Read Solomon's Oak Online

Authors: Jo-Ann Mapson

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Self-actualization (Psychology), #Literary, #Loss (Psychology), #Psychological

Solomon's Oak (4 page)

Caroline shrugged. “One night. Just be normal. That’s what she needs.”

“Do you have her in therapy?”

The cell phone rang again. Caroline looked at it and sighed. “Sorry. I really have to take this.”

“The wedding’s about to start,” Glory said. “Call me later on tonight. I’ll be up late cleaning the joint.”

“Thanks, talk to you then.” Caroline waved good-bye, speaking into her phone as she left, already on another case.

Glory watched her car back up, turn, and head down the driveway, dust flying up in its wake. The Solomon ranch was isolated, but you could find your way by the trees. The blue oak marked due west toward Highway 1. The fallen Engelmann oak halfway up the hill made a great lookout. Stand up on its stump on a clear day and you could see the tip of the Hacienda Hotel’s Moorish dome, designed by architect Julia Morgan. Sit there and share your sandwich with the jays and they’d hop around like avian ninjas. The land was dotted here and there with “promiscuous” oak trees—the scientific term for hybrids—and once or twice, if it weren’t for the dogs running along beside her, certain of the way home, Glory might have felt as lost as she suspected Juniper was feeling right now.

Between Jolon and Highway 1 lay wilderness. Left wild, protected by conservation organizations, the tens of thousands of acres featured hiking trails with incredible views. Rivers and creeks wove in and out of the Santa Lucia Mountains, home to mountain lions, javelinas, and the occasional bear. Every year a few hikers got lost or injured, costing the state a bushel of money for search-and-rescue efforts. Heading east between Jolon and King City, coarse golden brush made for a year-round fire hazard, which was why the Solomons grazed goats. The land required irrigation due to the undependable rain cycles. Every rancher Glory knew had an opinion on why he should receive a bigger allotment than his neighbor. But even with all those negatives, Glory cherished each migratory bird that overwintered, the noisy flocks of Canada geese on their way south, and even the javelinas, at a distance. The nightly howls of coyotes sounded more like an anthem than a warning. Whenever she spotted a California condor, a species once near extinction that had been coaxed back, she felt proud to be a Californian. Sometimes, if humans put heart and mind into it, they could undo their mistakes. She wondered what Juniper McGuire would think if she saw one of those enormous black birds fly overhead. Glory would tell her its Latin name,
Gymnogyps californianus
, the scavenger that could live for half a century, feeding on carrion, picking bones clean to bleach in the sun.

All week Glory had schooled herself on Dan’s digital camera so she could take the candid pictures, which in her opinion was the life of any wedding. While Angus and his groomsmen dipped into the wooden barrels she’d bought from a winery up north, Glory pointed and shot and let the camera collect memories. The couple was sailing to Catalina Island in the morning. She wished them a steady breeze like the one blowing through the oak’s branches just now. Surely even pirates knew marriage was the mother lode of risks.

“Hey, Juniper,” Robynn called, and there she was, the one-night foster, covering the buffet trays with matching lids. “Come give us a hand with the plates?”

Through the viewfinder Glory lined her up and snapped a picture. Then she focused on the oak tree. With its gnarled limbs and lobed leaves, the pirates posed beneath it looked like toy figures. Glory kept a bowl of fallen acorns on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. Before the missionaries arrived, sixty-four documented tribes had lived in this part of California, all of whom used acorn meal as a dietary staple. Three hundred and fifty years later, only a few people remained who could trace blood that far back—such as Lorna Candelaria and her husband, Juan. The cultures were long erased, the stories in fragments. Now acorns were strictly for squirrels. On horseback rides Glory sometimes pictured an Indian mother on her knees grinding the bitter meal for porridge to feed her children. Suppose she’d lost her husband early—a hunting accident, executed by the Spanish, or, like Dan, from plain old pneumonia. How had she managed? Become another man’s wife? Deep in La Cueva Pintada, the painted cave, pictographs hinted at those long-lost lives. Glory had studied the stick figures and the drawings of the sun. A California winter was bittersweet, a time for reflection. Then she snorted at herself for thinking such thoughts. The truth was like a mule: on the sunniest day it could kick your heart into pieces.

Guests arrived. Before her, pirates streamed in for the party, dressed in jewel-tone outfits, velvet capes, swords at their sides. When an Anna’s hummingbird buzzed by her, claiming a nearby feeder, Glory stood still, hoping the tiny bird would linger, because among the Southwest Indian tribes, a hummingbird was considered good luck on a wedding day.

