Like a River Glorious Page 82

My legs don’t seem to work right, and I’m forced to plop back down onto the ground. I let my face fall into my hands, and I just concentrate on trying to breathe. Four thousand dollars. And people just gave to us.

“Lee, what’s wrong? I thought you’d be happy!”

“I’m fine! It’s just . . .” Another deep breath. “I’ve spent my whole life witching up gold. It’s how I fed my family. It’s how I was supposed to become rich. I thought . . .” My voice turns sheepish as I admit this. “I thought my magic would save us all. But it turns out, all the magic in the world is rubbish compared to good people who take care of their own.”

Jefferson has this maddening grin that make my toes feel funny. “Well, that sounds like wisdom to me.” He reaches a hand for me. “Come on. Let’s head over to the Worst Tavern for supper.”

I allow him to drag me to my feet and lead me back toward town. We’re almost there when Jefferson grabs my arm. “Wait. Lee, there’s something I’ve got to say.”

My eyes are level with his shirt. He’s finally patched up that bullet hole, with clumsy black stitches. And he desperately needs a new pair of suspenders. He deserves a nice, new set of boughten clothes. Maybe he’ll let me buy it for him.

“Lee?”

I look up. He’s gazing down at me with such pleading, such yearning, and it feels like I’m not getting enough air, because if he asks me to marry him again, I’m not sure what I ought to say.

“I know I’ve asked you to marry me a few times,” he begins.

“Just a few.”

“And that offer is still on the table; don’t think it’s not.”

“All right.”

“It’s just . . . you should know . . . all this talk about California becoming a state soon and us getting a proper town charter and all . . .”

I reach for his hand and squeeze it tight. “Go on.”

“I’m not sure I want anything to do with it.”

“What?” Is he saying he’ll leave me? How could he not want to be part of our town?

As if reading my mind, he says, “I mean, I’m not going anywhere. But . . . My mother’s people were forced to leave Georgia so white men could get rich. And when we left to head west, I thought it would finally be my turn. I would be the one getting rich for a change. I deserved it, right?”

“You do deserve it, Jeff.”

“I don’t. No one does. Not that way. And now, after what I saw at Hiram’s Gulch, I’m not sure what to do.”

“So what are you saying? You won’t mine? You won’t be part of the town?”

He frowns. “I don’t know what I’m saying exactly. I’m still figuring it. I’ll probably do some mining, I’ll hunt, a lot of the things I did back home. But I don’t think I’ll ever own property. It’s not my land, Lee. And it wouldn’t be right to just . . . take it. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe I can’t own land free and legal, anyway, being half-Cherokee. But I thought you should know, on the off chance that you’re considering becoming my wife. I mean, maybe you’re not. But if you are . . . I may never own land. I’ll probably never be rich.”

I’m not sure how to respond, or if I should. It’s too much to think on to let any old thing come out of my mouth. I settle for squeezing his hand again and saying, “Thank you for telling me.”

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine


Tom, Henry, Jefferson, Mary, and I ride into Sacramento on Christmas Eve. It’s a muddy, busy town, and even though it’s new, it’s already bigger than Dahlonega. It snugs up against the water, just south of the convergence of the Sacramento and American Rivers, which creates a wide, watery highway that isn’t nearly as awe-inspiring as the Mississippi, but respectable just the same.

The river is muddy brown with autumn flooding, filled with detritus and boats. Most are sailboats of various sizes, but a few are large paddle steamers, and for the life of me, I can’t figure how they can all maneuver without crashing into one another.

“Town’s built too close to the river,” Jefferson observes.

“Yep,” Tom agrees. “If we’d built Glory this near the creek, it’d flood come spring for sure.”

“It’s bigger than I expected,” I say. Though regular two-story buildings make up the heart of town, tents and shanties extend east almost as far as the eye can see.

“They say San Francisco is even bigger,” Henry says. “Four or five times bigger.”

We all turn to stare at him.

“Cross my heart!” he says.

“We ought to find a hotel,” Tom says, so we follow his lead and urge our horses forward.

The hotels are all booked full for the holiday, and we are forced to try a saloon, but Tom comes back outside with a frown, saying, “No place for young ladies.” Finally a kind soul points us in the direction of a boardinghouse one block off the main square. The gentleman running the place insists we pay for two separate rooms—one for the men, one for Mary and me—which is a ridiculous expense, since we’ve all been sleeping side by side on the trail for days. But now that we’re in a city, I guess we have to start behaving in city ways.

Becky’s gown, along with a corset and petticoat, has been folded up in my saddlebag. I don’t have an iron, and I’m not sure how to take care of silk, anyway, so I just shake everything out and hang it on a peg to air, hoping it will be suitable enough.

In the evening, we begin to get ready. My hair is almost long enough to put up, but not quite. I settle for parting it down the middle and pinning it smooth over my ears. Becky gave me a little bauble of lace and yellow rosettes, and once I pin it in place, it almost looks like I have a proper bun.

The gown is still a bit wrinkled, but not too badly. It slips over my corset and petticoats with ease. Mary helps me lace up the back and ties a perfect bow.

“You sure you don’t want to go to the ball?” I ask her as I give the skirt an experimental swish. I’m delighted with the way it moves around my ankles, like flowing water. “I’d love to have your company.”

“I’m sure. It’s bad for business, to show up at these sorts of things.”

I have no idea what that means, so I just shrug. Then I remember something else.

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