During the Gold Rush, in a re-imagined American West, Lucy and Sam, 12 and 11, are newly orphaned siblings. With their father’s body on their backs, they roam an unforgiving landscape dotted with buffalo bones and tiger paw prints, searching for a place to give him a proper burial. The siblings must battle with their own memories, the illusion of the American Dream and each other.
How Much Of These Hills Is Gold is an epic debut novel about family and the search for both a home and a fortune.
Born in Beijing but mostly an artifact of the United States, C Pam Zhang has lived in 13 cities and is still looking for home. She’s been awarded fellowships and scholarships from organisations including Bread Loaf, Tin House, Aspen Words and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work appears in Kenyon Review, McSweeney’s Quarterly, Tin House and elsewhere. She currently lives in San Francisco.
This excerpt is published by permission.
Ba dies in the night, prompting them to seek two silver dollars. Sam’s tapping an angry beat come morning, but
Lucy, before they go, feels a need to speak. Silence weighs harder on her, pushes till she gives way.
“Sorry,” she says to Ba in his bed. The sheet that tucks him is the only clean stretch in this dim and dusty shack, every surface black with coal. Ba didn’t heed the mess while living and in death his mean squint goes right past it. Past Lucy. Straight to Sam. Sam the favorite, round bundle of impatience tapping at the door in too-big boots.
Sam clung to Ba’s every word while living and now won’t meet the man’s gaze. That’s when it hits Lucy: Ba really is gone. She digs a bare toe into dirt floor, rooting for words. Words to make Sam listen. To spread benediction over years of hurt. Dust hangs ghostly in the light from the lone window. No wind to stir it. Something prods Lucy’s spine.
“Pow,” Sam says. Eleven to Lucy’s twelve, wood to her water as Ma liked to say, Sam is nonetheless shorter by a full foot. Looks young, deceptively soft. “Too slow. You’re dead.” Sam cocks fingers back on pudgy fists and blows on the muzzle of an imagined gun. The way Ba used to. Proper way to do things, Ba said, and when Lucy said Teacher Leigh said these new guns didn’t clog and didn’t need blowing, Ba judged the proper way was to slap her.
Stars burst behind her eyes, a flint of pain sharp in her nose.
Lucy’s nose never did grow back straight. She thumbs it, thinking. Proper way, Ba said, was to let it heal itself. When he looked at Lucy’s face after the bloom of bruise faded, he nodded right quick. Like he’d planned it all along. Proper that you should have something to rememory you for sassing.
There’s dirt on Sam’s brown face, sure, and gunpowder rubbed on to look (Sam thinks) like Indian warpaint, but beneath it all, Sam’s face is unblemished. Just this once, because Ba’s fists are helpless and stiff under the blanket — and maybe she is good, is smart, thinks in some small part that riling Ba might make him rise to swing at her — Lucy does what she never does. She cocks her hands, points her fingers. Prods Sam’s chin where paint gives way to baby fat. The jaw another might call delicate, if not for Sam’s way of jutting it.
“Pow yourself,” Lucy says. She pushes Sam like an outlaw to the door. Sun sucks them dry. Middle of the dry season, rain by now a distant memory. In the distance the hills are seared gold, but their valley is bare dirt, halved by a wriggle of creek. On this side live the miners in their tents. On the other, the money: those buildings with proper walls, glass windows.
Sam squares small shoulders in that direction and commences to walk. Sam’s red shirt a shout against the barren, dust-kicked field that sets them apart. When they first arrived there was still long yellow grass in the valley, and scrub oaks on the ridge, and poppies after rain. The flood three and a half years back rooted up those oaks, drowned or chased away half the people. Yet their family stayed. Ba like one of those lightning-split trees: dead down the center, roots still gripping on.
And now that Ba’s gone? Lucy fits her bare feet to Sam’s prints and keeps quiet, saving spit. The water’s long gone too, the world after the flood left somehow thirstier. And long gone, Ma.
Across the creek the main street stretches wide, shimmering and dusty as snakeskin. False fronts loom: saloon and blacksmith, trading post and bank and hotel. People lounge in the shadows like dragon lizards. Slow flick of eyes and tongues.
