Pacific Street

In this YA novel, Holland shows us a raging San Francisco during the beginning of the 1849 Gold Rush. Many different types of people are flocking to California. Preachers, con men, miners, Mormons, army deserters, and Native Americans are trying to start over. Here are Frances Hardhardt, an escaped slave whose goal is to never be controlled again as she has been controlled; Daisy, a gorgeous singer who is Hardhart’s protegee and tool; and Mitya, an Aleut Indian with a troubled past whose talent as a builder creates the central locale of the book, the Shining Light Saloon. That location becomes the glue that binds people and story together in a multicultural drama.

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In this YA novel, Holland shows us a raging San Francisco during the beginning of the 1849 Gold Rush. Many different types of people are flocking to California. Preachers, con men, miners, Mormons, army deserters, and Native Americans are trying to start over. Here are Frances Hardhardt, an escaped slave whose goal is to never be controlled again as she has been controlled; Daisy, a gorgeous singer who is Hardhart’s protegee and tool; and Mitya, an Aleut Indian with a troubled past whose talent as a builder creates the central locale of the book, the Shining Light Saloon. That location becomes the glue that binds people and story together in a multicultural drama.

It was a bright sunny day, without fog. He was walking on the cliff at Metini. It was as if he had been a long time gone. Behind him like gray bones in the grass lay the broken wooden posts of the old Russian fort. Ahead of him the curving arm of the land jutted into the sea, combing the sea’s white edge.

His sister, Anna, stood on the cliff, her back to him. He rushed toward her, eager, almost running, glad to see her again. He said her name. But before he could reach her she disappeared.

He stood on the edge of the cliff enduring a grief like a hole in his chest. The grass rippled in the wind off the sea.

Anna’s voice spoke. “The people join the generations together. The people grow like the grass with roots in the mothers and the fathers, with our children in our arms like seed in the grass, and when our children stand here we shall be their roots, and they shall hold their children in their arms like seed.”

His sister’s voice spoke, and the grass rippled in the wind off the sea. The wind grew stronger and stronger until it tore the grass up out of the soil. He saw the roots broken; he saw the blades blown away on the wind. He ran after them but they blew in all directions, and finally he ran aimlessly, his hands up, chasing whatever floating shred was closest. Catching nothing.

As he ran, the sea cliff was gone and the sky was gone, until he was running alone and in no place, around him a vast blackness like under the sea, roaring and empty and cold. And he knew if he stopped he would fall into the cold darkness, and so he went on running, but his legs were heavy, and he was getting tired.

✽✽✽

Mitya opened his eyes. The dream still clung to him. His face was damp from the mist, from the salt spray off the bay. He lay on the deck of the lumberboat, in the prow, and now and then the boat dipped its nose into the bay and cast a sheet of water against the rail. The sun was going down.

He sat up, hunched to keep from bumping his head on the rail. His lips were dry and salty. Behind him he could hear men moving around on the boat, calling out to one another, swearing, laughing. White men. They had let him take passage across the bay because he had helped them split and load the lumber now stacked on the deck, but that did not make them his friends. He settled down with his back to the lumber, looking out over the prow of the boat, across the rough water into the fog.

The edge of his mind still held on to the dream of Metini, and he caught at it, but that drove it off entirely. Only the black void remained. He fought against the sorrow of the void.

On his left now, beyond the stacked lumber and the barge’s rail, loomed the steep, lumpy peak of an island. The water here was much smoother. The lumberboat settled, and behind him a sharp voice called and the white men took in the sail and began to use oars. The boat moved forward in glides and jerks. Mitya sat still in the prow, unnoticed.

He straightened, his skin tingling, as gaunt, towering shapes appeared in the fog before him. He almost shrank down to hide from them. Then he saw they were ships at anchor.

The lumberboat nosed in past a low, flat hull with two masts, bits of rope and canvas hanging off the yards like treebeard. No men walked the deck; the railing was broken and rotting. Ahead the fog glowed in patches and points that flashed and blinked. A schooner rose against this light and slipped silently by, back into the darkness. Its bowsprit was broken off and there were holes bashed in the cabin wall. Masts and yards like stripped trees thrust up into the sky on either side and before him. In ranks the seagulls roosted on the decks and the yards.

The birds squealed and cried, and the waves slapped on the hulls of the ships; old wood groaned. Somewhere a bell clanged with the rocking of the waves. There were no sounds of men from these ships, but now a low hum reached Mitya’s ears, coming from up ahead, vague as the fog made audible.

The lumberboat poked along, its oars grinding and splashing, making a crooked way through the deserted ships. A white man climbed onto the stack of lumber and called out directions to the rowers. They slowed even more, groping through fog that began at the level of the rail and climbed away into the sky, stinking of old smoke. Beneath the dense mist the air was clear and cold and still. In the glassy water a rat as long as Mitya’s arm swam boldly past the lumberboat, reached the slanting hawser of an anchored hulk, and climbed up toward the deck above. As the lumberboat passed, the rat turned, and in the boat’s lantern light its eyes glowed an instant, red as drops of blood.

