Read an Excerpt
Emaline searches the sky for storm clouds from the doorway of the Victoria Inn. The man snoring at her feet grunts,
rolls over, and curls himself around an upturned bottle of whiskey. She picks up her skirt, steps over him onto the porch. Can’t predict the weather this time of year. Fools even the wild flowers. Mistake three days of sunshine for the start of May when one hard freeze will snap the petals right off and kill the early batch of mosquitoes already swarming.
Across the road, the chapel’s canvas roof sags like wet clothes on a line. It won’t take another snow like the last.
Klein promised to fix the damn thing, but he’s probably knee deep in the creek with the rest of them. It’s no wonder nobody in these parts has struck pay dirt yet, what with their canvas tents and frame cabins so easy to desert. Why would the earth give up its gold just to be abandoned on rumor of another strike? The soil is a shrewd old whore and has learned better than to give her gold for free.
A person should have a solid foundation, Emaline always says, some sort of permanence in her life, a place for luck to grow. That’s why she’s insisting on having the chapel finished.
Nothing establishes a place like inviting God to stay. She imagines a tidy steeple with a sensible wooden cross, a simple oak pulpit and rows of sober pews. No stained glass. No gaudy ornamentation. Save that for the Baptists who mistake the sound of their own voices for the word of God. Behind the chapel she pictures a cemetery with graves surrounded by white picket fences to keep souls from drifting. Emaline is tired of drifting. That’s how she thinks of it; not pioneering,
certainly not running, but drifting. True, Motherlode isn’t much to look at. Not yet. But she has a feeling about the place; call it intuition.
The ravine walls stand at attention on either side of her valley and the cedars that brush the rim are a feathered fringe in the glare of the afternoon sun. A movement up the road catches her eye. She squints to see better.
“Preacher,” she says. The man at her feet grunts but doesn’t move. Emaline nudges him with her toe. “John.” She kicks him harder. Another grunt. “Goddamnit, John! Wake your sorry ass up and look down the road.”
She reaches under him with her toe, lifts with all her might,
and John rolls sideways down the steps to land in a stupor at the bottom. A stocky black man steps out of the building behind her and stares in the direction of Emaline’s gaze.
“T’ain’t no one but Randall, missus. And his mule.”
“I can see who it is, Jed.” But her shoulders slump and she lets out a breath, slowly, hoping Jed won’t notice. “And don’t be calling me no missus.”
Jed crosses his arms in front of him and places his hand to his chin, a common posture for him. It’s hard to tell whether he’s deep in thought or simply hiding a smile. Emaline sits down, knees apart on the steps above Preacher John and glares back at Jed.
“Whatever you say, Miss Emaline,” he says, retreating into the building just as another, smaller figure appears around the mass of manzanita marking the edge of Motherlode.
• * *
“Randall, I tell you,” says Emaline, “if God ordered wine on
Sunday you’d bring it a week later Monday.”
“Now, Emaline,” says the muleteer. His beard hangs to his waist and the tobacco stain blooming about his lips is the only way she can locate exactly where the whiskers end and his mouth begins. “You know I can’t make the wagon come.
Sacramento ain’t no closer now than it were a year ago – ’less you want me to come without the molasses and the mail.”
Preacher John moans at her feet. She nudges him with her toe for no other reason than to remind him she’s here. Sober on Sundays, he’d said. At least he’s that, sober on Sundays.
She shakes her head and is happy to let Randall believe this gesture is meant for him. She heaves herself from the steps and Randall stumbles back, regains himself. The mule behind haws its pleasure, or displeasure – hard to tell with mules –
and the sound ricochets off the ravine walls and falls below the squawk of the scrub jays.
“Dangerous work I’m doing,” says Randall. He rubs his toe in the dirt. He spits. The mule brays again, louder this time. “Man’s – A man’s gotta be careful, take his time.”
