Lee Westfall has a secret. She can sense gold in the world around her. This is a pretty valuable skill in 1849, when gold has just been discovered in California. What would someone do for those powers? Can she survive her journey across the country and keep her family safe? we’ve hit gold with Walk On Earth A Stranger by Rae Carson. Check out the first three chapters below and keep an eye out for the sequel, Like a River Glorious, coming to a bookstore near you on September 27th!
I hear the deer before I see him, though he makes less noise than a squirrel—the gentle crunch of snow, a snapping twig, the soft whuff as he roots around for dead grass. I can hardly believe my luck.
As quietly as falling snow, I raise the butt of my daddy’s Hawken rifle to my shoulder and peer down the muzzle. A crisscross of branches narrows my view. The deer must be allowed to wander into my sights, but that’s all right. I am patient. I am a ghost.
I’ve tucked myself into a deadfall, the result of an ancient, dying oak looming above me. Snow fills the cracks between branches, creating a barrier to the wind. I can barely see out, but I’m almost warm. The snow around me clinks and tinkles like bells, melting in the early morning warm snap. The hem of my skirt and the petticoats underneath are ragged and soaked. If the girls at school saw me now, I’d hear no end of it, but it doesn’t matter. We have to eat.
Which means I have to make this shot. If only I could conjure up fresh game whenever we needed. Now that would be a useful magic.
Finally, a deep, tawny chest and a white throat slide into view. He bends a black nose to the ground, and I glimpse tall, curving antlers—at least three points on each side. His neck is long and elegant, feathered with winter fur. He’s so close I can almost see the pulse at his neck. A beautiful animal.
I pull on the rear trigger—soft, steady pressure, just like Daddy taught me. The click as it sets is barely audible, but the buck’s head shoots up. I refuse to breathe.
I am patient. I am a ghost.
He takes a single dancing step, nose twitching. But I’m downwind, and after a moment he returns to grazing. I shift my finger to the hair trigger. The deadfall blocks my view of his skull, so I aim for the lungs.
It will only take the slightest pressure now, the effort of an exhale.
Church bells clang. The buck startles a split second before my gun cracks the air. He crumples, flails in the snow, scrambles to his feet, and darts away, tail sprung high.
I rip off the ramrod from the barrel as I plunge through the windfall. In good conditions, I can load and shoot again in less than half a minute. Though my fingers are chilled, I might still bag him if I’m quick.
Of course, I wouldn’t need to reload if someone was hunting with me, ready with a second shot. Everything’s harder when you do it alone.
I’m reaching into my satchel for my powder horn when crimson catches my eye. Bright red, sinking wet and warm into the snow. He left a puddle where he fell, and a trail of lighter drops to show me the way. I flanked him good.
I follow at a brisk walk, loading as I go—first gunpowder, then a ball nestled in paper wadding, all shoved down the barrel with my ramrod. I won’t waste another shot on the deer, but there’s a big catamount been prowling these hills. In a winter this mild, the scent of fresh blood might even draw a bear. It’s not quite the hungering time—when a critter that’s naught but fur and fangs and ribs will attack a near-grown girl—but I’ll take no chances.
The trail veers sharply to the right. I pass a bloody depression in the snow where the deer’s legs must have buckled again. I stop to load the cap and rotate the hammer carefully into place, then I lift my skirt and petticoats with my free hand and run—smooth as I can so as not to jostle my gun. I have to reach that deer before anything else does. Never bring home meat that’s already been et on, Daddy always says.
The blood trail plunges down a steep bank thick with young birches. Crimson smears darken their white trunks. My wounded deer is heading toward the McCauley claim, where Jefferson lives with his good-for-nothing da. No sense paying a visit after my hunt, because they’re certainly not home. Jeff’s da attends church every single Sunday, no matter what, on the misguided notion that regular bench sitting makes him decent.
The slope ends at a shallow but swift creek. The water’s edge glitters with ice, but the creek’s center runs clear and clean. My boots are well oiled. If I’m quick, I can cross before the water seeps into my stockings. I hitch my skirt and petticoats higher and plunge in.
Midway across, I freeze.
The gold sense sparks in the back of my throat, sharp and hard. It creeps down my throat and into my chest, where it diffuses into a steady buzz, like dancing locusts. My stomach heaves once, but I swallow against the nausea. We don’t have enough food in the cellar for me to go wasting a meal.
I force my belly to relax, to embrace the sensation. Best to let it wash over me, through me. Allow it to settle in like an old friend come to stay.