The lumberboat slid past a sinking ship, its deck even with the surface of the bay, awash with every little wave. The hum in the air was now a roar.

Ahead, through the swaying masts, he saw more lights. The roar grew steadily louder in his ears, a heavy pelt of sound woven of thousands of smaller sounds, voices, footsteps, the clang of pots, the thump of axes, coughing and crying, snoring and laughing, things thrown and things caught, things built and things falling down. He knew this noise, he had heard it before, on the Sacramento, where also thousands of men were gathered, and all their individual doings wound together in one vast place called a city. Ahead of him, on the bayshore, was another city.

Through the fog its lights were appearing, every moment more and sharper, some dull and pale and some hot and bright, spreading out up and down from him, and ahead of him piling up into ribbons and blotches and great glowing heaps. Now he could hear the waves tumbling against the shore. The closest of the lights ranged just beyond, a line of open fires on the beach; against their fluttering orange he saw the shapes of people walking back and forth in a constant hurrying stream.

He knew its name, this place. The other men had called it San Francisco.

Now the lumberboat was butting in toward a cove like a notch in the beach. Directly ahead a crowd stood packed around a great fire, their voices like a bee swarm. The shallows and the dry sand just above the waves were littered with pieces of wrecked boats, with boxes and barrels, with scraps and rags and broken tools.

Beyond the high-tide line was a solid wall of huts, put up of branches and rocks, pieces of boxes and long flaps of cloth. Mitya sniffed, and the stink reached him of burnt meat and bad whiskey. He grunted, his fears shrinking. This was not so different; this was another place like Sutterville, on the Sacramento.

The lumberboat rocked under heavy footsteps; a man paced up past the stacked lumber into the bow and leapt down into the water. He had one of the boat’s ropes over his shoulder, and turning, seeing Mitya, he shouted, “Hey! Injun! Give me a hand here.”

He was pointing across the prow, to the far side, where another rope hung coiled. Mitya took it and stepped off the boat into the water, going in up to his thighs. The bottom was soft and mucky under his feet. He drove through the shallows toward the dry land, lugging the rope over his shoulder. The other men jumped into the water and pushed and heaved the lumberboat after him onto the shore.

“Let’s go! Tote that wood on up here — hey! Clear a path. This here is Mr. Brannan’s wood.”

The lumber was stacked high on the barge’s deck and lashed down tight. The workmen stood around waiting for the ropes to be untied; the boss climbed up onto the stack, feeling for the knot.

Mitya lingered only a moment. He had already gotten what he wanted from these men, the ride across the bay. The roar of the city was in his ears, and the lights dazzled him. He went away quickly into the crowd, away from the shore.

Daisy’s hair was fine as milkweed fluff, the color of a dandelion, the shape of a bindweed tendril. Frances gathered it in both hands and the loose mass slid softly over her fingers, slippery and smooth.

She loved the luxury of its touch, so unlike her own hair, coarse and tight and black as soot. Winding the blond tresses around her hand, she heaped it on top of Daisy’s head like a great soft crown and stuck pins in to hold it there.

“It won’t nohow stay up that way,” Daisy said. “I can feel it coming down already.”

Frances chuckled. “That’s part of the trick, dovie.”

Only the thin canvas wall of the lean-to and ten feet of air separated them from the street; through the wall came a constant babble of voices and a tramp of feet that sometimes sounded as if everybody in San Francisco was walking at her. The lamp made the cramped space smoky. Daisy sat on the stool, her round white shoulders hunched a little against the night chill; she cast a sideways look at the canvas wall, at the uproar filtering in through it.

Frances picked up the loose strands of hair and twisted them around her fingers so that they dangled softly over the girl’s white throat. “There now.”

“Frances,” Daisy said, “are you sure we’re gonna get away with this?”

Frances rapped her on the shoulder with her knuckle. “Only idea I got.” She turned, reached behind her to pull back the flap of dirty canvas, and called into the foggy night air. “Gilbert! You ready over there?”

Gil Marcus stuck his head into the opening, into the yellow lamplight. His forehead was ridged with tension. “It’s not going to get any readier, Mammy.”

“Well then,” Frances said, “let’s go.”

Daisy stood, turning toward her. The satin dress hissed and sighed as she moved. Carefully Frances smoothed the wide skirt, shaking out the flounces along the hem. She had worked hard on the dress, cutting open the bodice and easing the waist, and now she gave a last quick fit to it, tucking the smooth cloth around Daisy’s body. Reaching in over the deep neckline she lifted the girl’s breasts into the top of the bodice. The warmth of Daisy’s flesh reached her like a gust of perfume.

When she bent down to straighten the hem again, Daisy took the top of the neckline and tugged at it, trying to cover herself. Frances swatted at her hands.

