Leaving the fire where it is, I gather my legs and quietly stand. I make it two steps before I glimpse the shadow again. This time, I recognize the tall, skinny form.

It’s Tom. He’s supposed to be hiding in the trees at our rendezvous point, keeping an eye on our mounts so we can flee as soon as possible. Dawn is still hours away, and firelight makes the darkness hard to parse, but God bless the man, because he’s done our plan one better. Instead of doing what he was told, he’s freeing the horses from the stable—they’re near panicked already, from the scents of fire and blood—and grabbing their extra tack.

After he smacks the rump of the last horse, a dark, beautiful animal that is surely Hiram’s, he looks up toward the arrastra where I’m hiding and flashes a wide white grin against the black night. He waves once, and I wave back, and then he and the gear he’s stolen melt back into the darkness.

“That’s one barrel in position.”

I jump out of my skin at Jefferson’s voice.

“Just let me roll the others inside,” he says. “See if we can’t bring the whole mountain down.”

“I’ll help. Let’s be quick.”

We rush over and each grab a barrel. Mine is heavier than heavy, and rolling it even the tiniest bit uphill almost proves too much, because it keeps wanting to roll back over my toes.

“How did you get that first barrel inside so easy?” I say between huffing breaths.

“It was hardly three-quarters full,” Jefferson admits.

We’re running out of time. So I think about Hiram and how this is my one shot to completely ruin him without doing murder, and I push a little harder, and bit by bit, we manage to get the barrels farther inside the entrance.

My uncle’s men have surely reached the stockade by now. They’ve seen the place is empty. It might take them a moment or two to figure out what’s really happening; a few will undoubtedly take off into the trees in pursuit of Indians—who are hopefully long gone. But not my uncle. He’ll turn around and come right back. He might be walking up the hill this very moment.

Inside the mine, Jefferson’s thick trail of gunpowder twists like a black snake down the tunnel. “I put a whole pile of it at the edge of the Drink, right up against the supports,” he says. “Another pile near the end of the Joyner. I don’t have a lot of experience with gunpowder other than for shooting guns, but it should do its work.”

We settle our barrels, each one against a beam bolstering the entrance. As we start to leave, I grab his arm. “Thank you,” I tell him.

His hand comes up to mine, and he squeezes.

We exit the mine together and head toward the arrastra and our tiny fire. As I bend to pick up my rag-covered rock, drops of water splatter onto my face.

“No,” I whisper. “No, no, please no.”

“Rain!” Jefferson says. “We have to move fast.”

I dip the flag of fabric into the fire until it ignites, then hold it gingerly as it creeps up toward my hand.

“I’ll do it,” Jefferson says. “You should be a safe distance away.”

I think of Frank Dilley shooting that Indian in the head, of Hiram burning my daddy’s boots, of scaly, mercury-sick skin and the picture of Mama on Hiram’s dresser and the rawness of my wrists that will show scars for a long time. I think of the broken bodies littering my uncle’s camp. “No, I need to do it.”

I step toward the line of gunpowder. It stretches out of the mine for several paces, but once I light it, we’ll have to run like demons are chasing us. And maybe they will be.

“Hurry!” Jefferson says. “Someone’s coming.”

I touch the flame to the gunpowder. It sizzles and sparks as a tiny lick of fire races away from me toward the mine.

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