Excerpts from River of Red Gold (Book 2, California Gold Trilogy)
Copyright © 1996 Naida West. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Once I was Eagle Woman. Now I am an oak tree.
When I walked these paths, the nights came often and life in the village hurled past like the river in the time of early flowers. When I died I should have gone to the happy land. But I looked back, unable to turn away from the home place I loved. Thus, my spirit lingers. But I did not choose to inhabit a being so long-lived, or stand overlooking the dancehouse — a hollow in the earth now, overgrown with high grass — where the outpourings of our human hearts once rent the sky and the mysteries of the universe were felt so deeply. Through the dirt of a millennium my roots suckle the rotted acorn husks and bones of my people. My trunk is sculpted and broad, and even while the earth scorches in the sun, my tap root, far below, drinks from a pool of wet sand as eternal as the river.
An occasional vehicle parks here, and the new people picnic on the river beach. The laughter of children at the water pleases me, and I think how I played there as a child — and my little son and his daughter after him, and her children. But the new people leave at dark. They miss the orange moon rising over the eastern hill and layers and layers of sparkling stars. They miss the music of owls and the urgent drum of frog calls and the rustling of night animals.
In the quiet time I fathom all that happened here. But next time I die, I shall look forward and walk the pathway of ghosts. For now I yearn for the cheer and dances of the spirit world. Before an evening fire I will tell the stories, and my people will exchange sly smiles when they hear that despite the melancholy teachings and sober striving of the new people, many of them hope to live much as we did. For the spirits that live in the boulders and the river and the plants and animals are beginning to touch them too.
. . .
Rising from the heat waves over the tired grass comes Old Man Coyote. He seems to float, a dirt-brown shag on high slender legs, trotting his rounds, head cocked a little askew. He stops beneath my branches.
I greet him the old way: “Where did you come from and where are you going?”
His amber eyes are human. “Just ate a cat over in the subdivision.” He licks his lips. “The pampered sack of lard didn’t even have claws, heh heh. They’ll blame the mountain lion. I’ll rest a while, then trot over to the ranch and check on the lambs.” He sits down and a familiar glimmer lights his eye. “Think I’ll sneak into Stan’s helicopter and wait till he’s hovering over the hills trying to find me, heh heh, then bark in his ear. Woo woo woo!”
Always scheming. “The Ancients came to this river,” I say, “and life was much the same for a long time. Then in a few seasons everything changed.”
A yawn unfurls his lips. “You’re just looking back again.”
“I’ll bet even you miss the Big Times.”
“Those dancing clowns pretending to be me, heh heh, that was the best part. Woo! I was the only one with the power to face the magic.”
“We honored the spirits, Old Man. Now, at the slightest whim the new people could bulldoze me and shoot you. We exist in their obliviousness.”
He turns in a circle and plops down in my shade, tongue draped thinly over the humps of his incisors. “They can’t kill me.” He looks up smugly.
I chuckle. “You created us like you, Coyote, except maybe more curious. Sometimes I wonder — don’t you? — how it might have been, if the Spaniards had learned of the gold, if they had kept the North Americans from —”
“If if if,” he sniffs through an amused snout.
I chuckle again, for he is right. Condor dreams the world’s events, and no one can explain or change a dream. “Have you heard? People say even Condor is dead.”
He jumps up like he is afraid and looks around, then lies down again. “No he’s not. Ground squirrel is still chasing his wife and Heron is fishing in the mud.” He smiles up into my branches. “And you still tell good stories.”
I sigh. A breath of air rattles my leaves and unsettles the ghosts of the past, and I see again the man named Pedro Valdez. . . .
Underwater, stroking along the bottom, she opened her eyes to watch the slack-jawed salmon, then popped up near the island and pushed back her hair. Sun sparkled across the wrinkled skin of the blue water . . . Treading water, she stilled herself and inhaled the purifying smell of peppermint. A deep-voiced roar came from the playing field and then it was quiet again, except for a clown bird knocking on hollow wood, resting between attacks. Her spirit floated as easily as her legs. The bright river narrowed downstream, held in by water-sculpted boulders. Alder branches shaded the family fishing hole. She was glad to be home.
The bushes thrashed. A sombrero and pale shirt pushed through the thicket. She blinked. No one at the festival wore a shirt and pantalones. Had Pedro Valdez come to return her things? The man came to the water’s edge, which was hidden from the beach, and she knew by the sling of the hip — one boot on an outcropping, long gun in his hand — it wasn’t Pedro. And too slender for Captain Sutter. The face was darkened by the hat, but she felt she had seen him before.