“Careful? How much time you lose playing five-card between Sac’ town and Grass Valley?” She’s yelling now above the mule and she can see its ears rotating, its neck straining to look behind.
“Ah hell, Emaline.”
“Ah hell, nothin’ . . .” Her voice trails off. She pinches her eyes to slits, thrusts her neck forward to see what the mule sees.
“Who are you?” Emaline says. The mule goes quiet.
The stranger shifts under his load, pulls his duster hat low as if he could hide there beneath it, as if my piss-poor eyes can see anything but his shape anyway, she thinks. She can see that he’s small. Narrow shoulders, his pack just about as wide as his whole back, his trousers and flannel draping over him like they have only bone to cling to. She’s known too many men to judge this one’s threat by his size.
“Randall?” she asks.
“Hell if I know.” He shrugs, but seems content that he is no longer her focus.
The mule’s ears rotate as if it too is waiting for a response,
and the stranger seems to shrink down inside of himself in a way that raises the hairs on the back of Emaline’s neck.
The mule shifts its weight foot to foot, shakes its halter.
“I’m talking to you! Who are you?” Emaline charges forward and the mule rears its ornery self, eyes wild as if she’d struck the damn thing. Packages jar from the animal’s back and slap the ground. Some burst open and precious flour thickens the air and powders the red mud of the road.
Randall’s beard trails behind him as he hustles after the frenzied animal, tripping in a wake of pinto beans and hollering,
“Goddamn you, Contrary Julie!” Red-speckled hens poke their heads round the side of the inn, pick up their skirts and run toward the mess of oats and beans. Scrub jays descend in blue streaks to scold and scratch. Emaline bustles about the muddy road, shooing chickens, flailing at jays, salvaging what she can: a sack of potatoes, a side of salt pork. By the time she charges back to the stranger she’s sweated clean through her dress. At least, she thinks, catching her breath,
at least he’s seen fit to pick up a sack of flour. He holds it there like a shield between them.
“I suppose you can pay for these goods?” No response.
Up the road, beyond the grove of manzanita, the echoes of a braying mule and a swearing man do battle. “I don’t take credit nor scrip, and – Look at me.” Small black eyes peek out beneath the duster hat. “And I ain’t here to nursemaid no runaway mamma’s boy. Your name, if you got one?”
But his mouth pops closed. Flour sifts from his shoulders as he rummages in a small pouch at his waist.
“Alex?” he says, but it sounds like a question, a question she forgets when he holds out what looks to be a gold coin,
San Francisco mint – double eagle, no less. The potatoes thump to the ground. She snatches the coin. Such a pleasing weight,
twenty dollars. She gives it a bite, finds herself softening.
“Well, Alex,” she says, placing the coin in her dress pocket,
patting it twice, “you got the voice of a choirboy.”
“Haven’t got a sign up yet,” says the woman, closing the door firmly behind her. Her voice fills every inch of space her body leaves open and she moves with an agility surprising and a little frightening in such a large woman. “But that’s what I call her – the Victoria Inn.”
She thumps the pork and potatoes on a plank table, or rather a series of tables held as one by a grubby cloth. Alex follows suit with the sack of flour and a puff of white escapes.
“Victoria, like the Queen,” the woman says. She dusts her hands on her apron and motions with her head to the waterstained portrait of a crowned woman on the opposite wall.
Two windows of distorting mason glass offer the only light in the room and the painting’s features are indistinct. The face of a youthful older woman, Alex thinks, or an aged young woman, with round cheeks to match her chin.
A ramshackle bar traverses one corner and three-legged stools are scattered about. It smells of alcohol, yeast and strong burned coffee, and Alex’s stomach grumbles with hunger, clearly not the response the woman is waiting for.
Emaline puffs a curl from her eyes. It catches in the frizzy halo framing her angular face. She turns on her heel and charges up the stairwell into a shaft of hallway light without pausing to see if Alex follows. She stops by one of eight doors in the narrow corridor, her hand on the latch, and squints in the same probing manner she used on the muleteer,
the scowl on her face made deeper by crease lines like poorly healed scars.
