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‘How Much of These Hills Is Gold,’ by C Pam Zhang: An Excerpt | Press "Enter" to skip to content

‘How Much of These Hills Is Gold,’ by C Pam Zhang: An Excerpt

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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. 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 gray with smoke and Sam has staggered back, hand clapped to a cheek bruised by the pistol’s recoil. The man lies 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.

“Sam.” She resists the urge to cry too. Needing to be stronger than herself, now. “Sam, you idiot, bao bei, you little shit.” Mixing the sweet and the sour, the caress and the cuss. Like Ba. “We gotta go.”

What could almost make a girl laugh is how Ba came to these hills to be a prospector. Like thousands of others he thought the yellow grass of this land, its coin‑bright gleam in the sun, promised even brighter rewards. But none of those who came to dig the West reckoned on the land’s parched thirst, on how it drank their sweat and strength. None of them reckoned on its stinginess. Most came too late. The riches had been dug up, dried out. The streams bore no gold. The soil bore no crops. Instead they found a far duller prize locked within the hills: coal. A man couldn’t grow rich on coal, or use it to feed his eyes and imagination. Though it could feed his family, in a way, weeviled meal and scraps of meat, until his wife, wearied out by dreaming, died delivering a son. Then the cost of her feed could be diverted into a man’s drink. Months of hope and savings amounting to this: a bottle of whiskey, two graves dug where they wouldn’t be found. What could almost make a girl laugh—ha! ha!—is that Ba brought them here to strike it rich and now they’d kill for two silver dollars.

So they steal. Take what they need to flee town. Sam resists at first, stubborn as ever.

“We didn’t hurt nobody,” Sam insists.


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