It’s only bad like this the first time I’m near something big. A nugget, usually, but sometimes a large vein. From habit, I close my eyes and focus hard, turning in place to find where the sensation is strongest. If I hit it just right, it will be like a string tugging my chest, like something sucking . . . There. I open my eyes. Just across the creek, behind a young, winter-stripped maple. The blood trail leads in the same direction.
All at once I’m shivering, my feet icy with cold. I splash through the creek and scramble up the opposite bank, which is slick with snowmelt. How long was I standing in the water? It seemed like only moments. I wriggle my toes inside my soaked stockings, hoping I haven’t ruined my boots. We can’t afford another pair right now. Good thing I wore my old hunting skirt. The hem is already a disaster and won’t suffer much from being dragged through the stream.
At the top of the bank, I check my rifle, and it seems dry. At least I had sense enough to not let it dangle in the water. As I step around the maple’s trunk, the gold sense grows stronger, but I ignore it because the deer lies in a small depression banked with bloody snow.
He pushes up with his forelegs, antlered head straining in the opposite direction. I whip up my rifle just in case, but he collapses back into the snow, his sides heaving.
I prop my gun against the tree and pull the knife from the belt at my waist. “I’m so sorry,” I whisper, approaching cautiously. Neck or kidney? He’ll fight death until the very last moment. They always do. I know I would.
His antlers still pose too great a threat for me to slice his jugular. He squirms uselessly as I near, head tossing. It needs to be a quick thrust, aimed just right. I raise the knife.
My hand wavers. The gold sense is so strong now, its buzzing so merciless that I feel it down to my toes. It’s almost good, like being filled with sunshine. It means gold is somewhere within reach.
Deer first, gold later.
I plunge the knife into his left kidney. He squeals once, then goes still. Hot blood pumps from the wound for mere seconds before slowing to a trickle. It steams in the air, filling my nose and mouth with bright tanginess. I’ll have to work fast; if that catamount is anywhere near, she’ll be here soon.
He’s too large for me to carry over my shoulders. I’ll have to skin and butcher him and take only the best parts. The great cat is welcome to the rest, with my blessing.
I place the point of my knife low on his soft white underbelly. The gold sense explodes inside me, so much hotter and brighter than the scent of fresh blood. I can’t help it; I drop the knife and dig furiously at the snow—dig and dig until I’ve reached a layer of autumn rot. Muddy detritus jams under my fingernails, but still I dig until something glints at me. Sunshine in the dirt. Warmth in winter.
The nugget unsticks from its muddy resting place without much effort; this time last year I would have had to dig it out of frozen ground. I scrape away mud with the edge of my sleeve. It’s the size of a large, unshelled walnut and rounder than most nuggets, save for a single odd bulge on one side. Must have washed down the creek during last spring’s flood. I gauge its heft in my palm, even as I let my gold sense do its work. Close to ninety percent pure, if I don’t miss my guess.
Worth at least a hundred dollars. More than enough to buy meat to last the winter.
I sit back on my heels, nugget clutched tight, staring at the animal I just killed. I don’t even need it now. Waste not, want not, Mama always says. And Lord knows Daddy could use a fresh venison stew.
Today is my luckiest day in a long time. I shove the nugget into the pocket of my skirt, pick up my skinning knife, and get to work.
The sun is high over the mountains when I finally haul my venison up the stairs of the back porch. Everything I could carry is wrapped in the deer’s own skin, tied with twine. My shoulders ache—I carried it a mile or more—and though I bundled it up tight as I could, my blouse and skirt are badly stained.
“Mama!” I call out. “Could use a hand.”
She bangs out the doorway, a dishrag in her hands. A few strands of hair have already escaped her shiny brown bun, and the lines around her eyes have gone from laughing to worried.
“Daddy’s not doing so good, is he?” I ask.
Her gaze drops to the bundle in my arms and to the rifle balanced carefully across it. “Oh, bless your heart, Leah,” she says. She shoves the dishrag into the pocket of her apron and reaches out her arms. “Give it here. I’ll get a stew on while you tend your gun and feed the chickens.”
As I hand it over, I can’t help blurting, “There’s more, Mama. I had a find.”
She freezes, and I leap forward to catch the package of meat before it slides out of her arms. Finally, she says, “Been awhile. I thought maybe you’d outgrown it.”
“I reckon not,” I say, disappointed in her disappointment.
“I reckon not,” she agrees. “Well, take care of your business, and we’ll discuss it with your daddy when you’re done.”
