The Night Guide
Eighteen fifty-nine was the devil's own year for gales along the Sur coast, but their raucous zenith was registered near the end of April. Crashing up from the south-southwest with piratical ferocity, the cycle of gales unburdened enough water to send the Little and Big Sur Rivers four to six feet over their banks. The runoff from Pico Blanco alone kept the Little Sur at near flood for two weeks.
Sadly, every mortal creature that made the rugged coast a refuge suffered from the shattering blows of an outraged sea. Cresting rollers twenty feet high and two miles long mined into the impenetrable cliffs and rocks for days on end. Inevitably, every rookery, bower, haul-out, and nesting sight on the Monterey coast was swept away. The corpses of every known species of coastal life littered what shore there was left. The sharks enjoyed abundance for days after each gale.
The evidence of destruction was to be had from all quarters. Salmon Creek to Santa Cruz reported roads, byways, and trails strangled in mazes of uprooted and shattered trees. The prodigious rains, sometimes so heavy and horizontal that simple breathing became hazardous, drilled the soil so incessantly that broad landslides were abruptly carved from the mountainsides. Several large rockslides unalterably isolated the more remote mining claims.
It was during a blessed lull between the repetitive coastal tempests that Boy Bill Post moved his wife from Monterey to a newly purchased piece of land bordering Soberanes Creek. His land formed a part of the old San Jose y Sur Chiquito land grant, and he had fixed it in his mind that his acres would be prime for cattle. There appeared to be abundant grazing in the hills and pastures, and the splendid ocean views gave him constant pleasure.
Serious anxiety regarding the recent inclination of weather set Boy Bill Post to hurriedly construct a cabin to shelter his new family. This urgency was magnified by the impending birth of the Posts' first child.
Boy Bill Post had married a handsome Rumsen Indian girl. Her name was Anselma Onesimo and her people had lived along Carmel Valley and its bountiful river for centuries. According to Anselma, her tribe had sprung from beneath the earth on the day of creation. The Rumsen people considered the Sur Mountains as spiritual ground and spoke of Mount Pico Blanco as the navel of the world.
The constraints of time were suddenly made more pertinent by the return of the southern gales. Bill's plans for their cabin were instantly altered to accommodate present needs and it quickly became a slant-roofed, one-room hut near Soberanes Creek. This proved not to be the most favorable of locations.
The expectant father desperately hand split cedar shakes by the hour without recourse to food or rest. Anselma's lying-in time was uncomfortably close at hand, and Boy Bill Post desperately raced his hammer against the lightning-rent tempest that momentarily threatened to descend upon their heads.
Anselma's cries from within the rude shelter informed Bill Post that his firstborn and the gale might possibly arrive simultaneously. Then a sudden explosive crash of thunder heralded the initial, pelting pebbles of rain. It also proclaimed the welcome cries of his first child.
Post managed to secure the last few cedar shakes to the roof just in time to greet Charles Francis Post. Bill's gift to his burgeoning family was a tight shelter and dry stores. Not much in the way of a defense against the wrath of God perhaps, but better than canvas and poles in those wilds.
March 1, 1859, the day the majestic gales attended the birth, also marked the sad loss of four sound ships. To seal the bargain, the coast of Monterey was sorrowfully altered by rock-grinding waves and carnivorous tides. There were other unique signs accompanying the birth, according to the mother, but it wasn't for some time that anyone realized that young Frank was also the first child born in the high Sur under the American flag.
This is a complete short story from Down to a Soundless Sea by Thomas Steinbeck. Copyright 2002 by Thomas Steinbeck. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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