“Leave it. It’s fine.” Daisy’s breasts rode halfway out of the dress like ripe peaches in a full bowl. “You look very pretty, Daisy.”

“Hell,” Daisy said. She turned around again, like somebody dancing, her hands loose and fluttering. “I wish I had a looking glass.”

“I’ll get you the best looking glass in San Francisco,” Frances said, “if we get through this tonight.” She stroked her hands down Daisy’s shoulders and plump, fair upper arms, trying to calm her. Daisy’s cheeks, pinker with rouge, were stiff with strain; the soft, sweet red-painted curve of her mouth was caught at the corners in a fitful pout; her eyes were wide and fearful.

Frances said, “Watch me, dovie. I’ll be there.”

Daisy reached up and gripped her hand, the pretty pale fingers closing over Frances’ smaller, darker ones. “Let’s go.”

Frances’ heart thumped. She turned and went out through the gap in the lean-to wall and held the canvas open so that Daisy could come through without having to touch anything dirty.

Outside was Gil Marcus, a lantern gripped in his hand, a bungstarter thrust through his belt. He went ahead, up onto the makeshift stage, and climbed up one of the barrels on which the plank floor rested. Facing the passing crowd in the street, he began to swing the lantern around.

“Here it is, boys — here’s what you been waiting for!”

His voice was creaky with nerves. Frances shook her head to herself: this was not Gil’s best line of work. Short, square-shouldered in his plaid shirt, he looked inconsequential, not worth heeding. He stopped and cleared his throat.

“Come on, fellows. Let’s gather around.” As he swung the lantern its light swooped in a wide circle around him, beaming on the empty little stage, catching only the edge of the street; the crowd flooding by showed up as a flutter of arms, a sleeve, a foot, a white face turned briefly toward him. Nobody stopped.

Frances went over toward the corner of the stage, where she had left the basket of flowers, and looked quickly around. They had found this place by luck, only that afternoon, on one of the trails that led up toward the hill and, farther, the lagoon. It was a little patch of gravelly sand tucked between two sprawling, flimsy buildings, half hut and half tent, where miners slept and ate and drank and gamed. A bigger tent, the light of lamps inside turning its flapping canvas peak to a dirty-yellow pyramid, stood just across the crowded street; men went in and out of it in a steady stream. The path between was a river of dirt, its pounded surface constantly churned into the air, frosting everything along it with pale dust.

The previous tenant of the patch of ground where Frances stood had obviously meant to build something here, had dragged an old longboat up from the harbor and torn off some of the wooden planks and stacked them, and then disappeared. The boat lay tilted back along the slope just behind her, half gone. The two tents where she and Daisy sheltered were built against its side. Broken planks littered the ground around it. Out of the planks Frances and Gil Marcus had put up this makeshift stage, spending a good part of the afternoon doing it, and now Gil Marcus, sweating, hoarse, was calling out to the uncaring world for some attention.

“Now, boys, what you been waiting for, all these days, all these months, what you been looking for—”

Daisy had come up behind Frances, shy, staying in the lee of the stage. Now she said, under her breath, “That won’t work.” She hitched up the white satin skirts in her hands and scrambled up the barrel onto the uneven plank floor.

Frances followed her as far as the edge of the platform and bent down for the basket of flowers. She had filled it in the afternoon, picking all the blooms off the steep, sandy hillside just above the broken boat. The long white petals were curling and limp. She could not help but see it as an omen. She swallowed, feeling grim, already defeated.

Above her, Daisy straightened, standing on the stage behind Gil, and gave a twitch to her shirts. He was swinging the lantern; for a moment, as she settled herself, she was in darkness, and then the hazy glow of the lantern flashed over her.

She lifted her head. In the lantern light her white satin dress shone like pale gold. The heavy mass of her hair was already coming loose from its pins, sagging like a silk cushion. In the street, suddenly, the torrent of passing bodies slowed.

“Gil,” Daisy called. “Put the lantern down. Let me do it.”

Gil stopped shouting and turned toward her. His face settled, hollow-cheeked. He put the lantern down on the stage and backed away, putting one hand on the bungstarter in his belt.

Daisy stepped past him, up to the front of the stage, where the light was bright. She pressed her hands together, lifted her head like a child saying her prayers, and began to sing.

She had a thin little piping voice; Frances could not make it out well enough to recognize the song. What she was working with had nothing to do with the song. Like a rock thrown into the current, her mere presence turned the whole river. Around the front edge of the stage men were gathering, their heads tipped back, their eyes bright in the lantern glow. Behind them a rough voice shouted, “A woman, by God!”

“Nice-lookin’ woman,” said a bushy-haired man standing up front.

Gil Marcus had backed up as far as he could without falling off the plank platform. He glanced down at Frances, and their eyes met for a moment. Frances turned away from him, annoyed; he looked scared, or sick. She touched her lips with her tongue. Her body coursed with a rush of anticipation. The crowd was pressing closer now, all around the little stage, and a loud whistle shrilled out. Daisy’s voice faltered, half drowned in the rising excitement of the men watching her.