She disappears into the kitchen. I hitch the Hawken over my shoulder and head toward the henhouse. Just beyond it is a break in the trees. We keep the land clear here, so nothing can sneak up on the chickens easily. It’s a good hundred-yard stretch—all the way to the scar tree, a giant pine I use for discharging my rifle. I whip the gun down and cradle the butt to my shoulder. The wind is picking up from the north a bit, so I aim a hair to the right. Best aim I ever saw from such a wee gal, Jefferson’s da once told me, the only compliment I’ve ever heard him give.
Rear trigger, soft breath, hair trigger, boom. Splinters fly into the air as my shot hits its target. The chickens squawk a bit but settle quickly. They’re used to me.
I lean the gun against the side of the henhouse. I’ll clean her while I’m at the table talking with Mama and Daddy. It will give me an excuse to avoid their worried gazes. “You hungry?” I say, and I hear my chickens—who are not nearly as stupid as most people think—barreling toward the door for their breakfast.
I lift the bar and swing open the door, and they come pouring out, squawking and pecking at the toes of my boots, as if this will summon their breakfast even sooner. They forget all about me the moment their feed is scattered on the ground. Except for my favorite hen, Isabella, who flaps into my arms when I crouch. I stroke her glossy black tail feathers while she pecks at the seed in my hand. It hurts a little, but that’s all right.
I have a strange life; I know it well. We have a big homestead and not enough working hands, so I’m the girl who hunts and farms and pans for gold because her daddy never had sons. I’m forever weary, my hands roughed and cracked, my skirts worn too thin too soon. The town girls poke fun at me, calling me “Plain Lee” on account of my strong hands and my strong jaw. I don’t mind so much because it’s better than them knowing the real trickiness in my days—that I find gold the way a water witch divines wells.
But there’s plenty I love about my life that makes it all just fine: the sunrise on the snowy mountain slopes, a mama and daddy who know my worth, that sweet tingle when a gold nugget sits in the palm of my hand. And my chickens. I love my loud, silly chickens.
Only four eggs today. I gather them quickly, brushing straw from their still-warm shells and settling them gently into my pockets. Then I grab my rifle and head inside to face the aftermath of witching up another nugget.
Daddy always says I was born with a gold nugget in my left hand and a pickax in my right. That’s why Mama had such a hard time birthing me; she had to squeeze a lot more out of her belly than just a bundle of baby girl. The first time I heard it told, I gave my rag doll to Orpha the dog and announced I would never have children of my own.
It didn’t take me long to figure it for a fancy lie, like the one about St. Nicholas bringing presents on Christmas, or how walking backward around the garden three times would keep the aphids out of our squash. But that’s Daddy for you, always telling tall tales.
I don’t mind. I love his stories, and his best ones are the secret ones, the mostly true ones, spoken in whispers by the warmth of the box stove, with no one to hear but me and Mama. They’re always about gold. And they’re always about me.
After shucking my boots and banging them against the porch rail to get off the mud, I walk inside and find Daddy settled in his rocking chair, his big, stockinged feet stretched as near to the box stove as he dares. He starts to greet me but coughs instead, kerchief over his mouth. It rattles his whole body, and I can practically hear his bones shake. He pulls away the kerchief and crumples it in his fist to hide it. He thinks I don’t know what he’s coughing up.
The bed quilt drapes across his shoulders, and a mug of coffee steams on the tree-stump table beside him. The house smells of burning pine and freshly sliced turnips.
“Mama said you found some gold today,” Daddy says calmly as I set my boots next to the stove to dry.
“Yes, sir.” I head back to the table, where I reach into my pocket for the eggs I gathered and set them beside Mama’s stew pot.
He sips his coffee. Swallows. Sighs. “Did I ever tell you about the Spanish Moss Nugget?” he asks. Then he doubles over coughing, and I dare to hope it’s not so violent as it was yesterday.
“Tell me,” I say, though I’ve heard it a hundred times.
Mama’s gaze meets mine over the stew pot, and we share a secret smile. “Tell us,” she agrees. I pull up a chair, then lay my rifle on the table and start taking it apart.
“Well, since you insist. It happened in the spring of ’35,” he begins. “The easy pickings were long gone by then, and I’d had a hard day with nothing to show. I was walking home creekside, trying to beat the coming storm, when I chanced on a moss-fall under a broad oak. A wind came up and blew away the moss, and there she was, bright and beautiful and smiling; bigger than my fist, just sitting there, nice as you please.”
