Under a Painted Sky, page 1
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
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Copyright © 2015 by Stacey Lee.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Lee, Stacey (Stacey Heather).
Under a painted sky / Stacey Lee.
Summary: “In 1845, Sammy, a Chinese American girl, and Annamae, an African American slave girl, disguise themselves as boys and travel on the Oregon Trail to California from Missouri”—Provided by publisher.
[1. Adventure and adventurers—Fiction. 2. Runaways—Fiction. 3. Sex role—Fiction. 4. Chinese Americans—Fiction. 5. African Americans—Fiction. 6. Slavery—Fiction. 7. Oregon National Historic Trail—Fiction. 8. West (U.S.)—History—1848–1860—Fiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.L514858Und 2015 [Fic]—dc23 2014015976
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
About the Author
For my number one fangirl, Avalon
THEY SAY DEATH AIMS ONLY ONCE AND NEVER misses, but I doubt Ty Yorkshire thought it would strike with a scrubbing brush. Now his face wears the mask of surprise that sometimes accompanies death: his eyes bulge, carp-like, and his mouth curves around a profanity.
Does killing a man who tried to rape me count as murder? For me, it probably does. The law in Missouri in this year of our Lord 1849 does not sympathize with a Chinaman’s daughter.
I shake out my hand but can’t let go of the scrubbing brush. Not until I see the blood speckling my arm. Gasping, I drop the brush. It clatters on the cold, wet tile beside the dead man’s head. An owl cries outside, and a clock chimes nine times.
My mind wheels back to twelve hours ago, before the world turned on its head . . .
• • •
Nine o’clock this morning: I strapped on the Lady Tin-Yin’s violin case and glared at my father, who was holding a conch shell to his ear. I thought it was pretty when I bought it from the curiosity shop back in New York. But ever since he began listening to it every morning and every evening, just to hear the ocean, I’ve wanted to smash it.
He put the shell down on the cutting table, then unfolded a bolt of calico. Our store, the Whistle, was already open but no one was clamoring for dry goods just yet.
The floor creaked as I swept by the sacks of coffee stamped with the word Whistle and headed straight for the candy. Father was cutting the fabric in the measured way he did everything. Snip. Snip.
Noisily, I stuffed a tin of peppermints into my case for the children’s lessons, then proceeded to the door. Unlike Father, I kept my promises. If a student played his scales correctly, I rewarded him with a peppermint. Never would I snatch the sweet out of his mouth and replace it with, say, cod-liver oil. Never.
My feet slowed at my name.
“Don’t forget your shawl.” Snip.
I considered leaving without it so I wouldn’t ruin my exit. But then people would stare even more than they usually did. I returned to our cramped living quarters in the back of the store and snatched the woolen bundle from a basket. Underneath my shawl, Father had hidden a plate of don tot for me to find, covered by a thin layer of parchment. I lifted off the parchment. Five custard tarts like miniature sunflowers shone up at me. He must have woken extra early to make them because he knew I’d still be mad.
I took the plate and the shawl and returned to the front of the shop. “You said we’d move back to New York, not two thousand miles the other way.” New York had culture. With luck, I might even make a living as a musician there.
His scissors paused. When he finally looked up at me, I raised my gaze by a fraction. His neatly combed hair had more white than I remembered.
“I said one day,” he returned evenly. “One day.” Then his tone lightened. “They say the Pacific Ocean’s so calm, you could mistake it for the sky. We’d see so many new animals. Dolphins, whales longer than a city block, maybe even a mermaid.” His eyes twinkled.
“I’m not a child anymore.” Only two months from sixteen.
“Just so.” He frowned and returned to his cutting. Then he cleared his throat. “I have great plans for us. Mr. Trask and I—”
Mr. Trask again. I set the plate down on the cutting table, and one of the fragile custards broke. Father lifted an eyebrow.
“Only men who want to pound rocks go to California,” I snapped. “It’s rocks and nothing.”
“California’s not the moon.”
“It is to me.” Though I knew I shouldn’t claim the last word, I couldn’t help it. I was born in the Year of the Snake after all, 1833. Father looked at me with sad but forgiving eyes. My anger slipped a fraction. With a sigh, I carefully scooped the broken tart off the plate and left the shop.
• • •
Five o’clock: Keeping my chin tucked in, I hurried down the road, kicking up dust around my skirts. The smell of smoke was especially robust tonight. Maybe the smokehouse had burned the meats again. The boys who worked there were not particularly gifted, plus they were mean. I already knew they would overcharge us for the salt pork we’d need for the trek west, and Father would have no choice but to pay.