Suddenly the stage rocked. A yard from the bushy-haired man, a lanky boy with rope suspenders was climbing up onto the apron of the platform, his eyes hot on Daisy. Seeing him, the crowd let out a wild yell. Close to Frances, another man put his hands on the stage to boost himself up; his hat fell off.

Gil shouted, “Daisy, watch out!” Pulling the bungstarter out of his belt, he started toward the boy in the rope suspenders, the closer of the attackers. But Daisy got there first. She snatched the lantern up off the stage and whacked the boy over the head with it.

The blow caught him square on the skull and stopped him flatfooted. The crowd gasped. For a moment the boy stayed up, swaying, his face frozen in an expression of wide-eyed ecstasy, and then he crashed over backward into the mass of men at the edge of the stage. Like virgins they shrank back from him, and he fell alone into the street. The rest of the men wheeled toward Daisy, rapt. The girl glared all around her.

“Quiet down!” Her singing voice was feeble, but her shouting voice carried like an overseer’s. She put the lantern back down where it had been and stepped away, her hands on her hips. “Quiet down, damn you, and treat me like a lady, or I’m leavin’.”

A roar of voices answered her. Onlookers filled the street, a wild, stirring mob, but they were staying off the stage. Somebody in the back yelled, “What’ll you do for us if you stay, girlie?”

Daisy lifted her head. Her hair was slipping out of its pins, her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes glinted. She said, “You won’t find out if you don’t settle down.” Her lips twitched, as if she had thought of something funny but meant to keep it to herself.

She turned and walked away with a bounce of her hips that brought a raw bellow from the men like a herd of lovesick bulls. “Give her room! Let her be!”

In front of Frances the hatless man was still halfway up onto the stage. The three miners behind him grabbed his belt and flung him bodily off into the crowd, and fought one another to take his place. One, a huge blond hulk, shouted out in a voice thick with accent, “Zing, lady! Shud up, da rest of you. Stand away, an’ let da lady zing.”

The quilt of faces illuminated by the lantern settled to an eager hush. Beyond the edge of the light, the packed darkness buzzed and seethed, the crowd stretching up and down the street, filling the narrow lanes between the stage and the tents on either side. Frances gripped the stage with one hand; the wood quivered like something alive. Daisy squared herself up, clasped her hands together, and lifted her uncertain voice again.

“Rock of Aaay-ges — cleft for meee —”

A low sigh rose from the faces upturned in the lantern light, and then they were silent. Gil Marcus, his forehead gleaming, paced along the rear of the stage with the bungstarter in his hand while the crowd pushed closer. Voices rose; people in the back could not hear her.

She stopped singing. Instantly a yell went up. “Sing, lady!”

“Not till you’re quiet!” She tramped up to the edge of the stage. “Damn it, you wouldn’t treat your sister this way!”

At the chorus of whistles and hisses that replied, Daisy put her hands over her ears. Somebody yelled, “My sister don’t say damn it!” But the crowd quieted. Maybe the hymns had them in a churchy mood. With a sudden buoyant excitement, Frances watched the vast herd ease off, settling, until in the cool night air the distant clatter of something falling in the tent across the way sounded clear as a little bell.

Daisy smiled. Slow, teasing, she walked forward to the very edge of the stage, and like an army of angels before the Lord, the men sank down before her.

Now she glanced down at Frances, in the corner, and Frances nodded and smiled and waved her on. The girl cleared her throat and faced the crowd.

“Oh —Jee-sus, Thy savin’ grace—”

More confident now, she swung her arms, waved her hands, tossed her head. Every gesture brought a luxurious murmur from the crowd, but no one moved, no one called or whistled. Their docile attention made her bolder. She paced around behind the lantern, drawing their eyes after her like hooked fish. The only songs whose words she knew were hymns, but by the third tune her hips were swaying, her breasts bouncing half out of the satin, her tongue tipping between her lips; she shut her eyes and crooned through “The Old Rugged Cross” until the men shrieked and pounded on one another with their fists. Gil stood behind her, the bungstarter in his hand, but it was Daisy who held the mob back, Daisy alone. Soft with relief, Frances laughed.

It was going better even than she had hoped. Now came the most important part. Up there, wiggling and rolling her shoulders, Daisy reached the end of another song, and Frances took a handful of flowers from the basket and threw them up onto the stage.

Her first toss scattered only a couple of petals past the lantern. Her hand dipped back into the basket for more.

She needed no more. At the first shower of gifts the men howled as if their lungs were split open. Before she could draw her hand out of the basket again, the air was thick with prizes. Leather purses, coins, flasks, playing cards, hats, and scarves pelted the stage. Daisy stepped back, smiling broadly, triumphantly out at them, kissed her fingers to them, waved her hands over her head, and sang “The Twisted Tree on Which My Savior Hangs.”