Never in my life have I seen a nugget so big. I’ve heard tales, but I’m not sure I believe them. Still, I nod as if I do.
He says, “But the storm was something awful, and night was falling. I couldn’t get to town to get her assayed, so I brought her home. I showed her off to your mama, then I hid her under the floorboards for safekeeping until the storm passed.”
He pauses to take another sip of coffee. The fire inside the stove pops. As soon as I’m done cleaning my gun, I’ll take off my stockings and lay them out to dry too.
“And then what happened?” I ask, because I’m supposed to.
He sets down his cup and rocks forward, eyes wide with the fever. “When I got up in the morning, what did I see but my own little Lee with that nugget in her chubby hand, banging it on the floor and laughing and kicking out her legs, like she’d found the greatest toy.”
Mama sighs with either remembrance or regret over the first time I divined gold. I was two years old.
He says, “So I re-hid it. This time in the larder.”
“But I found it again, didn’t I, Daddy?” I cover the ramrod in a patch of clean cloth and shove it down the muzzle. It comes out slightly damp, which means I might have faced a nasty backfire the next time I shot.
“Again and again and again. You found it under the mattress, lodged in the toe of my boot, even buried in the garden. That’s when I knew my girl was special. No, magical.”
Mama can’t hold back a moment more. “These are rough times,” she warns as she drops pieces of turnip into the pot. She has a small, soft voice, but it’s sneaky the way it can still a storm. Mostly, the storm she stills is my daddy. “Folks’d be powerful keen to hear tell of a girl who could divine gold.”
“They would, at that,” Daddy says thoughtfully. “Since there’s hardly a lick of surface gold left in these mountains.”
This is why we are not rich, and we never will be. Sure, the Spanish Moss Nugget bought our windows, our wagon, and the back porch addition. But the Georgia gold rush played itself out long ago, and it turns out that not even a magical girl can conjure gold from nothing or lift it from stubborn rock with just her thoughts. We’ve labored hard for what little I’ve been able to divine, and I’ve found less and less each year. Last summer, we diverted the stream and dug up the dry bed until not a speck remained. This year, we attacked the cliff side with our pickaxes until Daddy got too sick.
There’s more gold to be found deep in the ground—my honey-sweet sense tells me so—but there’s only so much two people can accomplish. Daddy refuses to buy slaves; he was raised Methodist, back in the day when the church was against slavery.
Today’s nugget is my first big find in more than a year.
Lord knows we need the money. Which is a mighty odd thing to need, considering that we have a bag of sweet, raw gold dust hidden beneath the floorboards. Daddy says we’re saving it for a rainy day.
But Mama says we hid it because taking so much gold to the mint would attract attention. She’s right. Whenever we bring in more than a pinch or two of dust, word gets out, and strangers start crawling all over our land like ants on a picnic, looking for the mother lode. In fact, I’ve earned my daddy a nickname: Reuben “Lucky” Westfall, everyone calls him. Only the three of us know the truth, and we’ve sworn to keep it that way.
In the meantime, the barn roof is starting to leak; the cellar shelves are still half empty, with the worst cold yet to come; and we owe Free Jim’s store for this year’s winter wheat seed. A big nugget like the one I found could take care of it all. It’s a lucky find, sure, but not so lucky as an entire flour sack of gold dust worked from a played-out claim.
“So, Leah,” Daddy says, and I look up from wiping the stock. He never calls me that. It’s always “Lee” or “sweet pea.”
“Where exactly did you find that rock?”
“By a new deer trail, west of the orchard.”
“I heard the rifle shot. Sounded like it came from a long ways off.”
“Sure did. Longer still before I got him. I nicked him in the flank, and he ran off. I tracked him down the mountain and across the creek to . . . Oh.”
I had crossed over onto McCauley land.
Daddy’s rocking chair stills. “It doesn’t belong to us,” he says softly.
“But we need—” I stop myself. Jefferson and his da need it as bad or worse than we do.
“We’re not thieves,” Daddy says.
“I found it fair and square!”
He shakes his head. “Doesn’t matter. If Mr. McCauley came by and ‘found’ our peaches in the orchard, would it be all right to help himself to a bushel?”
“She should put it right back where she found it,” Mama says.
