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
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
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
“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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
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
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.
Excerpted from Crown of Dust by Mary Volmer. Copyright © 2011 by Mary Volmer. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.