Two songs later she was done. Her voice was fluttering and she was tired; Frances saw it in the slump of her back, the sag of her shoulders. She cleared her throat and shook her head and said, “That’s all.”

The men screamed and whistled, stamped and bellowed, and flung everything they owned at her feet. “Another one! Sing another one!”

“Later,” she called. “Tomorrow.” She spread her arms out toward them, leaning over them like a mother. “Go home and go to bed.” She turned once around, flirted her big rear end toward the crowd, and came down off the stage beside Frances, and the men sent up a cheer that left Frances’ ears ringing. Daisy darted off toward the safety of the lean-to.

Gil stepped forward across the stage, into the torrent of noise, and stood there shouting and waving his arms. Frances could see his lips moving but could not hear him. With the basket she climbed up onto the stage and went quickly around picking up the prizes that littered it. The flowers and paper and hats she tossed toward the street, but the purses and other money she put into the basket. The crowd was still howling and whooping; Gil could not quiet them. Finally, throwing up his hands, he backed away, and he and Frances went down off the stage and left the crowd to yell itself out.

✽✽✽

“There’s still a lot of people out there,” Gil Marcus said. “I hired a few fellows to stand watch.”

The smell of perfume reached him and he swallowed. The women still made him tongue-tied and shy. He came only halfway into the little lean-to, filling the space where the flap of canvas was drawn up. It seemed like a frail defense against the turmoil in the street, especially now that the crowd knew that Daisy was here. She sat on the stool, back to him, hands in her lap.

Her face smooth with intent, lips pursed, Frances Hardhardt knelt before Daisy, wiping off the girl’s face paint with a handkerchief. Without pausing in the work, Frances said, “Shut the door there, please. Did you hire colored men, as I told you to?”

Stiffly, Gil moved into the room, letting the canvas swing down over the opening. “No, I didn’t. I forgot.”

She gave him a single hard look. She was small, dark, female: it ruffled Gil that she should try to give him orders. When he had first met her he had assumed she was Daisy’s servant. He had also assumed that she was old, a misimpression he now guessed that she worked to create. She was not old, maybe no older than Daisy. And definitely not her servant.

He let his gaze rest on Daisy.

The girl sat motionless, passive under the quick, deft hands, her head bowed. Her plump pink shoulders swelled up out of the dress. Her neck looked soft and white; her hair, still half captive in its pins and loops, was the color of champagne. Gil had not seen a woman up close for a long time, and he told himself again that that was why he liked looking at her so much, why he took this deep pleasure simply from being in the room with her. He said, “I’ll be going now, Mammy.” He had taken to calling her Mammy when he thought she was old.

Daisy turned to face him. “One third of that’s yours.” She pointed at the basket.

Gil cleared his throat. Her voice was like a feather drawn across his skin. What he had been doing with them made him deeply uneasy. He could not shake the idea that it was a lot like pimping. He said, “Look, I was just, you know, helping you out, a couple of lone women.” His hands moved.

Her blue eyes wide, Daisy was gazing steadily at him, unsmiling, while Frances went behind her and began to take the pins out of her hair.

He mumbled, “I felt sorry for you, that was all. I don’t want any of your money. This belongs to you.”

Daisy’s mouth quirked into a smile. Her cheeks dimpled. She said, “You’re a good man, Gil Marcus.”

“Thank you. So I’ll, I’ll —”

Frances said, “Sit down, Gilbert. Take your share out of the basket.” She took a brush to the sleek sheen of Daisy’s hair.

He could not bring himself to leave, although he still did not want any of their gold. Sharing the gold would certainly make it pimping. He sat down on the bed. Outside there was a shout and a shuffling of feet. He asked, “Are you going to perform again tomorrow?”

“Perform,” Daisy said, mouthing the word, and her eyes flashed. The smile widened to a wicked grin. “Why, I think I will, won’t I. We could fix the stage better.” Her head swiveled, directing her bright, eager gaze toward Frances. “Do we have enough money for that?”

In the basket on the foot of the cot there were purses and sacks of gold dust, Mexican silver dollars, local banknotes; they had plenty of money. Gil lifted his head, hearing the scuffling outside, and Frances said, “We can’t do it without you, Gilbert. Now you sound as if you’re leaving us.” She had a way of talking that ran backwards of her looks, a round Southern eloquence, as if she had been educated.

Gil said, “I told you, Mammy, I got into this because I could see you two needed my help. I don’t mean to make a life’s work out of it.” He jerked up onto his feet, every nerve crackling, at the flat blam of a nearby gunshot.

Daisy said, “Oh, God.” Just outside the lean-to somebody shouted, and there was a thud.

Frances came forward, past Daisy, past Gil, and pulled the flap of canvas open again. “What’s going on here?”

The tent shook. In through the gap in the canvas a huge man walked, not tall, but wide and deep as a barrel. Gil moved up beside Mammy and laid his hand on her arm. “What do you want, Friendly?” He pulled on the little black woman, trying to get her behind him, but she wouldn’t budge.

