Sunrise comes late to California. Even when golden light washes the sky, and the snow-tipped peaks of the Sierra Nevada glow pink as winter roses, we remain in shadow for a spell, dwarfed by the slope of the land. Inevitably, a spark sears a crease in the mountains. Within moments, it becomes a flood of light, too bright to look on. The shadows are browbeaten away, and our camp is swathed in color—tall green pines and waving yellow grass along the blue rapids of the twisting American River.
I stand facing east, my hand shading my eyes. At my back are the sounds of our waking camp: tin pans clanking, breakfast fire crackling, dogs splashing through the shallows.
“Morning,” comes a voice at my ear, and I jump. It’s Jefferson McCauley Kingfisher, bleary faced and yawning, suspenders hanging at his sides. His black hair is badly mussed, like a family of mice nested there during the night. “What’s got you so tickled?” he grumbles in response to my smile.
“You have Andrew Jackson hair.”
Jefferson frowns like he just bit into a sour persimmon. “He’s the last fellow I care to resemble. You know what he did.”
I wince. “I was just thinking about the picture they had at school and . . . I mean, I’m sorry.”
He runs his fingers through his hair. “Well, so long as I don’t have Andrew Jackson eyebrows, I’m still the finest-looking fellow for at least”—he glances back at our distant camp, toward Becky Joyner at the griddle, the Hoffman boys helping their father check the wagon, Henry Meek grooming his scant beard—“a hundred feet.”
I harrumph at that. Jefferson is the finest-looking young man for a hundred miles, but I’d never say so aloud. Wouldn’t want it to go to his mussy-haired head.
“A whole month in California,” he muses, “and you’ve never missed a sunrise.”
“Course not. It’s the finest thing I ever saw.” I gaze east again. That’s where we came from, the lot of us. We started off a company of almost fifty wagons and three times that many people, but some went their separate ways. Some died. Now all that’re left are eighteen souls and a single wagon between us.
“There are finer things,” he says softly. My cheeks warm, from sunshine and the sure knowledge that Jefferson is studying my face.
I’m saved having to reply when Becky Joyner calls out, “Breakfast is ready!”
“I smell eggs,” Jefferson says quickly. “Can you believe it? Eggs! For a while I thought I’d eat nothing but quick bread and prickly pear for the rest of my short life.”
“Burned eggs,” I clarify. Becky never saw a breakfast she couldn’t improve with a liberal charring.
“Well, I’m glad for them, burned or not. C’mon, let’s wash up.” We head toward the river’s edge and crouch to wet our hands.
Jefferson rolls up his sleeves and scrubs at his forearms. “Once we find a good claim spot, I’ll head back down to Mormon Island to get some chickens. If we have enough gold, I’ll look around for a good milk cow, too.”
“We’ll have enough,” I assure him, and we share a small, secret grin.
At Mormon Island, we talked to a family who’d had a rough time of the crossing and were already giving up and going home. It’s a shame, because my gold sense is buzzing like it always does in these hills, soft and smooth like a cat’s purr. There’s plenty of gold for everyone here, at least for now.
As I reach forward to splash water onto my face, the buzzing intensifies, becomes almost unpleasant—like bees swirling a hive.
Jefferson’s hands go still above the water. “Lee?” he whispers, with a quick glance behind to make sure no one is listening. “Your eyes are doing that thing again.”
According to him, my eyes turn more golden than brown when I’m near a find, like tiger’s-eye gemstones, he says.
“There’s something nearby,” I whisper back. “A nugget, I think. Not that big, or I’d be near senseless.”
“Well, let’s find her!”
“I . . . okay, sure.” It feels peculiar to stretch out with my gold sense while his eyes are so intent on me. He watches me all the time now. Sometimes he glances away when I catch him at it, but sometimes he doesn’t. Just stares like a man with nothing to hide, which always gives my belly a tumble.
“So how does it work, exactly?” he says. “You just close your eyes and—”
“Breakfast is nearly done for,” Becky calls out. “You miss it, you fend for yourself.”
I shoot to my feet, a little relieved. “Breakfast first,” I say. “Nugget later.”
Jefferson frowns. “All right.” He grabs my upper arm as I’m turning away. “No, wait.”
His hand feels huge and strong now. A man’s hand. When he gazes down at me, he looks just like the boy I grew up with. But he’s changed so much this last year, it’s like a stitch in my side. Like I’ve lost part of him. We’ve changed together, I reckon. We’re still best friends, for sure and certain, but there are parts of Jefferson McCauley and Leah Westfall that are long gone, dropped like so much baggage in the land we left behind, or maybe scattered like seeds across the continent.
“Lee, there’s something I need to ask you.” He looks down at his boots, that frown still tugging his lips, and suddenly my heart is like buffalo stampeding in my chest.
I yank my arm from his grip. Whatever he has to say, I’m not ready to hear it. I know I’m not, and I open my mouth to tell him I’m in no mood for another no-good, fool-headed proposal, but the words can’t seem to find their way out.
“We’ve been friends our whole lives,” he says. “Best friends. And I’m not sure how to get past that to . . .” He pauses. All of a sudden his gaze snaps to mine, his face filled with determination. “To what I want.”
My heart curls in on itself. No, Jefferson, not now. Not yet.
“I’m not sure it’s what you want,” he continues. “But a man ought to make his intentions clear, and my intentions are to—”
A rifle booms, too close.
Jefferson lurches forward, eyes flying wide.
I reach to catch him as another gun sounds—a pistol this time, closer to camp.
Mrs. Hoffman screams as Jefferson sags into my arms.