Jim sits in the general store, scritching in his ledger. It’s wide as him and half as heavy. They say he keeps accounts of what’s owed from every man in the territory.
“Excuse us,” Lucy murmurs, weaving through the kids who loiter near the candy. Poor kids whose eyes hunger for a solution to their boredom. “Sorry. Pardon me.” She shrinks herself small. The kids part lazily, arms knocking her shoulders. At least today they don’t reach out to pinch.
Jim’s still fixed on his ledger. Louder now: “Excuse me, sir?” A dozen eyes prick Lucy, but still Jim ignores her. Knowing already that the idea’s a bad one, Lucy edges her hand onto the counter to flag Jim’s attention. Jim’s eyes snap up. Red eyes, flesh raw at the rims. Kids call them devilish.
“Off,” he says. His voice flicks, steel wire. His hands go on writing. “Washed that counter this morning.” Jagged laughter from behind. That doesn’t bother Lucy, who after years lived in towns like this has no more tender parts to tear. What scoops her stomach hollow, the way it was when Ma died, is the look in Sam’s eyes. Sam squints mean as Ba.
Ha! Lucy says because Sam won’t. Ha! Ha! Her laughter shields them, makes them part of the pack. “Only whole chickens today,” Jim says. “No feet for you. Come back later.”
“We don’t need provisions,” Lucy lies, already tasting the melt of chicken skin on her tongue. She forces herself taller, clenches hands at her side. And she speaks her need.
I’ll tell you the only magic words that matter, Ba said when he threw Ma’s books in the storm-born lake. He
slapped Lucy to stop her crying, but his hand was slow. Almost gentle. He squatted to watch Lucy wipe snot across her face. Ting wo, Lucy girl: On credit. Ba’s words work some sort of magic, sure enough.
Jim pauses his pen.
“Say that again, girl?”
“Two silver dollars. On credit.” Ba’s voice booming at her back, in her ear. Lucy can smell his whiskey breath. Daren’t turn. Should his shovel hands clap her shoulders, she doesn’t know if she’ll scream or laugh, run or hug him round the neck so hard she won’t come loose no matter how he cusses. Ba’s words tumble out the tunnel of her throat like a ghost clambering from the dark: “Payday’s Monday. All we need’s a little stretch. Honest.”
She spits on her hand and extends it over. Jim’s no doubt heard this refrain from miners, from their dry wives and hollow children. Poor like Lucy. Dirty like Lucy. Jim’s been known to grunt, push the needed item over, and charge double interest come payday.
Didn’t he once give out bandages on credit after a mine accident? To people desperate like Lucy. But none of them quite like Lucy. Jim’s gaze measures her. Bare feet. Sweat-soaked dress in ill-fitting navy, made from the scraps of Ba’s shirt fabric. Gangly arms, hair rough as chicken wire. And her face. “Grain I’ll give your Pa on credit,” Jim says. “And whatever animal parts you find fit to eat.” His lip curls up, flashes a strip of wet gum. On someone else it might be called a smile. “For money, get him to the bank.”
The spit dries tight on Lucy’s untouched palm. “Sir—” And then, louder than Lucy’s fading voice, Sam’s boot heel hits the floor. Sam marches, straight-shouldered, out of the store.
Small, Sam is. But capable of a man’s strides in those calfskin boots. Sam’s shadow licks back at Lucy’s toes; in Sam’s mind the shadow is the true height, the body a temporary inconvenience. When I’m a cowboy, Sam says.
When I’m an adventurer. More recently: When I’m a famous outlaw. When I’m grown. Young enough to think desire alone shapes the world.
“Bank won’t help the likes of us,” Lucy says.
She might as well have said nothing. Dust tickles her throat and she stops to cough. Her throat ripples. She retches last night’s dinner into the street. Straightaway come the strays, licking at her leavings. For a moment Lucy hesitates, though Sam’s boots beat an impatient tattoo. She imagines abandoning her lone relation to crouch among the dogs, fight them for every drop that’s hers. Theirs is a life of belly and legs, run and feed. Simple life.