The fat man’s face tilted toward him, wreathed in loose folds of fat, the eyelids red rimmed. “You done emptied my saloon with that damn stupid singsong, just when I was making lots of money. I come here to make sure you’re moving on.”

Frances said, “I think we’re staying right here. Who are you?”

Friendly ignored her. His contemptuous gaze swept the little room and returned to Gil Marcus. “You get them and you out of here before tomorrah, mister, else I’ll call the Regulators on you.” Behind him, in the dark outside the tent, several voices sounded in support of him; he had brought a pack of men. Gil felt the fat man’s presence like a weight that filled all the space around him, keeping him from breathing, from venting his rising anger. His fists were clenched at his sides. Friendly turned and pushed out of the gap in the tent wall and the tent trembled again, half uprooted.

Daisy said, “God Almighty. Who was that?” Her voice squeaked.

Frances turned toward Gil, her mouth drawn tight, the skin glossy over her cheekbones. “Who is he?”

Gil gathered in his breath. He should have foreseen this. Abruptly, like a dam bursting, a lot of other things he should have foreseen cascaded through his mind. He said, “That was Friendly — he runs the saloon across the way.” He gave a single shake of his head. “This is trouble, Mammy.”

Frances glanced at Daisy, perched on the stool, looking like a worried child, and then she faced Gil again. Her smooth black face was wide-eyed, the heavy lips grim. “Who are the Regulators?”

“A gang. Toughs. They wear green jackets; you must have seen them.”

“Police?” Daisy asked.

Gil shook his head. “Not really. Maybe once they were. Now they just pretend to be.” He sat down on the bed again and reached for the basket. Frances watched him steadily.

“What are you going to do, Gilbert?”

Swiftly he gathered up the banknotes, counted them, tossed out a few he knew to be worthless. Without a scale he could not value the gold they had collected. He took the silver dollars too, then pushed the basket toward Frances. “Take this, hide it somewhere.”

“Where are you going?” Her hand closed on the handle of the basket.

He sat there, his hands full of money, and looked from her to Daisy. The girl’s eyes shone with uncertainty; she was leaning forward on the stool, her shoulders hunched, her mouth half open. Everything in him strained toward her, as if he could wrap himself around her and defend her against the world. He tore his gaze away and stared at Frances.

“I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to stay here and make sure nobody bothers you the rest of the night. Then tomorrow I’m going over to see the alcalde. He’s supposed to be in charge here, although I’ve never noticed him to do much. But maybe you can get some kind of title to this place. Otherwise . . .” He rubbed his nose with one forefinger, tired, getting scared. He guessed the men were long gone that he had hired to stand watch outside. He looked around at the flimsy lean-to, which shook with every breeze. Frances was smiling at him.

She said, “Gilbert, thank you.”

“Don’t thank me,” he said. “I haven’t done anything yet.” Might not be able to do anything at all, he thought. He got up off the cot and moved toward the door to keep watch.

In the light of the morning sun things did not seem so bad. Gil Marcus, looking tired and frayed, went off with the paper money. The street was still crowded, men moving steadily back and forth, stirring the dust, and half a dozen of them were sitting on the edge of the stage when Frances went out there. Little heaps of sand had already drifted against the barrels that held the stage up.

Frances knew she had to keep Daisy under cover. If they saw her for free it would lessen their interest in paying.

The men who fringed the stage watched her with an eager attention. They were all white men, whom she could not use. Frances climbed the street a little way, in the other direction from the water.

As she went, she hunched herself over, she drew her shawl up around her head, she screwed her face into a wizened pucker. Nobody noticed little old black mammies, nobody bothered with them. She crept into this figure easily now, after months of learning it; sometimes, doing it, she even felt old.

Not today. Today she felt new and young and full of expectation. The sunlight glittered down on her like gold dust. The noise and movement of the street jumped with vigorous life, a power she could take and use. The breeze in her face smelled like dirt, like sweat and rot, but like work too, work and building. She hurried up the street, not wanting to leave Daisy alone for too long, the soft dust squeezing between her bare toes, strange voices yelling in her ears.

On either side were clumps and lumps of buildings, made of whatever had come to hand, ship’s sails and chunks of adobe brick, piles of wood, broken furniture, people’s clothes. Nothing seemed permanent or even planned. She passed a man standing on a barrel, waving a rag over his head, and calling in a dull, overused voice, “Shirts — shirts — got some good shirts to sell.” He himself was bare-chested. Other men rushed by his barrel, paying no attention.

That was how it went here. None of the men pushing up and down the street cared much about anything going on around him. Each one whirled along in his own cloud of dust, going as fast as he could, his eyes fixed ahead of him, his face set with concentration that ended where he ended.

Frances knew better than that; she kept her eyes open, looking around at everything, taking everything into account.