Alex pulls the duster hat low, makes an effort to look aloof,
would have spit as the muleteer had done if they hadn’t been inside.
No one, yet, has taken her for a girl. No one, yet, has looked this closely.
“You’re from where, you say?”
Alex hadn’t said, and is so relieved by the question she fails to answer.
“That’s a question,” says the woman.
“Don’t talk much, do you?”
Alone in the room, the darkness is complete and endless,
even as Alex feels the closeness of the walls, the low ceiling.
Little by little her eyes adjust and the corners of the room take shape. The bed smells sharply of cedar. The only other furniture is a three-legged stool resting at a slant on the uneven floorboards. There is no window, no need for curtains; a single candle burned nearly to the nub sits on the floor by the bed. The woman’s heavy steps descend the stairs. Victoria, like the Queen, Alex thinks, and sees again the whitewash peeling down the inn’s face, the unpainted balusters, the ornamental balcony propped precariously over the porch. She eases down to draw a line in the dust with her finger. A few days is all she needs, to rest, to think.
How far had she come since stepping off the steamer into the frenzied chaos of the Marysville docks? Was it only three days ago that she’d stood there on the river bank amid that sea of canvas sacks, barrels and boxes? Delicate chairs, end tables and bookshelves looked out of place perched alongside kegs of black powder, stacks of picks and shovels, piles of hydraulic tubing coiled like earthworms. Alex pulled her duster hat low, avoiding the eyes of the men scurrying back and forth, hauling skeins of fabric and barrels of whiskey.
She wanted to be back on the boat, surrounded by the hissing blast of steam and the clank of pistons, away from cursing muleteers and braying donkeys and important-looking men dressed in black. But after Marysville the river split in two,
the Feather shooting north, the Yuba branching east, both too rough for riverboats.
Alex followed the Yuba because it sounded foreign and far away from San Francisco, because those men she had seen on the boat – lawmen, perhaps, with their trimmed mustaches,
their pressed black trousers – were heading north. She’d joined the line of wagons rolling east, kept her head low, spoken to no one, and stopped briefly at a shanty store on the edge of town. It was here she’d learned of her need for boots.
“Best there is,” the merchant claimed, stroking the blackened leather with an arm that ended in a rounded stump of flesh. As he spoke, he gestured with the arm, as if forgetting his fingers were gone. “Made special for a colonel. Small man – they all are. Killed by Comanche, ’fending women and children. For you, forty dollars. Boy don’t deserve boots like this. A man’s boots. War hero’s . . .”
Gaps in the wall behind him let in streamers of light and the roof shuddered with every gust of wind.
“The hell kinda shoes are those? You steal ’em off your mama’s feet? Won’t last the week. Not half a week,” said the merchant. His cackle turned to a cough. Alex stepped back.
“Wait now, thirty dollars then,” said the man. “Can’t believe I’m saying it – three kids and a wife back home . . .”
He bowed his head, rubbed his salt-and-pepper beard with his good hand. “Should just save ’em for my son, but with his one leg, won’t do much good, see.”
Alex said nothing, fearing the high pitch of her voice. She shook her head no, turned to leave.
“Goddamn! Goddamn, twenty dollars,” said the merchant,
dangling the boots from his stump by the laces.
She had rested in thickets, when she rested at all, and followed the twisted path of the Yuba to Rough and Ready,
a town whose citizens had looked both rough and ready for all manner of mischief, staring openly at any passers-by as if assessing their worth. Here she bought a loaf of bread and a gold pan from what could have been the same grizzled merchant, apart from the missing arm. She put the bread in her pack and the pan under her arm as if it strengthened her disguise, as if gold had been the reason she’d come to California, as if, when she turned off on to a narrow road to the northeast, she was confident of a destination.