“No!” I protest, and Daddy gives me the mind-your-mother-or-else look. I swallow hard and try to lower my voice, but I’ve never mastered the gentle firmness of Mama’s way. I’m a too-loud-or-nothing kind of girl. “I mean, if we can’t keep it, then the McCauleys should have it. Their cabin is in bad shape, and their milk cow died last winter, and . . . I’ll take it back. I’ll give it over to Jefferson’s da.”
Mama carries her pot to the box stove and sets it on top. “What will you tell him?” she asks, giving the stew a quick stir.
“The truth. That I was hunting, that I tracked my wounded buck onto his claim and chanced upon a nugget.”
Mama frowns. “Knowing Mr. McCauley, the story will be all over town within a day.”
“So? No one needs to know I witched it up.”
She slams the pot lid into place and turns to brandish her wooden spoon at me. “Leah Elizabeth Westfall, I will not have that word in my house.”
“It’s not a bad word.”
“If anyone hears it, even in passing, they’ll get the wrong idea. I know we live in modern times, but no one suffers a . . . that word. There’s no forgiveness for it. No explaining that will help. I know it full well.”
Mama does this sometimes. She alludes to something that happened to her when she was a girl, something awful. But I know better than to press for details, because it won’t get me anything but more chores or an early trip to bed.
“And I’ll not remind the entire town that we send our fifteen-year-old daughter out hunting on the Lord’s Day,” she continues, still waving that spoon. “Our choices are our choices, and our business is our business, but no good will come from throwing it in people’s faces.”
“I’ll take it back,” Daddy says. “I’ll tell him I was the one out hunting.”
“Reuben, you can hardly walk,” Mama says. “No one will believe it.”
“I’ll wait a few days. Let this cough settle. Then I’ll go. Maybe I’ll do it right before heading to Charlotte.”
This is what Daddy tells us every day. That when his cough “settles,” he’ll take to the road with our bag of gold. He’ll have it assayed at the mint in Charlotte, North Carolina, where no one knows us and no one will ask questions.
“Sure, Daddy.” I don’t dare catch Mama’s eye and give space for the worry growing in both our hearts.
I rise from the table and walk with heavy steps to Daddy’s rocking chair. I pull the nugget from my pocket and place it in his outstretched palm. The gold sense lessens as soon as it leaves my hand, and for the briefest moment I am bereft, like I’ve lost a friend.
“Well, I’ll be,” he says breathlessly, turning it over to catch the morning light streaming through our windows. “Isn’t it a beauty?”
“Sure is,” I agree. It’s so much more than beautiful, though. It’s food and shelter and warmth and life.
His bushy eyebrows knit together as he looks at me, straight on. “This nugget is nothing, Lee. Even your magic is nothing. You’re a good girl and the best daughter. And that? That’s something.”
I can’t even look at him. “Yes, Daddy.”
I return to the table to finish cleaning my rifle. It’s a good time for quiet thinking, so I think hard and long. If Mama won’t let us sell our gold dust, and Daddy refuses to let me keep that nugget, then I need to figure out another way to make ends meet.
I pause, my rag hovering over the wooden stock. “I could do it,” I say.
“What’s that, sweet pea?” Daddy says.
“I could take our gold to get assayed in North Carolina. I’ll drive Chestnut and Hemlock. The colts’d be glad for—”
“Absolutely not,” Mama says.
“It’s nice of you to offer,” Daddy says in a kinder tone. “But the road is no place for a girl all alone.”
“You’d be robbed for sure,” Mama adds. “Or worse.”
I sigh. It was worth a try.
Mama’s gaze on my face softens. “You are such a help, my Leah, and I love you for it. But you would do too much if I let you.”
“Tell you what,” Daddy says. “When this cough settles, maybe your mama will let you come with me.”
“Maybe I would,” Mama says unconvincingly.
“I’d like that,” I say.
When this cough settles, when this cough settles, when this cough settles. I’ve heard it so many times it’s like a song in my head.
Maybe I’ll set traps this winter. Maybe we’ll have another big flood, which will give us an excuse to say we found more gold. Maybe our winter wheat will do better than expected. Maybe I’ll escape to Charlotte with that bag of gold and beg forgiveness afterward.
Maybe I’ll become a real witch, who can cast a spell that will keep our barn dry and fill our cellar.
By morning, the air has warmed enough that fog slithers thick and blue through the creases of my mountains. Because of yesterday’s hunting success, Daddy lets me hitch Peony to the wagon and drive to school.
As soon as I pull up, I can tell something is amiss. Instead of pelting one another with snowballs or playing tag or hoops, the little ones stand clutched together for warmth, holding tight to their dinner pails, speaking in hushed tones. It’s like someone important has died, like the governor. Or even the president. But no, the courthouse flag is not at half-mast.
