The gold rush has taken hold of the Wild West. Pioneers from around the country congregate in makeshift settlements like Motherlode in hopes of striking it rich. It’s here that Alex, disguised as a boy and on the run from her troubled past, is able to blend in among the rough and tumble prospectors living on little more than adrenaline and moonshine.
Word spreads quickly when Alex becomes the first in Motherlode to strike gold. Outsiders pour in from wealthy east coast cities, primed to cash in on the discovery. But these opportunists from the outside world have no place in Motherlode and threaten to rip the town—and its residents—apart. Alex must fight to protect her secrets—and her life. And against the odds, it’s here, in this lawless outpost, that Alex may finally be able to find friendship, redemption, and even love.
“Beautifully written.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A moving portrait of outcasts and nonconformists who build their own community . . . Evocative historical background and thoughtful social observation make this a promising debut.” —Kirkus Reviews
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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 water-stained 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.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Crown of Dust"
Copyright © 2010 Mary Volmer.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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