Excerpt from Rest for the Wicked (Book 3, California Gold Trilogy)
Copyright © 2010 Naida West. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
A rosy-breasted bluebird stretches her wing on one of my branches as the first light of day cracks the darkness. In the tall cottonwood across the river, vultures still sleep like old men with hunched shoulders. Not long ago this oak in which my spirit dwells stood taller and I could see much farther. My big arms shaded the entire home place where my people and I once lived.
As Eagle Woman I pounded acorns, cared for my son, and sang to locate illness for our doctor, always believing that my people’s way of life would continue forever. When I died I should have walked the pathway of ghosts to the happy land, but I looked back and my spirit entered this oak.
About twenty dry seasons have passed since men in yellow hats cut off my heaviest branch and sawed my trunk most of the way through. With a sound like the crack of lightning I split apart. My upper portion toppled and peeled a wide swath of bark down to the earth. Men came in their motor-trucks to haul most of me away. Only my weak lower branch remained. But I am still here, nourished by this fertile mound made from the ashes of my people and the leavings of our lives — robes of feather and hide, rabbit-skin blankets, broken bows and baskets fashioned from dream spirit. Earth took it all back into herself.
A frenzy of shoots sprouted from the joint of my branch. They raced each other up to where my upper trunk had been, and now four or five of them have bark and limbs of their own. The one in the middle is the tallest, and from a distance I look like a tree again. But I am not well.
Rain rotted much of my severed trunk, and floods washed earth from my crown roots. Fungus grows at my base. Where my bark is missing the beetles and borers tunnel freely, so I am dying even as part of me strives to be young again.
An arrow of sunlight shoots through the oak forest, suddenly brightening the boards of a weathered old cabin abandoned a human lifetime ago. The old man who once lived there trained wild horses to the saddle, before horses became pets. High above me two silver needles silently pull threads of white cloud while, inside the massive houses built on my people’s hunting grounds, the newest people step into golf or tennis clothes, or put coffee cups in the holders of their motorcars for the drive to Sacramento.
Over the river’s rustle I hear a strained whisper: “Howchia, can you hear me?”
“Yes.” It is Rock Man. In my long time on earth he has rarely spoken.
“I am weary of boredom,” he says.
The rock muffles his voice and makes him sound more distant than he is. Since the time of the Ancients his spirit has dwelled in an upright boulder on the far side of the chaw’se, mortar rocks for pounding acorns. The first time he spoke to me I was a girl, feeling his black skin made smooth by the river. Now he is wrapped in a prickly blanket of berry canes. When he was human he hunted gigantic hairy animals with frightful tusks, and he protected his family from wolves with bigger jaws and teeth than the ones I saw in my lifetime, wolves that could crush the bones of the giant buffalo now gone from the world.
“I liked it better underwater,” he groans. “The fish told me about their travels.”
Rock Man once explained to me that the river ran much wider back then, as the earth warmed and the icy fastness of the mountains melted in torrents.
“Is it day or night?” he asks.
“Morning. The robins have arrived from the north and the men from the big houses are driving to their offices. Some of them want to move boulders and clear the earth. They dream of deep crevasses in which to put steel pipes twice my height when I was human, and of mammoth grading machines that break tree trunks like sticks and turn the earth upside-down. They want those giant wheels to pack the clay so the new roads and pads for houses cannot shift and crack. I know this because it has happened all around me.”
He-lé-jah pushes through the bushes, fixing me with his golden eyes.
“Where are you going?” I greet him in the way of the People.
“Doing my morning rounds,” he replies. “May I rest on your limb?”
“You are welcome.” Sunlight has made that branch grow stronger.
Haunches rippling as he measures the distance, the big cat levels his gaze and then springs upward to a perfect landing. I enjoy the feel of his weight settling along my branch, tail ticking, big paws kneading.
“I was thinking about the changes around here,” I say to him, and Rock Man.
Coyote soft-trots up to my mound, already ruffling my leaves. “You mean the speed with which your people died out?”
“We are stronger than ever, Old Man. Just a little camouflaged.”
“My people are back too,” says He-lé-jah.
“It was a way of life that died,” I clarify. “First my people and then the white farmers and ranchers. But End Time will come for all.”
“Any basket will break when the load is too heavy,” Coyote agrees.
He has that teasing slant in his amber eyes. “Tell us how your people fared in the time of farms and first railroads.”
We see Billy again, my granddaughter’s son.
It was the season of longer days and second grass. You could almost see it growing on the hills, in the river bottom, along the road, everywhere. It left the short grass of winter limp and yellow in its shade.