At the entrance to the chapel, the Topgallant Troubadours performed a Celtic version of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.” The guitar player wore a gray kilt.

“Aren’t you in the wrong era?” Glory asked.

He continued playing. “Naw. I’m pretty sure pirates kidnapped Scotsmen, us bein’ so entertainin’ and all.”

Glory did a visual sweep. The aisle cloth was unwrinkled. The minister, in his golden robe and matching miter, had bottled water with the cap already cracked and a folded handkerchief nearby for his brow. Despite the open windows, with so many candles blazing, the chapel was stuffy. The mother of the groom was dressed in a leafy green silk frock that looked Elizabethan, suggesting a lot of leeway in the pirate-costume department. Angus seated her, then escorted the mother of the bride to the front row on the other side. She still wasn’t smiling. Glory snapped pictures. She wanted to gently shake Karen’s mother by the shoulders and tell her, “Spend your smiles!”

A movement caught her eye, and out the window she saw Juniper standing at the fence feeding the horses the miniature carrots meant for the reception. It was like watching someone burn $10 bills, but Glory couldn’t leave the chapel with the ceremony about to begin. The Topgallant Troubadours set down their instruments and lined up in the back of the chapel, singing Stan Rogers’s “Forty-five Years” a cappella.

The guitar player in the kilt had a tender voice, and as Glory listened to him extol the rewards of second marriages and marrying late in life, his voice was so piercing she could almost believe he meant it.

Admiral Karen emerged radiant on the arm of her dad. His eye patch was crooked, but he looked leagues happier than his wife. They were just arriving at the podium where the minister and Angus waited when one of the pirate guests stood up and yelled, “I’ll be stealin’ her from ye!” and quickly grabbed Karen. A bawdy roar broke out from the crowd, and Glory made a mental check by
duel
on her script.

Chapter 2

A
NGUS LIFTED HIS
sword. “It’s a fight you want, is it? When I get through with ye, ye’ll be dancin’ the hempen jig!”

“Leave us or ye’ll taste steel for dinner, you bilge-sucking wharf rat!”

His rival, dressed head to toe in black silk, ran Karen out the chapel doors onto the flagstone patio. He pushed her behind him, drew his sword, and pointed it toward Angus. “All hands hoay!” he shouted, and guests rushed outdoors. Steel met steel in a headache-inducing clash, and while the choreography of the fight was admirable, Glory felt the unmistakable vertigo that accompanied the beginning of a migraine.

Not now, when things were just getting under way.

“Bucko, there be no quarter in which to hide!”

“Fish-feedin’, scurvy-ridden—” Angus stopped and wiped sweat from his forehead. “I can’t remember my line. Cue, please?”

“Landlubber!” Admiral Karen called out, and the rival turned to her.


Landlubber
? Now, that’s a word ta crush a man’s spirit,” the rival said.
“En garde!”

Behind the ropes, the servers stopped to watch. While the sword-fight business could have seemed silly, with the costumes and swords it was kind of thrilling and provided a multitude of opportunities for candid photography. Glory pressed the shutter button on Dan’s camera and, in the midst of all the hollering, listened for the telltale click of a picture being taken. She pressed the
REVIEW
button, but there were no new pictures since the wedding began. She checked her settings, switched back to picture-taking mode, and pressed the shutter again. A red light flashed instead of a green one. Dead battery? She’d let it charge all night. There was nothing she could do but run to the house for her old Nikon.

Angus and his opponent parried, leaving divots in the green sod. Glory had to take a step back when they changed direction. She looked up to see Angus reach inside his blue velvet justaucorps coat and pull out a pistol. Admiral Karen’s mother screamed so authentically that Glory wondered if she was as surprised as Glory was. Was that a real gun? Of course not. But it was no wonder Angus hadn’t found a church to hold his wedding. Most of them frowned on the use of deadly weapons, even as a joke. Mrs. Brown had to be helped to a chair. The photos would have to wait because this whole event needed to be dialed back immediately. Real gun or not, they’d taken the fight too far, got caught up in the play, was all.

“Angus!” she hollered, and held up her hand.

But just then a dark-haired man dressed in street clothing muscled his way from the other direction and reached the duelers. “Drop the gun, now!” he bellowed, and Glory wondered who he was to have a voice like that.

Then she spotted
his
gun. What was he doing? What the heck was
she
doing, thinking a pirate wedding was a good idea?

“I said, drop the gun!” the man roared.