Under the inch of sandy dust that cushioned it, the narrow street was rutted and scored like a country track. Like the road past Fox Haven, soft under her feet; then, under the softness, hard again, uneven, a sort of warning: things weren’t as easy as they seemed. She had run away down that road, from Fox Haven to the sea, and things had not been easy, but now here she was, in this city at the edge of the world, her feet moving light and quick through the dust.

She passed a lean-to that was open-sided toward the street; within were three big wooden tanks full of water. Men sat in the water. Other men waited in line. She slowed, curious, until she saw them passing a sliver of soap around, and realized they were bathing. Then she almost laughed.

“One minute!” A boy walked along past the wooden tanks, banging on the sides with a stick. “One more minute!”

Frances lingered, hoping a few of the men would climb out of the tanks; she liked seeing men naked. They crouched in the scummy water, soaping themselves and talking, and none got out, and she grew tired of waiting and followed the street.

The street forked. The other way looked much the same as this one, a dusty, winding track through sheds and shacks and tents. She looked up its length but could not see the end, only more shanties, more dust, more people. She kept going straight, the way she had been going.

Ahead of her now the buildings were smaller, cramped close together, held up with poles and bits of rope and piles of dirt. From a narrow doorway a yellow man watched her.

At first these men with their strange skin and slitted eyes had sent cold shivers down her back, as if she were a child seeing monsters; she had thought they were black men turned off-color by some spell, some sickness, until she saw more of them and learned from Gil Marcus that they were Chinee. Celestials, Gil called them. They were as mean as the whites, and she hurried past them toward the cluster of huts and tents on the high ground.

Here a lot of people lived who had come up from South America, so that the place was called Little Chile. Flanking it was another place, a shallow gully creasing the hill, where she had seen before that some black men made camps. They built no roofs, no walls; they made fires and slept in the open. Now she walked up to four black men who were sitting on the ground around a fire.

She said, “Y’all want work?”

They looked her over, cautious, and the biggest of them stood up. He was square-faced and wore a black felt hat. “What kind of work?”

She nodded off down the street. “Building. I have some wood, have some land, want to put up something sturdy.”

The big man facing her spread an easy grin over his face. “Mammy, you in the wrong place for sturdy.” The other men laughed.

“We’ll see,” she said. “I’ll feed you-all. Pay something in gold dust. It’s just down the street, you can quit anytime, come back here, be no loss. Maybe, if we suit, you-all can stay on with me.” She nodded at them, looking each in the face, seeing each as a separate man. “All four of you. Well?”

For a moment they did not move, each waiting for some sign from the others. Then the big one before her nodded.

“All right. I’ll go.” His grin had disappeared. He turned his head a little, glancing over his shoulder at the others, and moved on down toward Frances, toward the street, and one by one they got up and followed him.

✽✽✽

The big man’s name was Josh. He went once around the little sliver of land, stared at the broken boat tilted up against the hillside behind it, and nodded. “Maybe we get somethin’ done, Mammy.”

“First thing,” she said, “is to build us some decent shelter.” Friendly’s invasion of the night before still raised her hackles. Along the front of the stage, in the street, little groups of white men stood watching her. She glanced at the lean-to, where Daisy slept, its walls sucking in and blowing out again with every passing wind. She faced the boat, resolute. “First let’s get the wood off that.”

Josh said, “You got a cat’s paw?”

Her resolution sagged a little. “What?”

“Somethin’ to . . .” His mouth kinked, his eyes sharp, his brows pulling down. “You got any tools at all, Mammy?”

“An ax,” she said. Gil had an ax. She fought the urge to look around, into the street, for some sign of Gil Marcus. Josh was staring down at her as if she grew smaller while he watched.

“An ax. Got any nails? Hammer? Saw? Wedge, mallet, anything?”

She swallowed. She had promised also to feed them, and she had not yet begun on that. One step, then another. She said, “I’ll go get the ax,” and went over to the lean-to.

By noon all four of the men were working. Josh and Phineas were ripping off the planks that formed the outside of the boat, and the young one, Laban, was worrying out the nails, and Micah was hacking down the last of the scrawny brush growing around the wedge-shaped piece of land. Frances had gone down to the beach and bought fish and clams there, Indian potatoes and onions; she hired a big iron kettle from one of the fishermen and even got him to drag it up the street for her. In front of the stage she had a fire going and the kettle simmering. Phineas had told her he knew where to get some greens, and she had sent him out after them; now she was cutting the greens into the pot, and she was uncomfortably aware that from the vast, quaking mountain of canvas and wood that stood across the street from her had emerged fat Friendly.

She lowered her gaze to her hands; she hacked up the greens with a knife. Trailed by a bustle of miners, the fat man pushed through the crowded street toward her.

“I told you to get out,” he said, halfway there.

Frances’ arms moved in short, jerky rhythms, snip-snip through the stems of the greens. The aroma was thick around her. She faced him, the steaming pot between them, her power in the steamy fragrance, in the fire and the food. She knew the street was full of people watching.

She said, “I’m staying right here, Friendly. You can’t run me out.”