Billy McCoon stood up and rubbed his sore behind. He’d sat too long on a block of sandstone swishing grass roots in his coffeepot, always keeping an eye on the cows. After cleaning the roots, he’d push them back in the mud. Grass must not be wasted. All life depended upon it. The winter rains had made the river overflow this small pasture, and now the new grass sprouted ever closer to the receding shoreline. He had learned that the roots sometimes gripped balls of earth containing bits of gold that had been stirred up and carried downstream in the floods. Later he would pan out the mud and add any new gold to his stash. He kept it in an eggshell-half inside the tiny gift basket his mother had made for him when she said he’d become a man. But now he needed a break.
Inhaling the fresh energy of the world, he ached to dig in his toes and run as fast as he could just for the joy of feeling his muscles work. But he could not leave the cows. He needed this employment and was proud to be earning a dollar a week caring for Mr. Swain’s six-cow dairy. Instead, he trotted over to the big oak and swung himself up to the low branch.
He walked in his balanced way along the limb and sat down against the trunk, which was about the width of his room in the back of the barn. The leaf buds above him admitted the power-giving sun, and he looked over the area where the People had gathered acorns and hunted from the time of the Ancients. Before the gold frenzy, the related peoples had lived on both sides of the Cosumnes River, which now curved toward him from the northeast and flowed away toward a vast wetland where four rivers came apart and re-braided themselves as they wandered into the Bay of San Francisco.
What I really want to do right now, Billy thought, is talk to somebody. But that was just a daydream. The only person who ever came here was Mr. Swain, who drove up on Saturdays. He’d been here just two days ago, stayed long enough to pay Billy and say, “How you doin? Good! See ya next week.”
. . .
He walked the other rope down to the frantic animal — Half-Ear, named for the ear accidentally torn off where the Swain earmark had been notched. He must show his calm. By now she had sunk another hand in the mud. Ignoring her bellows, he watched how she tossed her head. He needed to understand that. Then he made his loop and whirled it slowly, talking low and steady.
“It’s me, girl, your friend. I’ll get you out.”
The lasso fell where he wanted it, and he pulled it tight under the bony ridge at the base of the horns. Taking the other end up to his windlass pole, he placed the pipe cinch against the pole and wound the rope around both pipes.
As he turned the cinch, walking round and round the pole, each turn inched the cow up a bit more from the mud. He felt the limpness of her legs as she bellowed and tossed her head. This always took time, but as Billy steadily turned his winch, the cow rose ever higher and toward him.
The most dangerous part was releasing the terrified animal. The horns of these cows were short compared to the Spanish cows, but short horns could be dangerous too. He didn’t want her to feel too much ground under her or she could trample him before he got the rope off. And even if he didn’t get hurt, the loose rope would snag in the rocks and bushes. He had no horse to help, so he had to do it right.
The moment came when he felt the muddy cow rise a little on her own power. He slackened the rope and strode quickly to Half-Ear, speaking in his soft way for cows. She was tiring, not tossing her head so much. She’d just made a mighty push and was saving her energy for the next. He guessed that one hoof was on solid ground.
“Good girl,” he said, stroking her neck with his free hand like when he was about to milk her.
The rope was tight; he had to work his fingers under it, against her bony head.
She yanked back. He’d been quick, jerked his hand away before his fingers got pinched off. This could take several tries. The good thing was, he’d judged the moment right. She was not sinking. On the fourth try he flung the loosened rope up over her horns and yanked it away as the cow lowered her head to resume her violent struggle.
Billy stood ready to lasso her again if she started to sink. But she lurched forward a good amount, and he knew she was all right. By the time she bolted free of the bog, he was back at the windlass untying the ropes.
“My heavens! That sure were somethin’ special, the way you did that,” said a female voice some distance behind him.
Billy looked up the slope and saw Lizzyanne, a white girl. He hadn’t seen her for a year. She’d never gone to school either. Neither had her brothers. Like Billy, those boys had labored on local ranches for many years. People said their father drank like an Indian, meaning he drank until he was almost dead. Billy felt shy before Lizzyanne, recalling that she’d swung on the grapevines once or twice. Gumper, in the know about such things even back then, had said she’d done it to show her bloomers.
Now, pink and ripe, she came swinging down the hill with a shoe leather flapping. The sight of her in that threadbare dress with her big breasts swaying from side to side tightened his chest, and he could hardly breathe much less talk.
With unintended force he muscled the pipe around in circles to loosen its hold on the earth.
“Vernon says it takes guts to do that,” she said. “You’re brave, Billy McCoon.”
Fire burned up his ears and cheeks as he gathered the parts of his windlass.
Lizzyanne stood before him with her hands behind her, still rocking a little. Her fine brown hair covered half of her freckled moon face. “I’ll hep you carry them things back to the barn.” She sang the last word up and down.
Wordless, tingling down through his core, he handed her a coiled rope.