The land became steeper, the earth darkened to an iron red. Lonely scrub oaks in tall grass had long since given way to ferns and evergreens; the towering pines pinched off the sky and on the crest of every hill she found the gleaming teeth of the Sierra Nevadas growing larger, more menacing.
By the time the trail split again – one tail coiling its way toward those mountains, the other dipping down into a valley – her legs were quivering protest with every step, her feet throbbed, her shoulders ached. All of her bread was eaten,
her canteen empty, and the coil of smoke snaking its way from the valley floor called to her above the distant murmur of running water and the coughing protest of a donkey.
The gold pan in her pack clangs against the floor as she sits.
She frees herself from the straps, rolls her shoulders front to back. Her leg muscles have already begun to tighten, but her body feels numb, distant – as foreign as the river she’d followed. She pulls her shirtsleeves to her elbows, straightens her arms in front of her to find the bruises there mere smudges in the dim light. As if a bit of soap and water could wash them clean, she thinks, but she doesn’t touch them. She doesn’t touch the knots on her lower back or just below her collarbone.
She can feel her heartbeat pounding in the blisters on her feet. She loosens her bootlaces, peels away the woolen sock. The skin of her heel is pregnant with white fluid, but disappointingly intact. She wants blood, proof of pain.
Below, a door opens and closes, and male voices seep through the floorboards.
“Alex,” she says to herself. The voice of a choirboy. She pulls her chin into her neck, scrunching her vocal cords.
“Alex,” she says again, and is still practicing when a black man sticks his head through the door.
“You don’t come now, it’ll be gone. They ain’t fixin’ to wait for you.”
Downstairs, she finds herself trapped by the eyes of eight men hunched around the plank table, their expressions masked by facial hair and layers of dirt. The black man sits down opposite the head, but no one seems the least surprised by his boldness.
The only sound is heavy breathing and the silence pricks the hairs on her arms. She tries to sit and finds a muddy boot planted on the only unoccupied stool. The owner’s beard is yellow and a twisted smirk reveals teeth of the same color.
A giant oak of a man to Muddy Boots’s right lets out a long curving whistle that rises upward to the low-beam ceiling and spills in a puddle on the floor. The kitchen door bangs open and the woman bustles through with a large iron pot.
“Look out,” she says, brushing Alex aside, and slams the pot on the table. Muddy Boots moves his feet.
“You need an invitation?” she asks. Alex sits, feels her cheeks flush hot.
“All right, Preacher,” says the woman.
“Dearly Beloved,” says a dark-haired man with just a hint of whiskey in his voice. He stands, as if it just occurred to him to do so, and runs his hands up and down his flannel.
His eyeballs search for words beneath his lids and his hands clasp so tightly his knuckles show white. “We are gathered here today, Lord, to thank you for your wondrous bounty.”
“’Cept when it comes to gold,” says a baritone to Alex’s right; the whistler, she thinks. A low chuckle catches, then dies. She bows her head, but lets her eyes dart to the pot mid-table. A large round loaf of bread sweats under a cloth and she begs her stomach silent.
“And lead us not into temptation, Lord. No, lead us far from temptation, our Father who art in heaven. We hallow thy name, giving glory, Lord. Thanks for health, we ask for wealth. Hallelujah, let’s eat.”
Preacher’s plate is half empty before Alex is allowed to scrape the bottom of the iron pot for the last chunks of rabbit stew. What bread there was has already been snatched.
“Don’t get used to it, boys,” says Emaline. Her tone is thick with disappointment, and men pause mid-chew to listen.
“Be cinching our belts by the end of the week, thanks to our new friend here.”
The serving spoon and nine faces point in Alex’s direction.
Alex looks down at her plate. Alex chews. She has to tell herself to do these things.
“But damned if he ain’t offered to buy drinks all round to make up for it!”
“Attaboy, son,” says the baritone and slaps her on the back, propelling the chunk of rabbit meat across the table and into the bowl of a beardless man with expressionless gray eyes. A drooping auburn mustache curtains his thin lips and frames his cleft chin.