I hobble Peony and scan the schoolyard for Jefferson. He has a knack for seeing everything around him, and if anyone can speak truth to me, it’s him.
Annabelle Smith, the judge’s daughter, finds me first. “Well, if it isn’t Plain Lee!” she calls out. “Driving to school like the good boy she is.” The girls my age are clustered around her, and they giggle as I approach.
“You seen Jefferson?” I ask.
“Shouldn’t you be out hunting?” Her smile shows off two adorable dimples. God must have a wicked sense of humor to make such a devil of a girl look like such an angel. “Or mucking around in the creek?”
“Please, Annabelle,” I say wearily. “Not today. I just want to talk to my friend.”
Her smile falters, and she indicates a direction with a lift of her chin. “I think he has something you’ll want to see.”
I’m not sure what that means, but I nod acknowledgment and head off toward the outhouse.
Behind it is Jefferson, surrounded by a gaggle of braids and skirts, which is odd because the town girls—even the younger ones—usually avoid him. He stands at least a head above them all; tall enough so the hem of his pants sits high, revealing feet that are bare, even in winter— He must have outgrown his boots again. His face is framed by thick, black hair and a long, straight Cherokee nose he got from his mama. An old bruise yellows the sharp line of his cheekbone.
He sees me, and waves a bit of paper. He extricates himself from the girls and meets me halfway, at the entrance to the small white clapboard that serves as our schoolhouse. The girls eye me warily, but they don’t follow.
“It’s gold, Lee,” he blurts before I can open my mouth to ask. “Discovered in California.”
My stomach turns over hard. “You’re sure?”
He hands me a newspaper cutout. It’s already smudged from too many fingers, and it’s dated December 5, 1848—more than a month ago.
“President Polk announced it to Congress. So it has to be true.”
Thoughts and feelings tumble around too hard and fast for me to put a name to them. I sink down on to the slushy steps, not caring that my second-best skirt will get soaked, and I rub hard at my chin. Gold is everywhere. At least a little bit of it. How much gold would it take for the president to make a special announcement?
“Lee?” he says. “What are you thinking?” His usually serious eyes blaze with fever, a look I know all too well. A look that might be mirrored in my own eyes.
“I’m thinking you’re going to head west, along with this whole town.” That’s why everyone’s so somber. Dahlonega was built on a gold rush of its own, and every child for miles will understand that change is coming, whether they want it to or not.
He plunks down beside me, resting his forearms on skinny knees that practically reach his ears. “They’re saying the land over there is so lush with gold you can pluck it from the ground. Someone like me could . . .”
Silence stretches between us. He hates giving voice to the thing that hurts his heart most; he hardly even talks about it to me. Jefferson is the son of a mean Irish prospector and a sweet Cherokee mama who fled with her brothers ten years ago, when the Indians were sent to Oklahoma Territory. Not a soul in Dahlonega blamed her one bit, even though she left her boy with his good-for-nothing da.
So when Jefferson says “someone like me,” he means “a stupid, motherless Injun,” which is one of the dumber things people call Jefferson, if you ask me, because he’s the smartest boy I know.
“Daddy will want to go,” I whisper at last. And I want to go too, to be honest. Gold is in my blood, in my breath, even in the flecks of my eyes, and I love it the same way Jefferson’s da loves his moonshine.
But, Lord, I’m weary. Weary of trying to be as good to Daddy as three sons, weary of working as hard as any man, weary of the other girls scorning me. And I’m weary of bearing this troubled soul, of knowing things could go very badly if someone learned about my gold-witching ways. If we moved west, to a place where there was still gold to be had, it would start all over again, harder and more troublesome than before.
Then again, maybe California is a place where a witchy girl like me wouldn’t need an explanation for finding so much gold. Maybe it’s a place where we can finally be rich.
“Da will want to go,” Jefferson says. “But we don’t have enough money to put an outfit together. Look at this.”
He unfolds the newspaper, and the bottom of the article is a list of all the items a family needs to go west: four yoke of oxen, a wagon, a mule, rifles, pistols, five barrels of flour, four hundred pounds of bacon . . .
“That’d cost more than six hundred dollars,” I say.
“For a family of three, like yours. But even one person needs at least two hundred.” He shakes his head. “There’s got to be a different way.”