Angus lowered the pistol to his side, but didn’t let go. “This isn’t a gun,” he said, “it’s an eighteenth-century flintlock blunderbuss.”

“I don’t care if it’s Howdy freaking Doody dressed in a ball gown, put the thing on the ground
now
!”

The guests loved it.

Now what was she supposed to do? The modern black revolver in the stranger’s hand also looked real. It had to be a fake; both of them were fake, right? They only seemed real because these people had practiced the script so well and they’d left out the gun part. Her mind spun. Find Juniper. Make sure the servers were out of the way. Let Cadillac out and cue him to herd the guests if it came to that. Her head began to pound with the unmistakable drumming of a migraine on its way. “Excuse me,” she said to every person she bumped into. “Please, may I get by?”

In the excitement guests pushed back and Glory ended up next to the musicians. “Was this planned?” she asked the guy in the kilt.

“Dunno. I’m in charge of tunes, not fighting. Where’d you find that guy?”

“I thought he was a guest.”

“Lady, I know every person here. I don’t know him.” The Scotsman cupped his hands and shouted, “Angus, back away from that dude! He’s packing!”

Over the noise of the guests Angus either couldn’t hear or didn’t understand, so as the person hired to run this wedding successfully start to finish, Glory plowed through the crowd, not stopping until she poked her finger into the chest of the uninvited armed guest and in Angus’s as well. “Both of you put the guns away! This is a wedding, not a showdown at the O.K. Corral.”

“Mine’s fake!” Angus said. “Honest, I bought it on militaryheritage.com for forty-eight dollars. Look. The barrel isn’t even drilled out.”

The uninvited guest turned his face to her. His black hair was cut sharply above the ears, close to his skull, almost military-style. She couldn’t quite place his ethnicity. Latino? American Indian? Had he been wearing boots and a tricorn hat, he could have passed as a Moorish corsair, but not in a leather jacket and Levi’s and holding what she was pretty sure was a nine-millimeter pistol. “Thank God for that,” Glory said.

“A sword fight in a wedding?” the man said.

“Yes,” Glory said. “The fighting is pretend. We’re in the middle of a wedding. A pirate wedding.”

“Seriously?” The man slid the gun back into the leather holster under his jacket and stepped aside. The pirates cheered as the duel began again.

“I’m going to shoot blanks now,” Angus said. “Just so you know, there are no real bullets, only black powder caps, okay? You might see some sparks, but that’s all.”

“Sorry about that,” the man said. “Ingrained reaction. I used to be a cop.”

“So your gun has actual bullets in it?” Glory asked, pulling him away from the dueling pirates.

“That’s usually the point of carrying one.” The pirates clashed by them. “From over there it looked to me like the real deal.”

As soon as he pointed to the oak, Glory realized he’d been taking pictures of the tree without clearing permission from her ahead of time. Having the tree on private property meant she could call the hours people came to see it. Signs posted a hundred yards from the tree in every direction stated so in Spanish, German, Japanese, and Vietnamese. “You’re supposed to make an appointment for a reason.”

“I can see that now.” He turned quickly away.

“Are you
crying
?” she said, but when he looked at her again, he was laughing.

“Sorry,” he said. “A wedding inspired by a pirate movie. Who’s to blame? Johnny Depp or Walt Disney?”

Glory reached for his camera. “May I use this? It’s an emergency.”

He pulled it back by the strap. “This is a very expensive camera.”

“Mine’s got a dead battery and you kind of owe me.”

“I don’t know you.”

“I’m Glory Solomon. I live here and my camera died. Sufficient? Will you at least take pictures of things until I get my Nikon?”

“I photographed crime scenes. I don’t do people.”

Glory held out her hands. “How hard can it be? Just try not to make anyone look dead. I’ll pay you whatever you think is fair. My future is riding on this wedding.”

“If they come out terrible, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“For crying out loud, just shoot! Pictures!”

He lifted his camera and, hallelujah, began snapping.

She raced into the house for the Nikon. While she fumbled loading obsolete film into a relic, she wondered why this man would be wandering around her little ranch on a national holiday instead of being at home drinking beer and watching some sports event with his kids and family.

By the time she returned, the fight was winding down. Angus was red-faced and winded. The bride pulled her dagger, pointed it at her kidnapper’s rear end, and gave him a poke. “Weigh anchor, you ruffian! Unhand me.”

“I’ll have ye know I’m a picaroon, first-class!”

“And I be the direct descendant of Gracie O’Malley!”