He stalked closer to her, round like a boulder. “This ain’t your land. You’re trespassing.” His arm slashed out toward the work going on behind her. “You think you’re going to build something? Think twice! The Regulators will dispossess you before you get two nails driven.” He sneered at her. “We got laws here.”

In the crowd, somebody yelled, “Friendly, you fat asshole, leave her alone!” There was a low yell of agreement. Frances tossed the last of the greens into the pot. She wondered if anybody in the crowd would try to help her if Friendly came after her.

The fat man glared from side to side and behind him. “You all drink in my place. You all got chits with me.” He faced her; above his set of slumping chins his features were squeezed together into one small space, huddled around his pud of a nose. “Get out. That’s all I’m warning you.”

Frances straightened, the knife clutched in her hand. A noise distracted her. Off to her left at the back of the crowd there was a flurry of motion, people moving quickly out of the way. Gil Marcus was pushing through the bystanders toward Friendly and Frances. A tall, slender man in a well-fit coat and a brimmed hat came after him. Bursting clear of the crowd, Gil strode up to Frances and turned, standing in front of her. Taking over for her.

“Friendly, back off.” Gil’s voice rang out with a lot more weight and confidence than he’d managed in his efforts of the night before. “Get off my property.”

The vast face trembled. “Your property!”

“I just bought it for unpaid taxes,” Gil said, and glanced off to his left. “Mr. Rudd, will you confirm?”

The tall man who had followed him out of the crowd stepped a pace forward. “Yes. This piece of property now belongs to Mr. Gilbert Bradley Marcus.”

The crowd whooped, smelling the triumph of good, and there was a spatter of handclaps. Friendly fired one brief stare at the tall man and thrust his jaw out and fixed his attention on Gil. “You just bought yourself a pine box, pilgrim.”

Gil said, “You can’t pick on women, Friendly. It’s just too low, even for you.” That brought another yell from the onlookers in the street.

Friendly’s face screwed up even tighter. His gaze daggered toward Frances. His mouth contracted into a round pucker and fired a fat gout of spit toward the boiling pot; enough of it reached the pot to make a loud crackling sizzle. Turning, he barged across the street toward his saloon, his shoulders lifted up high, deeply grooved by his suspender straps. The crowd divided respectfully to let him pass, and many of them followed him.

Gil turned toward Frances, his voice lower, the note of power gone. “That’s over. Everything’s all right now. I put it in my name, because you—because of the way the law’s written, but this place belongs to you and Daisy.”

She stepped back from the pot, rubbing her hands together, staring at him: this short white man, unshaven, his plaid shirt worn cotton-pale at the elbows, who believed all these things he was saying. She said, “Gilbert, thank you again.”

Behind him, Tierney Rudd said, “Well, Marcus, I’ve done my part, I’ll be going.”

Gil turned and shook his hand. “Thanks, Mr. Rudd. And thank Sam Brannan, too, for his help. Come back tonight and see the show.”

Many of the crowd still lingered in the street, and now somebody called out, “Three cheers for Sam Brannan!” There was a dutiful bellow of applause for San Francisco’s leading citizen. Frances turned and looked behind her, at the half-dismantled boat, the stack of salvaged wood, the four black men standing there, motionless, watching her. Her look prodded them. The boy quickest, they went back to their work, but Josh stood there a long moment, smiling at her. Then Gil called her.

She turned to face him, expecting to see the tall white man still there, Rudd. But somebody else had taken his place, short, square, with long, straight black hair and dark skin. Not black but ruddy brown.

Gil jerked a nod at him. “Do we need another hand?”

She flung a look behind her at the four men already working there. They seemed to fill the lot. “I don’t—” She faced this other colored man, loath to let anybody go, even an Indian.

He was shorter than Gil. His eyes were strange, long, black as hellfire, with heavy, folded lids. When she hesitated, he said, “I build. I make house. Good hands.” His voice had an odd timbre, like two notes sounding at once.

She said, “You’re a carpenter?”

Gil said, “Take him. I don’t know the first thing about carpentry, Mammy.”

“Very well,” she said. “What’s your name?”

“Mitya,” he said.

“Mitya,” said Gil, startled. “That’s Russian.”

“Russian,” the Indian said, and nodded. The strange long eyes slid a glance toward Gil.

Frances said, “You have to work some, first, to prove we need you, but when you do we’ll feed you and pay you, and you can sleep here if you want. My name is Frances Hardhardt.”

He said, “I sleep out.”

“As you wish,” she said. “Get to work.” He went up past her toward the boat; a few minutes later he was working loose one of the big pieces of the frame.

Gil sauntered by her, his hands behind his back, his forehead clear and vague. “Where’s Daisy?” he asked, without really looking at her, without really needing an answer; he went toward the lean-to, pretending not to.

Frances laughed. He had earned a little gratitude, which Daisy was better equipped than anybody else to dispense. She bent over the fish soup, inhaling the heady vapor.