I know from his tone, as surely as I know Mama’s locket doesn’t contain a lick of brass, that Jefferson wants to go west more than anything. “You’re going to run away,” I say.
“Maybe. I don’t know.” He scuffs his bare foot against the step, sending a wave of sludge over the edge. “I could take the sorrel mare. Hunt my way there. Or work for somebody else, taking care of their stock. It’s just that . . . It’s just . . .”
“Jeff?” I peer close to try to figure him. He has a wide mouth that jumps into a smile faster than lightning. But there’s nothing of smiling on his face right now.
“Remember the year the creek dried up, and we caught fifty tadpoles in the stagnant pool?” he says softly.
“Sure,” I say, though I have no idea why he’d bring it up. “I remember you dropping a handful down my blouse.”
“And I remember you screaming like a baby.”
I punch him in the shoulder.
He jerks backward, staring at me in mock disapproval. “Your punches didn’t used to hurt so much.”
“I like to get better at things.”
His gaze drifts far away. Rubbing absently at his shoulder, he says, “You’re my best friend, Lee.”
“We’re too old for school. I only come to see you.”
All at once he turns toward me and grasps my mittened hands in his bare ones. “Come west with me,” he blurts.
I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.
“Marry me. Or . . . I mean . . . We could tell people we’re married. Brother and sister, maybe! Whatever you want. But you’re like me. With your daddy sick, I know it’s really you working that claim, same way I work Da’s. I know it’s your own two hands as built that place up.” His grip on my hands is so tight it’s almost unbearable. “This is our chance to make our own way. It’s only right that— Why are you shaking your head?”
His words brought a stab of hope so pure and quick it was like a spur in the side. But now I’ve a sorrow behind my eyes that wants to burst out, hot and wet. Jefferson is partly right: I’m the one who makes our claim work. He just doesn’t know how much.
I sigh. “Here’s where you and I are different. I love my mama and daddy. I can’t leave them. And yes, it’s my claim as much as anyone’s. I’m proud of it. I can’t leave it neither.”
He releases my hands. Together, we look out over the snow-dusted yard to find the others staring at us. They saw us holding hands, for sure and certain. But we ignore them. We’re used to ignoring them.
“You might not have a choice,” he says. “If your daddy wants to go to California—”
That stab of hope again. “Mama will convince him not to. He’s too sick.”
“But if you go—”
The school bell peals, calling us inside.
“We’ll talk later,” I say, more than a little glad to let the subject go. I’ve lots of thinking to do. In fact, I do so much thinking during the next hours that I’m useless for helping the little ones with their sums, and when Mr. Anders calls on me to recite the presidents, I mix up Madison and Monroe.
I drive home as soon as school lets out, not bothering to say bye to Jefferson, though I wave from a distance. I need to get away, and fast, find some open air for laying out all my thoughts about California and gold and going west, not to mention the stunning and undeniable fact that Jefferson just asked me to marry him.
As offers go, it’s not the kind a girl dreams about while fingering the linens from her hope chest. I’m not even sure he meant it, the way he stumbled over it so badly.
I’ve thought about marriage—of course I have—but no one seems to have taken a shine to me. It’s no secret I spend my days squatting in the creek bed or hefting a pickax or mucking the barn, that I have an eagle eye and a steady shot that brings in more game than Daddy ever did, even during his good spells. I might be forgiven my wild ways if I was handsome, but I’m not. My eyes are nice enough, as much gold as brown, just like Mama’s. But I have a way of looking at people that makes them prickly, or so Jefferson says, and he always says it with a grin, like it’s a compliment.
One time only did I mourn to Daddy about my lack of prospects. He just shrugged and said, “Strong chin, strong heart.” Then he kissed me quick on the forehead. I never complained again. My daddy knows my worth.
I suppose Jefferson does too, and my heart hurts to think of him leaving and me staying. But the truth is I’ve never thought of him in a marrying kind of way. And with an awful proposal like that, I don’t know that Jefferson’s too keen on the idea either.
A gunshot cracks through the hills, tiny and miles distant. A minute later, it’s followed by a second shot. Someone must be out hunting. I wish them luck.
By the time my wagon comes in view of the icy creek and the faint track that winds through the bare oaks toward home, I decide there’s no help for it but to talk everything out with Mama and Daddy. The three of us have some shared secrets among ourselves, sure, but we have none from one another.
Peony tosses her head, as if sensing my thoughts. No, it’s the surrounding woods that have put a twitch in her. They are too silent, too still.
