Like a River Glorious Page 78

My knees are wobbly and my heart is like hummingbird wings in my chest as I turn about, peering through the rain and the dark for Jefferson. Now that I’m no longer calling the gold to me, streams of it wash from my dress, my arms, my boots, swirling into the mud. It mixes and washes away, mixes and washes away until it’s no more. It would take a witchy girl to know the gold was ever there.

Something cracks my cheekbone. Pain explodes through my eye.



Chapter Twenty-Seven

“What have you done?” someone screams.

Another blow rattles my teeth and splits my lip. Blood dribbles down my chin.

My uncle is going to kill me. I have ruined him, and he’s finally going to kill me. I just hope Jefferson got away in all the chaos.

I struggle to remain standing. I sense another blow coming, and I try to dodge, but I’m not fast enough, and it glances against my temple. My vision turns starry, and I drop to my knees.

“Hiram,” I manage through my busted, swelling lip.

My voice stops him. He crouches down, gets right in my face. His eyes are wide and bereft, his cheeks smeared with mud. Traces of gold cling to his sopping coat, though I’m sure he has no idea.

He grabs my upper arms, and he shakes and shakes. “Why, Leah? How could you? Your very own father! And after everything I’ve done for you.”

“You mean steal my home, destroy my family, kidnap me, and box my face?”

“I just wanted us to be together, to be family. Now, I’ll have to . . . I’ll never . . .”

“You’ll never be able to borrow money again,” I say. “No one will agree to work for you. You’ve lost everything. You’re ruined.”

He gapes at me.

“And my father,” I add, “is Reuben Westfall. He always has been. He always will be. Doesn’t matter who I was born to. He’s the man I’d pick for my daddy, no matter what, and that counts way more than blood, to my way of thinking.”

Even in the darkness, I feel Hiram’s features harden. I feel the rage growing inside him like a storm cloud, and I know, for sure and certain, that I have yet to understand the violence this man is capable of.

So I don’t know why my next words come out of my mouth, but they do. “And you are nothing to me. Less than nothing. You are a viper to be stepped on. You are not worthy of my love, or my time, or even my words. From this day forward, I shall not speak to you again.”

He yells something unintelligible, raising his arm to give me the beating of all beatings. This is it. The moment he kills me.

Like lightning, another hand comes up, catches Hiram’s wrist as it descends toward my face. And the blow does not come.

I blink through the rain, trying to make sense of it.

Jefferson stands over me, fierceness in his face. He is like a mama bear, protecting her cub. Blood streams from his temple, like he fell and struck his head on a rock, but it doesn’t seem to be slowing him down now. With his other hand, he grabs Hiram by the throat and shoves him back. My uncle falls onto his rear, squishing up mud. He tries to get up, and suddenly Wilhelm is there too, pushing him back down.

Wilhelm’s hand reaches inside his coat. He draws out a bottle of laudanum.

I should tell him to stop. I know I should. Instead, I watch, somewhat horrified, somewhat glad, as he yanks the stopper, puts the bottle to Hiram’s lips, and forces him to drink.

Hiram tries to scuttle back like a crab, but Jefferson has his shoulders in a firm grip, and Hiram can only guzzle helplessly as Wilhelm forces any remaining laudanum in the bottle down his gullet.

Jefferson rises, reaches for my hand. “Tom and Mary are waiting,” he says, trying to lead me away, but I resist.

“Wait,” I say. I step forward and tug on the sleeve of Wilhelm’s coat.

My uncle has clasped his arms around his knees, and now he’s rocking back and forth in the mud, rocking, rocking.

Wilhelm turns to stare at me, an apology in his face, though in this darkness I could be mistaken.

“Wilhelm, we’re leaving. You coming?”

His eyes widen. I’ve well and truly surprised him. His mouth opens and an odd sound comes out. He’s trying to talk.

I wait for the sounds to form words in my ears, to make any kind of sense, but they don’t. He sounds like a baby babbling. He tries once more, but frustration clouds his features and he goes silent. Finally he nods once, firmly.

“Let’s go, then.”

I’m not sure where Abel Topper is, or Reverend Lowrey, or who else might have survived. I decide I don’t care. I just want to be away from this place.

“This way,” Jefferson says, with a wary look in Wilhelm’s direction.

We follow after. The air smells of mud and wet soot and something else, something tangy. Blood, maybe. Though the dark and the rain make seeing nearly impossible, Jefferson leads us unerringly past the burned-out barracks, down to the pasture, and across the creek into the trees.

By the time we find Tom and Mary and the horses, I’m shivering with cold. Tom has rounded up an extra mount for Mary, but when he sees Wilhelm, he just shrugs and hands over the reins.

Jefferson boosts me up onto Peony, and everyone else mounts, with Mary riding double with Tom again. Jefferson clucks to Sorry, and together they lead us toward the great valley and eventually home.

We follow the creek downstream all through the night, wanting to be as far from Hiram’s Gulch as possible before dawn breaks. The rain and darkness force us to travel with agonizing slowness. We trust Jefferson to lead; when we hunted together as children, he always tracked and I always shot, partly because his sense of direction is so good it’s almost like magic.

As the sky begins to brighten, casting the golden hills with their twisted oaks in a gray, rainy haze, we urge our mounts to go faster. After less than an hour, Apollo begins to protest, and we’re forced to stop and rest lest he turn up lame.

“Mary can ride with me and Peony next,” I say as we stretch our legs and grab a quick bite of jerky.

“I don’t have much in the way of supplies,” Jefferson says. “I wasn’t prepared. I thought we’d be leaving tonight.”

“We’ll make do,” Tom says. “By the way, happy thanksgiving, everyone.”

“Happy thanksgiving,” everyone returns, somewhat glumly. Wilhelm says nothing, of course, but he raises his canteen with the rest of us, and I’m shocked to discover a hint of a smile on his face.

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