“No forgiveness like whiskey. Ain’t that right, Preacher?”
The baritone stands, nearly brushing his head on the crossbeam.
A grin fills his face. Alex flinches, afraid there’s another slap coming, good natured though the first one seemed. The mustache man fishes with both fingers for Alex’s meat in his stew. His eyes flit to Alex and away.
“Don’t think we’ve been properly introduced,” the baritone says. “Mighty hard to be polite on an empty stomach,
you know. No excuse, mind you, but the truth. I ’spect you met Preacher John yonder, but don’t ask him to remember it. The one-eyed fella next to you is Micah Daniels, also a resident here at the Victoria. Owns a sore excuse for a general store and assay office just down the walk. Claims he can figure fine, but you watch him careful when he’s weighing your gold. Been known to lighten the load some, yah know what I mean, and grows his fingernails long enough to get two dollars in one pinch of gold dust.
“Harry Reynolds there lives in the first cabin as you come into town, along with good Mr. Fred Henderson, selfproclaimed expert on rocks, animals, plants and all things natural. Next to him is our German friend Klein, master builder and jack-of-all-trades – when he feels like doing ’em.
Got no other name, so don’t go asking him. Just Klein. You met Jed –” he nods to the black man – “and Emaline; Miss
Emaline, if you know what’s good for you.
“My name is Samson Limpkin, but most call me Limpy on account of, well, let’s say a crooked limb. And the man you so graciously shared your stew with –” he nods to the mustache man – “is my cousin, David Trellona, fresh out of
Cornwall and thinkin’ he knows more about mining than those Empire folks over in Grass Valley. Why work like a dog for some other man? Aye, Dave. Why indeed?”
Limpy takes a swig from his cup, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, and with the same hand points at
Muddy Boots, still bent over his bowl as if intent on ignoring him.
“And that there is John Thomas. Not much on manners,
but . . . well, not much on anything.”
“Damn you, Limpy,” says Muddy Boots, his mouth full of food.
Alex can feel the big man’s breath down her neck. He pulls a gold pouch from his pocket, holds it like an egg in the palm of his hand.
“And you are . . . ?” Limpy asks.
The curve of Emaline’s brow, the curl of her lips, tells Alex these men know very well the name she gave.
“A simple question, son,” says Limpy. “Name?”
Men lean forward, listening, and names and faces swim as mismatched pairs through Alex’s mind. She pulls her head into her neck, says as deeply as she can manage:
“Hah!” says Limpy, his paw slamming down again, this time square on her back, forcing all the air from her chest.
“Eighteen, my ass. Who said eighteen? John Thomas, trying to hide? Alex what?”
“Shee-it,” says Micah, thumping a small pouch of gold on the table and giving Alex a close look at the concave indention of skin where his left eye should be.
“Why thank you, Micah. Alex what?” Limpy asks again.
Outside, a scrub jay screams the sun down.
“Ford?” Alex says, hearing the doubt in her own voice.
Emaline’s arms cross before her and her eyes narrow to slits,
but Limpy doesn’t seem to notice.
“Alex Ford,” he says. “Solid name. No more than sixteen,
if that. Pay up.” Leather pouches thump on the table. “Pay up, John Thomas,” says Limpy.
“Now just hold on a goddamn minute,” John Thomas says,
his fair skin turning the red of Micah’s empty eye socket. “I’ll pay you later.”
“Hell yes, your ass – you calling me a liar?”
“Both of you better sit yourselves right back down,” says
Emaline, barely raising her voice. “Y’all know I don’t permit no gambling at the dinner table. And you, Alex –” the serving spoon again jabs her direction – “finish up so I can get to getting done with dinner.”