“Everything’s fine, girl,” I say, and my voice echoes back hollowly.
As the leafless trees open up to reveal our sprawling homestead, right when I yell “Haw!” to round Peony toward the barn, something catches my eye.
A man’s boot. Worn and wrinkled and all alone, toppled into a snowbank against the porch.
“Daddy?” I whisper, frozen for the space of two heartbeats.
I leap from the bench, and my skirt catches on the wheel spoke, but I rip right through and sprint toward the house. I don’t get far before I fall to my knees, bent over and gasping.
Because Daddy lies on his back across the porch steps, legs spread-eagled, bootless. Crimson pools beneath his head and drips down the steps—tiny rapids of blood. His eyes are wide to the sky, and just above them, like a third eye in a brow paler than snow, is a dark bullet hole.
“Mama!” I yell, and then I yell it again. I can’t take my eyes off Daddy’s face. He seems so surprised. So alive, except for that unblinking stare.
What should I do? Drag him away before he ruins the porch, maybe. Or put his boots back on. Why did Daddy go outside without his boots?
My hands shake with the need to do something. To fix something. My eyes search the steps, the porch, the wide-open doorway, but I can only find the one boot, shoved into the snowbank. “Mama? Where are Daddy’s boots?” My voice is shrill in the winter air, almost a scream.
I use the porch railing to pull myself to my feet. If I can just find that blasted boot, everything will be fine. Why isn’t Mama answering?
The world shifts, and I stumble hard against the railing.
Two gunshots. I heard two. “Mama,” I whisper.
I start running. Through the drawing room, the bedroom, the kitchen still messy from supper. Upstairs to the dormer room where I sleep, then back down again. Sunshine has broken through the clouds, streaming light through our windows. Mama’s touches of love are everywhere—the blue calico curtains of my bedroom, the pine boughs winding our otherwise plain banister, and poking from the vase on our mantel, flowers made from wrapping paper and stained yellow with wild mustard. Yesterday’s venison stew, still warm on the box stove.
But Mama is nowhere to be found, and the place feels so bare it’s like an ache in my soul.
Still calling for her, I race outside and bang on the outhouse. I search the barn. I splash through our tiny stream and sprint into the peach orchard.
Under the trees, I stop short. The world is so empty and quiet. Too quiet, as if even the trees need to be hushed and sad for a spell. Which is just as well; I must stop panicking and start thinking. You’re a smart girl, Lee, Daddy always says, especially when I struggle with algebra. You can figure this.
Winter chill works its way through my boots, which aren’t quite dry from yesterday’s hunt, and I wrap my arms around myself against the cold and the dread. In the distance, Peony snorts at something. I left the poor girl hitched to the wagon. She’ll have to keep.
I close my eyes and concentrate, turning in place like a compass.
Gold sings to me from north of the orchard, from the vein that Daddy and I started working before the snow hit. Fainter, as if very small or from very far away, comes the one I’m looking for: a hymn of purity, a lump of sweetness in my throat. A nugget, maybe, but I’m hoping it’s Mama’s locket.
It’s in the direction of the barn. I’ve already been to the barn. What did I miss?
That lump of sweetness pulls me back through the bare peach trees, through the icy brook. The sensation strengthens as I approach. It’s not coming from inside the barn, but behind it. Beyond the henhouse and near the woodpile.
The ground outside the henhouse is littered with down; something panicked the poor birds bad enough to send their feathers through the breathing holes. The sweetness in my throat turns sour. I force myself to walk the remaining steps.
I find her there, sitting with her back against the woodpile, legs outstretched, her skirt ridden up enough that a sliver of gray stocking shows above her boots. The locket that led me to her rests above her heart, sparkling in the sunshine. Below, her waist is soaked in blood. She’s been gut-shot.
Her eyes flutter as I approach, and she lifts one hand in my direction. “Leah,” she whispers. “My beautiful girl.”
I rush forward and grab her hand. “I’ll get Doc,” I say. “Just hold tight.” I try to pull away, but her grip is strong, though her gaze is so weak it can’t seem to alight on anything for more than the space of a butterfly’s touch.
“My strong girl. Strong, perfect . . .”
“Who did this to you?” Tears burn my eyes.
Her head lolls toward me, as if moving her neck can force her gaze in the direction her eyes cannot. “Trust someone. Not good to be as alone as we’ve been. Your daddy and I were wrong. . . .” Her words are coming slower and quieter.
“Run, Lee. Go . . .”
Her chin hits her chest, and she says no more.
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