Looking her way, he sat down on a rock shelf, gun over his knees. She felt his eyes, and her skin prickled with fright, but she watched and continued treading water. No doubt he had seen the ti-kel game, and hadn’t caused trouble there. As she faced him her fear dissolved to curiosity, and she decided to go closer. She slipped into the current kicking downstream, carried by the water, stroking only few times. The bottom came up rapidly. Rocks met her knees and she found footing.
The stranger had deep blue eyes, as if holes had been bored in his head and the sky came through. Looking calmly from those eyes as she stood up with water sheeting from her body, he smiled in a lopsided way, causing a cunning dimple to appear in his cheek. She thought she remembered him from the fort, but if he’d come to capture her, he didn’t act like it. He was a handsome man with a perfectly straight nose, a man in his prime. But he smelled bad.
“Hello, pretty lass,” he said.
She heard the friendliness in his voice. She stepped closer, from submerged rock to rock, a breeze prickling her wet limbs with gooseflesh.
He patted the boulder beside him, smiling in an inviting way.
She remained standing and asked in Spanish, “Where are you going?”
He opened his hands like he was sorry he couldn’t understand.
“You come to our Cos fiesta?”
He shrugged again and said, “No palaver.”
He didn’t speak Spanish.
He placed his gun on the bank behind and tilted his teasing smile toward her. “Palaver poco,” he said, and she understood the word for little. “Bonita,” he said. Pretty. He brushed his gaze down her length. Unlike other Americanos, he had no bush of hair on his face; the clean lines showed. His brown hair, tied neatly at the nape of his neck, make a wavy tail down his pale shirt. His smile dazzled.
“Wot’s the nime o’ this plaice?” he said, gesturing up river.
She marveled that people made such strange sounds. . . .
(H)e needed a bath. In the spirit of the Cos festival she laughed and grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the water.
He lurched to his feet. “Wait a minute,” he said, throwing his sombrero on his gun. He sat down and yanked off his boots and placed his bone-white feet in the water.
She pulled him up again, but he stopped and undid the square of buttons at his front, letting his pants drop, then tugged his shirt over his head — the stench not unlike Captain Sutter’s — and tossed everything over his boots and gun. She marveled at the skin below his neck — white as Coyote Man in his ash paint, with dark hair under his arms and on his chest and around his man’s part. Hair grew on his legs too, like on Captain Sutter, but on this man it was black against white. It looked preposterous, clownlike, and she couldn’t hold back a giggle. Wrinkling her nose at the bad smells, she yanked him toward deeper water. He came haltingly, picking his way over rocks. She pulled him upstream against the current, now to his knees, and laughed to see a man walking like a baby holding its mother’s hand. His attention never left his footing.
At the deep water where the bathing pool spread before them, she tugged his hand. He braced his feet on a submerged rock, upon which he struggled to stand, and shook his head in solid refusal. But he was only just above his knees in the river, and he looked so precarious on the slippery rock and acted so serious, it struck her as hilarious.
On shore, toddlers and their mothers watched in awe from between the racks of drying salmon. Could he be afraid of them? But she knew how to get people into the festival mood. She dog-paddled around his rock. He turned and looked at her with questions in his blue eyes and, she realized with a new seizure of giggles, he didn’t know what she was about to do. Any of the home men would have.
She shoved him off his rock, plunged on top and held him under. He thrashed and grabbed at her, but she held on, sputtering laughter, and thought maybe he knew this game after all. He wasn’t really trying to get to the surface. Sometimes men pretended to struggle in water fights as a way of showing they liked a woman. She hooked an arm around his chin and swam strongly, towing him face down under water against the force of the flow. He thrashed ineffectively. She smiled. Soon he would be clean.
She pulled him through the braided current to the calm place where she’d first seen him. He had assumed a limp posture, and she admired the length of time he could hold his breath; but she tensed for a surprise move, perhaps a sudden burst out of the water with both hands pushing her head down in retaliation. She knew that trick. But her smile faded as another possibility began to dawn on her.
River of Red Gold (Book 2, California Gold Trilogy)
by Naida West
624 pages; trade paper; endnotes; maps of ranchos and early settlements in California
Now available in a box set!