With the plank tables separated, the room feels smaller,
cluttered. The ramshackle bar at the far end of the room now dominates, the counter lined with tin cups and a few glass canning jars, and now the elbows of Limpy and the one-eyed Micah. Bloated whiskey jugs on shelves behind the bar are blurred in the orange lamplight and look, to
Alex, like a row of rotund women. Several card games are already in progress when Alex eases her way up the stairs.
“Hey,” says Emaline, pushing through the kitchen door.
She thumps a stool down next to her own. “Stick a while.”
And something, the weight of her filling that doorway,
or the calm authority in her voice, triggers an old habit of obedience. Alex sits, but remains above on the stairwell with her chin tucked into her knees. She hadn’t liked the suspicious glances the woman had been casting through dinner.
She prays the woman’s eyes are as poor as they seem.
“Whatever suits you,” says Emaline, dismissing her with a wave of the hand.
“’Scuse me, gents, Emaline . . .” Limpy’s voice and body rise as one from the bar and the saloon goes silent. “A toast.
To Alex and his gentle way with mules. May his way with women be less costly, but just as exciting!”
He tips his glass, leads a collective swallow, motions to
Jed to fill his cup again. “Now don’t you dare smile there,
Alex, don’t.” Alex does not feel like smiling, makes no attempt to smile. Six coins left, she thinks. She’d felt so rich with twelve.
“And speaking of costly,” says Limpy, downing the next glass, “how ’bout it Emaline? Nearly hit it today. Sho’ ’nough pay dirt. Pay you double price. I say I’ll pay you double,
“Now hold on there, Limp. You know the woman doesn’t take credit, and I’m a hell of a lot prettier than you anyway –
and richer,” says Micah, winking his one eye.
“The hell –”
“And I can hold my liquor.”
Alex is only vaguely aware of what they’re saying. The rest of their banter is lost beneath the groan of the accordion in the corner – a tune that just might be “The Old Oaken
Bucket” or “Clementine,” or a wobbly combination of the two – and as if called by this racket, miners begin to trickle into the saloon. No less than thirty, if she had a head to count, and she doubts whether some of those mud-stained canvas pants and holey flannels had ever been, or would ever be washed. It would certainly ease the competing stench of rotting canvas, stale tobacco, whiskey. The men lean on the bar and against the walls and against each other. They swear and laugh with their mouths wide open, chew plugs of tobacco, smoke cob pipes, and soon the air is thick and yellow.
Their hands stroke leather pouches of gold dust, arrange and rearrange dog-eared playing cards, fiddle with the worn visors of discolored hats and punctuate speech with herky-jerky movements in the air. To Alex they are a collection of parts,
of hands, feet and hats, interchangeable with a few exceptions:
John Thomas; the big man, Limpy; the black man, Jed;
one-eyed Micah; the mustache man, David, whose broadangled shoulders give him a stocky compact appearance next to Limpy, even as he tops Micah by inches.
And there, sitting apart from the rest by the kitchen door,
is Emaline. In her lap, a pair of trousers, needle, thread. Her fingers are busy, but she glances down only so often at her work.
Her weight is not so much the round softness of other women Alex has known, or the wire sinew of her gran.
Emaline is solid, with wide, square shoulders and thick veintracked forearms. A fringe of dark hair feathers her upper lip. Her only softness appears to be her generous bosom that strains the front of her dress like mounds of rising sourdough.
Emaline’s hands work the cloth. Deft, confident movements,
and Alex finds her fingers moving of their own accord, with life and memory of their own.
She forces her hands to fists, stuffs them in her pockets.
Gran, too, could sew by feel alone, her fingers unconscious of themselves and of the bent-wire body to which they were attached. Gran was never so patient with Alex as she was with cloth. “After three boys,” she liked to say, “three foolish,
foolish boys, God at least could have given me a proper granddaughter.”
Proper, Alex thinks. What would Gran think of her now,
after all she’s seen? After what she’s done? She rises unnoticed,
climbs the stairs. Thigh muscles catch and pull with every step. She slips across the hallway and closes the door of the dark little room behind her.