I marched past uneven blocks of mismatched buildings, longing for the orderly streets of
I lifted my head. The sky had thickened to a hazy gray, textured with particles . . . like ash? Something sour rose in my throat.
It was not the smokehouse meat that was burning.
I ran, my violin bouncing against my back.
Oh please, God, no.
I flew past empty streets and turned onto Main, where suddenly there were too many people, some standing like cattle, others clutching squirming children to them. Noise assaulted me from all sides, people yelling, animals braying, and my own ragged breath.
The Whistle was a charred heap, an ugly inkblot against the dusky sky. The heat made the air look wavy, but the bitter reek in my nose told me the scene was no mirage. Ashes fluttered like black snowflakes all around.
“Father!” I pounded toward the remains, scanning the area for his distinctive figure. His dark hair and small build. The worn jacket with the patches on the elbows that he wouldn’t replace because he was saving for my future. Maybe he had shed it, for surely he was hauling water along with the rest of the men.
Smoke filled my lungs, and burned my eyes as I rubbed my grimy fingers into them.
“Out of the way!” yelled a man carrying buckets. Water sloshed onto my skirt.
I trotted beside him as he carried the buckets to another man who threw them onto the smoldering ruins. “My father—”
The man barely glanced at me. “He’s gone.”
I uttered a hoarse cry. Gone?
“Lucky you weren’t there yourself or you’d have been trapped, too. Now move!” He trod on my foot as he shoved by, but I hardly felt it.
My God, I didn’t—I should have . . .
“How?” I asked no one in particular. Was it an accident? Father was the most careful person I knew. He always doused the stove after we used it, and strictly enforced our NO SMOKING PERMITTED signage. No, if it was an accident, it couldn’t have been Father’s.
Whoever was responsible, may he pay for it in a thousand ways, go blind in both eyes, deaf in both ears. Better yet, may he perish in hell.
I choked back a sob and tried to make sense of the fuming mess in front of me. There was nothing but jagged piles of charred fragments. I could make out a heap of ash in the spot where we kept our wooden safe. Though Mother’s bracelet was no longer inside, it had held other irreplaceable treasures. A photo of Mother. Father’s immigration papers.
A wall of heat stopped me from going closer than fifteen feet from our front door, or where it used to be. My eyes burned as I strained to find my father, still not quite believing the horror was real. But as the heat began to cook my skin, I knew as sure as the Kingdom hadn’t come that he was gone. My father burned alive.
I shuddered and then my chest began to rack so hard I could scarcely draw a breath. Smoke engulfed me, thick and unyielding, but the awful truth rooted me to the spot: after I’d given my last lesson of the day, I’d dawdled along the banks of the dirty Missouri, throwing stones instead of coming home directly. I should have been with him.
Oh, Father, I’m sorry I argued with you. I’m sorry I left with my nose in the air. Were you remembering that when the smoke robbed you of your last breath? You always said, Have patience in one moment of anger, and you will avoid one hundred days of sorrow. My temper has cost me a lifetime of sorrow. And now, I will never be able to ask your forgiveness, or see your kind face again.
Another man carrying buckets barreled toward me. “Move back, girl, you’re in the way!”
I stumbled toward an elm tree, and there I stood, even after the glowing hot spots had ceased to burn, and buckets were no longer emptied.
Still the black snow fell, bits of my life flaking down on me.
“SHE’S BEEN STANDING THERE OVER AN HOUR,” a man muttered to another as they passed by.
“Place just lit up,” said a woman from behind. “Everything burned, even the Chinaman.”
“They sold the Whistle to a Chinaman?” asked another woman.
My face flushed at her commenting on this rather than on Father’s death. We were never welcome here. Why should I expect people to care now, just because Father had died? I turned to glare at the two women, only now noticing the crowd that had gathered. The thick soup of smoke had thinned to a veil of black.
“Six months ago. Where you been? Well, that’s the chance you take when you operate a dry goods. Places like that are tinderboxes.” This first woman finally noticed me, my lips clamped tight and my eyes swollen. She elbowed her friend, then they hurried away.
Fly, you crows. My father was not a spectacle. He was the greatest man I ever knew. He was my everything.
I clutched at the elm tree before I fell over.
