Like a River Glorious Page 86

We’re done, and my friends and I are, finally, truly safe.

“Weather permitting,” Hardwick says as we head back downstairs, “there will be fireworks along the riverfront tonight. I encourage you to view them.”

We reach the dance floor. “Thank you, Mr. Hardwick. That sounds like just the thing.”

“I might pay a visit to Glory this spring,” he says. “Can’t miss the opportunity to see such a blessed place full of earthen angels.”

His tone is mocking, but I choose to take his words at face value. “You would surely be welcome, sir,” I tell him.

From the corner of my eye, I see a throng of hopeful men approaching, full of purpose, each angling to reach me first. In a panic, I look to Jefferson. “Help?” I squeak out.

With that lightning grin I love so much, he grabs my hand and pulls me into the dancing fray. Jefferson is a terrible dancer, and so am I, and after a while I’m fairly sure the new boots the Major made for me are ruined from being stepped on so much. But it doesn’t matter, because I’m so breathless with relief and laughter and the wonderful familiarity of being with my best friend in the whole world.

Someone taps Jefferson on the shoulder to cut in, and he is about to comply, but I grab his hand and pull him close. “I only want to dance with you tonight,” I say.

His smile disappears. As we dance and dance and dance, he stares down at me with so much hope in his eyes that my heart hurts.

The music stops, and the governor steps onto the stage and announces that everyone is invited to head toward the docks to see the fireworks. Jefferson’s hand stays clasped in mine as we leave the ballroom, skirt the giant Christmas tree, and step into the night.

We follow everyone else across the street and between buildings, toward the river and its network of hasty, haphazard docks. “Jefferson,” I whisper, yanking on his arm. “Look. It’s the Stirling.”

It’s a schooner devoid of sails, anchored permanently just offshore. In the dark, it seems a great hulking beast, a leviathan waiting to leap out of the water.

“That’s where your uncle is,” Jefferson says.

“Yes.” It’s odd to be so close to him just now. Does he have a window? Could he look out and see me?

“Do you want to visit him before he leaves?” Jefferson asks. “I’m sure we can arrange it, if that’s what you want.”

I stare at the ship. The water laps peacefully against its hull—along with the hulls of dozens of other ships that look abandoned and half salvaged for building materials.

“No. I told him I’d never speak to him again, and I meant it.” And I turn my back on the Stirling and Hiram Westfall and follow all the other ball attendees to a long dock lined with candles.

Violins take up a hymn, and I recognize it as the one Olive hums while she helps her ma serve miners, the same one Henry sang as Martin lay dying. Several people around us begin to sing along:

Like a river glorious, is God’s perfect peace

Over all victorious, in its bright increase . . .

“We were victorious today,” Jefferson whispers in my ear.

I smile. “We were.”

Beside us, Tom has an arm around Henry as the two gaze toward the sky.

The first fireworks shoot across the night, reflecting sparks of color on the surface of the river. More and more shoot up, higher and higher, so that it seems we’re surrounded by glittering light.

“This is what it’s like, Jeff!” I say. “When I call the gold to me. Do you see? Isn’t it fine?”

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“I see.”

But I get the sense he’s not looking at the sky at all.

“Lee—” he begins, but I interrupt.

“Don’t ask me to marry you again,” I say. “Not even one more time.”

“I . . . Okay.” His voice is suddenly small.

“Because I’m going to ask you.”

His breath catches.

I turn to face him. “Remember when we left for Sacramento the first time? Before Dilley and his men found us? You told me I was in love with you.”

“I remember.”

“Well, I reckon you were right.”

“Oh, Lee.” He wraps his arms around me and pulls me close, nuzzling my hair.

“So, is that a yes?” I say, though it comes out muffled against his chest.

“You haven’t asked me anything yet.”

“Oh. Right.”

I step away just so I can take in his face—his black eyes that have so much kindness in them. His perfect mouth. The way his hair curls at the nape, just so. “Jefferson McCauley Kingfisher, will you do me the honor of becoming my husband?”

Finally his grin is back. “Even though I won’t ever own property?”

“Especially because of that. Jeff, all this time I thought I was coming to California so I could finally have something of my own. But I had it all along. I had you. And now I have Jasper and Tom and Henry, Becky and her kids, the Major, Hampton, maybe even Mary. My home is not a place; it’s people.”

He tips up my chin with a forefinger. “It’s about blasted time you came to your fool senses,” he murmurs, then he bends down and kisses me, and it’s better than fireworks, better even than sparkling gold.

Reluctantly I break away to say, “So is that a yes?”

“That’s a hell yes.”

“What a relief. I was afraid that after everything I’d put you through, you’d say no.”

Jefferson laughs. “Leah, surely you know? You’ve been the only girl for me since we were five years old.”

Tom and Henry sidle over, and I can tell they’re curious about what just happened, but neither Jefferson nor I offer them anything yet. I want to keep this moment precious, just between us, for a little longer.

The fireworks swell to a climactic finale, as the violins play “O Christmas Tree.” Then the lights and the music cease, and everyone begins to drift away. “Let’s go, Golden Goddess,” Jefferson says. “Time to go home.”

I punch him in the shoulder. “Never call me that again.”