James kneeled down, a silent, wordless prayer. His eyes were open, but his heart was lifted up to that which was beyond. Leaning over, he rested his palms on the ground next to his right foot in front of him, bowing it seemed, entreating protection and bounty for he and his family for generations to come.
The others were still back a ways, by the wagon, readying for a night’s stop. Or maybe more than a night, though they were not aware of this.
“This is it,” he said. “This is where we stop. This is where we claim our own.”
The journey had been long, but not rigorous. He had taken no unnecessary risks, and spent much time listening to those who seemed to know what they were talking about as the family continued to travel along the way. He would go to land survey offices, ministers, even, occasionally saloons as he sought out ‘those who knew’ in each small town, always wanting to know what was ahead, and how to proceed.
It was in Kansas he first was bitten by the California bug.
“I’m not wanting to pan for gold,” he had told the old-timer sitting in front of the general store.
The man, his teeth mostly gone, white hair uncombed for months, replied, “It’s not the gold from the ground which is California. It’s the land. You grow the real gold there.” He paused, looking distantly at nothing, “Magical place. If’n you can get water on it.”
Returning his gaze to James, with force, he continued, “That’s where I would go. Where I would take my family. This all here,” he waved his arms around, “is fine, it has done me and mine good, but it is not paradise.”
His dreamy stare returned, as he pondered all he had heard from his two youngest sons, who had made the trip only five years before. Snapped back to reality by the forcefulness of his own decision on the subject the old man, farmer and pioneer of days past, locked his brown eyes on James, taking a measure of the young man, and his prospects. This, he knew, was a man who could make it work.
“Take your family to California. Dreams are there. Hopes. Life. Anything will grow if you are willing to work. And it is beautiful… beautiful. Don’t stop here, or anywhere until you can’t go any farther. Go to California.”
They ended up talking for another three hours as James, his curiosity being transformed to passion, heard all that had been passed along about what could be done in this far away state. The man had given James the names of his sons, so he would have some place to start once he arrived.
“You look up Isaiah and Arthur Burney when you get there. They’re good boys, they’ll help you out.” He told him how to find them, then sent James off to get the family moving.
That was months ago, months, James thought. He continued in his meditations out loud, letting his thoughts become a vocal prayer, the only human noise which could be heard, and the first in this area for a long while.
“God was with us. We are safe and healthy, healthier even. Hiram has become a young man, so helpful, so brave. Clara loves the space, the freedom to wander and imagine her stories. The kids seem to have blossomed on the trip, proving this was what we were supposed to do, what all our lives had been leading towards. Thank you, God. For this land, for your bounty. For my family. Thank you so much for Elizabeth.”
His emotions caught up with him, tears forming in his eyes from thankfulness and appreciation.
“And thank you for James,” the soft voice said behind him. Elizabeth. “Amen.”
He stood, turning around as he did, not realizing at first he had balled up his hands, collecting two fistfuls of soil.
The tears were still coming down his face, little rivulets in the collected dust, as he stared at her, not sure what to say, only feeling an intensity of love and an encompassing awareness of eternity in this moment. She looked back, her green eyes and long, unbound chestnut hair glowing in the light of the setting sun.
She spoke first, knowing what she was wanting to say, “This is it, James. This is where we stop.”
He tilted his head slightly to the left, as she spoke his words. “I know,” he said. “That’s what I was thinking.”
Looking around, taking in the open land, the hills, the scattered trees, all the sounds of birds active in the coming twilight, letting the fullness of the moment resonate within his soul, he raised his arms and in an encompassing movement gestured to everything, saying, “This is home. We build our house there.” He pointed to a small rise off to the west.
“And my garden goes there,” she said, pointing to just to the left of the rise, laughing as she began to visualize everything else which was going to go around them.
“James,” she said with excitement. “We’re home!”
With that she leaped into his arms, wrapping hers around him. He pulled her in close, lifting her up off the ground, and spinning her around in shared joy.
They continued to hold each other, looking all around them as they rested in overwhelming peace. His hands opened, letting the dirt and soil fall down against her back and to the ground, as he held on to his real dream.
“Come with me,” he said, taking her hand and leading her to the small rise. They both had a demeanor they hadn’t had since just after he had returned from the war and they were setting up their lives together for the first time. It was giddiness, it was hope, it was Life.
His other hand, his left, reached into the front pocket of his vest, taking out three acorns. As they had finished their descent from the mountains a few days before he had picked these up, not knowing why. The two of them stopped about thirty feet in front of the rise.
“Help me,” he said, not saying how, but she quickly realized as he knelt down and starting digging a shallow hole in the soil. It was tough at first, but once they broke through the top layer they were instantly aware of the truth of the old timer’s words. There was going to be gold in this soil.
Digging together, more playfully than seriously, a small hole was created which James, with ceremony, put in two of the acorns, knowing at least one would catch. As he laid them down in the ground, she rested her strong, tan hands on his, blessing together the ground, the growth, the future, which lay ahead.
“Thank you, Lord, for all you have done,” she prayed.
They continued in this posture, feeling the weight of the moment with all their being.
This weight lifted at the same time for both of them, as though the moment was accomplished, so they stood, their dirty hands still clasped.
“I saw a river from the hill on my way over here. What is it?”
“The Stanislaus,” he replied. “I think.”
Hand in hand they walked together back to where the wagon had stopped, and where the kids were doing their evening chores. As they walked, they both noticed everything, all the rocks, all the trees, all the geographical features, and each other. Small and large they took it in, because this was theirs. This was home.
Two ravens flew overhead, watching their new neighbors, unsure of who was moving to this quiet neighborhood. They landed in a small pine tree near the creek, still watching as the two walked up back over the hill. One raven clicked loudly, as the other began preening.