A child born in the Year of the Snake was lucky. But every so often, a Snake was born unlucky. Mother died in childbirth, a clear indication that my life would be unlucky. To counteract my misfortune, a blind fortune-teller told Father never to cut my hair, or bad luck would return. In addition, she said I should resist my Snake weaknesses, such as crying easily and needing to have the last word.
“’Tis a shame about your daddy,” said a familiar voice. Our landlord, Ty Yorkshire, shook his head. His puffed skin made him look older than my father, though they were both in their forties.
I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand.
“My best building, too,” he said in his rapid speech that caused his jowls to shake. His left eye winked, the lashes fluttering like moth wings. “Sometimes you roll snake eyes.”
I gasped. He knew my Chinese lunar sign? It took me a moment to realize he was talking about gambling, not me.
“I gotta meet with some company men. You need a place to stay, wash that black off you. La Belle Hotel is one of mine. Betsy will get you a nice room.” He tipped the edge of his hat, then hailed two men.
I blinked at his departing back. Despite his kind offer, the man always made me uneasy. Maybe it was the way his black suits hung over his too-wide hips, reminding me of a spade. Father said spades represented greed, because the first Chinese coins bore that shape.
One of the onlookers covered her mouth and recoiled when she saw me. A man put a protective arm around her shoulders, like I was a wounded animal that might bite. I couldn’t blame him. I was unsure of my own reactions. The anger and horror poisoning my insides made every nerve sing in pain, made me want to scream, and weep. I was my violin bow, bent to the breaking point and on the verge of snapping in two.
But I did not snap. Instead, I shuffled toward Main, not even sure where I was going as I picked my way around horse pies.
Did he suffocate before the flames—?
I shook my head. I couldn’t bear to think of it.
My adopted French grandfather called Father his scholar. Father could predict the weather by listening to birdsong. Knew which plants healed and which poisoned. Spoke six languages. Tipped his hat to everyone, even Mrs. Whitecomb, who regularly pinched buttons from us.
The moist evening air licked at my face and bare arms. Somewhere I had lost my shawl.
To my right, a line of wagons led down to the Missouri River. The town of St. Joe squatted at the edge of the civilized world. Folks came here to jump into the great unknown, starting with a ferry ride across the dirty Missouri.
Into the great unknown was where the grocer Mr. Trask took Mother’s jade bracelet after Father inexplicably gave it to him. Now, nothing remained.
I pressed my violin case into my gut and stared at the river. The shimmering surface beckoned to me. I could be with Father, instead of in this unjust world, which never threw us more than a cold glance. With the strong undertow, death would be quick.
But Father would not want that.
Dazed, I stumbled away.
“Look sharp!” yelled a young man from atop a horse. I covered my head with my arms. His sorrel stamped its print just inches from my head. White markings extended past its fetlocks like socks. The rider slowed.
“You okay, miss?” he asked in a soft but clear voice.
I nodded but didn’t look back. Father always said, He who gets up more than he falls, succeeds. I scrambled to collect my violin before another horse came along and trampled it. The rider moved on.
I found myself staring up at La Belle Hotel, whose pink walls set it apart from its drab neighbors. Up close, I noticed the dirt overlaying the paint. Father and I avoided this street because he said the uneven surface brought bad energy. But I had nowhere else to go.
I swung open the heavy door. Behind an elaborately carved walnut counter, a woman in bright taffeta lifted her shriveled face to me. “Yes?”
“Good evening, ma’am,” I said in a shaky voice. “I’m Samantha Young. Mr. Yorkshire said I might find accommodation here.”
“Good Lord,” she muttered, thin nose twitching like a mouse’s.
Her cane dragged along the floor as she hobbled toward me, shhh, tap, shhh, tap. She raked a contemptuous eye across my face and down to my worn boots. After an eternal pause, she said, “Annamae, bring Miss Young up to room 2A and scrub her down.”
A girl my age appeared in the doorway behind the staircase, skin the shade of pecans. She didn’t wear chains, but the brand on her forearm gave her away: a square with six dots, raised like icing piped onto her skin. If it was possible to feel any sicker, I did. Negroes walked tall and free in New York. I wished for the hundredth time we’d never left.
“Miss Betsy, ma’am?” said Annamae in a quiet voice.
The old woman squinted, as if the sight of Annamae talking displeased her.
“Thought you wanted me to pick up the linens from the launderer tonight, like I always do. I was just on my way.” Annamae pulled her shawl tightly around her shoulders and slanted her heart-shaped face toward the main door.