She makes herself straighten and walk two-legged.
“Ready, pardner?” Sam says. This one’s a real question, not a chewed-out spit-up line. For the first time today Sam’s dark eyes aren’t squinted. Under protection of Lucy’s shadow, they’ve opened wide, something there half-melting. Lucy moves to touch that short black hair where the red bandana’s come askew. Remembering the smell of Sam’s baby scalp: yeasty, honest with oil and sun.
But by moving she lets sun hit. Sam’s eyes squeeze shut. Sam steps away. Lucy can tell from the bulge of Sam’s pockets that those hands are cocked again.
“I’m ready,” Lucy says.
The floor of the bank is gleaming board. Blond as the hair on the lady teller’s head. So smooth no splinters catch Lucy’s feet. The tap of Sam’s boots acquires a raw edge, like gunshot. Sam’s neck reddens under the warpaint.
Ta-tap, they go across the bank. The teller staring.
Ta-TAP. The teller leans back. A man appears from behind her. A chain swings from his vest.
TA-TAP TA-TAP TA-TAP. Sam stretches up to the counter on tiptoe, creasing boot leather. Sam’s always stepped so careful before.
“Two silver dollars,” Sam says.
The teller’s mouth twitches. “Do you have an—”
“They don’t have an account.” It’s the man who speaks, looking at Sam as one might a rat.
Sam gone quiet.
“On credit,” Lucy says. “Please.”
“I’ve seen you two around. Did your father send you to beg?”
In a way, he did.
“Payday’s Monday. We only need a little stretch.”
Lucy doesn’t say, Honest. Doesn’t think this man would hear it.
“This isn’t a charity. Run on home you little—”
The man’s lips keep moving for a moment after his voice has stopped, like the woman Lucy once saw speaking in
tongues, a force other than her own pushing between her lips. “—beggars. Run on before I call the sheriff.”
Terror walks cold fingers down Lucy’s spine. Not fear of the banker. Fear of Sam. She recognizes the look in Sam’s eyes. Thinks of Ba stiff in the bed, eyes slitted open.
She was the first to wake this morning. She found the body and sat vigil those hours before Sam woke, and she closed the eyes as best she could. She figured Ba died angry. Now she knows different: his was the measuring squint of a hunter tracking prey. Already she sees the signs of possession. Ba’s squint in Sam’s eyes. Ba’s anger in Sam’s body. And that’s besides the other holds Ba has on Sam: the boots, the place on Sam’s shoulder where Ba rested his hand. Lucy sees how it’ll go. Ba will rot day by day in that bed, his spirit spilling from his body and moving into Sam till Lucy wakes to see Ba looking out from behind Sam’s eyes. Sam lost forever.
They need to bury Ba once and for all, lock his eyes with the weight of silver. Lucy must make this banker understand. She readies herself to beg. Sam says, “Pow.”
Lucy is about to tell Sam to quit fooling. She reaches for those chubby brown fingers but they’ve gone curiously shiny. Black. Sam is holding Ba’s pistol.
The teller falls in a faint.
“Two silver dollars,” Sam says, voice pitched lower. A shadow of Ba’s voice.
“I’m so sorry, sir,” Lucy says into the silence. Her lips go up. Ha ha. “You know how kids are with their games, please excuse my little—”
“Run on before I have you lynched,” the man says.
Looking straight at Sam. “Run on you filthy. Little. Chink.”
Sam squeezes the trigger. A roar. A bang. A rush. The sense of something enormous passing Lucy’s ear. Stroking her with rough palms. When she opens her eyes the air is grey with smoke and Sam has staggered back, hand clapped to a cheek bruised by the pistol’s recoil. The man lies spread on the ground. For once in her life Lucy resists the tears on Sam’s face, puts Sam second. She crawls away from Sam. Ears ringing. Her fingers find the man’s ankle. His thigh. His chest. His whole, unblemished, beating chest. There’s a welt on his temple from where he leapt back and banged his head on a shelf. Apart from that the man is unharmed. The gun misfired.
From the cloud of smoke and powder, Lucy hears Ba laughing.