The servers were now cheering on the bad guy, but in the middle of them, Glory saw Juniper standing there quietly, hands at her sides, expressionless. Poor kid. Glory bet she had never envisioned her Thanksgiving holiday to feature guns and swordplay. Glory would call Caroline as soon as the wedding was over; she needed to make sure Caroline was really finding another placement for the girl.

The rival pirate plucked a white handkerchief from his pocket. Angus speared it with his sword. “She’s mine again, as she always were,” he announced, and the guests began filing back into the chapel for the remainder of the ceremony.

Vows: thirty minutes late, check.

Glory followed the cop photographer into the chapel. When the bride and groom were back in place at the altar, he resumed taking pictures. On the other side of the chapel Glory took her own pictures, keeping in mind she had thirty-six shots, not the unlimited number she would have had on a digital.

“Vows, please,” the minister said.

Angus unrolled a lengthy parchment and the guests groaned. “What?” he said. “I learned ta read special for this moment.” He cleared his throat. “I, Captain General Angus McMahan, aka Mad Dog, take thee, my fine wench with the stout right hook, as me heart, me soul, and sole reason for plunderin’. I promises to love ye and honor ye; to make ye laugh when yer feelin’ out of sorts, love thee through scurvy and fire, in wealth or poverty, and when I speak of treasure, as I am wont to do, everyone within the sound of me voice will know that what I am really speaking about is thee. All of this will I undertake until there are no horizons left to chase and the rum is gone.”

Glory looked at Mrs. Brown, who held a tissue to her eyes. The ex-cop or whatever he was quietly made his way to the front of the chapel and took close-ups.

“Oh, Mad Dog,” Karen began, reading from her own scroll. “Me salty jack with a crooked smile that matcheth yer business dealings … ”

In a week Karen would be back at her paralegal job and Angus would return to managing the college bookstore. Glory would have put their check to good use—the mortgage, another payment to the hospital, and having the vet out to see to the goats and horses, who were due for shots. She’d put $1,000 into her savings account and pray that her truck could go a few more months without new tires. There were always sales in January.

The best man untied the white satin ribbons from the pillow and handed the candy rings to the kids. Angus and Karen exchanged wedding bands. Using the ribbon from the pillow, the minister bound the groom’s left hand to the bride’s right hand. “Whether plundered or purchased retail, a ring is a circle that never ends. Whom God hath joined this day, with the help of Poseidon and many questionable individuals as witnesses, let no one break apart. Now, we have need of a besom, please.”

The best man handed the minister an elegant oak branch, the twig end of which was tied with colored satin ribbons. The maid of honor and the best man each held an end down low to the floor. “If you please,” the minister said, and Angus and Karen counted to three and timed the leap over the broom perfectly. The moment they landed on the other side, the Topgallant Troubadours switched on the amps and Glory’s headache pounded.

At the reception tables, Gary ladled out the grog, and Glory searched the crowd for Juniper. “Why’s the drink line so crazy-long, Gary? The pirates are getting agitated.”

“Mrs. Solomon, I’m the only server over twenty-one.”

How could she have forgotten that? “Hang in there. Let me take a few pictures, and then I’ll help you.”

She lifted her camera and shot the roasted turkey legs held aloft by the bride and groom before she picked up a second ladle. If she could reduce the line to half, then she could step away from the table to take more pictures. Apparently the ex-cop saw her dilemma because he came up to Glory and uttered the loveliest words she’d ever heard: “If you send me home with a plate of leftovers, I’ll take the reception pictures.”

“Bless you,” she said, filling flagons. “I’ll send you home with a week’s worth of food.”

“Deal.”

Before he walked away, Glory called out, “Wait. I don’t even know your name.”

“It’s Joseph.”

“Thank you, Joseph.” He nodded. She resumed ladling out the mead. As soon as everyone had a glass, she signaled the best man that it was time for the toast.

“Arrgh-hem,” the best man said three times before people quieted down. “Marriage between pirates can be a tricky thing. Some days you’ll feel like lootin’, some days you’ll feel like plunderin’, but never let a day go by ya don’t go to sea and polish your sword!”

A groan traveled through the guests.

“All right, all right,” the best man said. “Married pirates, be happy and rob only the rich! May yer sails never falter and may the seas be rocky enough t’keep things interestin’. Now who’s up fer gettin’ blisterin’ drunk and playing full-contact Scrabble?”

Apparently everyone was, considering the response was much hollering and even louder music. Glory wondered if she could sneak a slice of turkey to convince her headache to retreat into its corner.

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