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Dyea, Alaska, Fall 1897
Who among them might be willing to accept an unconventional arrangement? From her vantage point on the muddy beach, Lily Shanahan eyed the newly arrived greenhorns, fresh from the steamer just arrived from Seattle. She knew the wrong choice would mean the end for her, for God only knew the journey to Dawson was perilous, especially now that the freezeup had begun.
The ship had set anchor far out in the Taiya Inlet to avoid the bore tide that now rushed down the narrow passage. Trapped between the mountains, the water surged forward in long curling waves, hurling the overloaded scows toward the mudflats. The men clung to the gunwales, their faces grim and their eyes wide.
She had seen many arrive this way and depart for the goldfields soon afterward, while she had remained anchored like a rock in a stream. Lily had stopped asking the best candidates. They were not stupid or desperate enough to take her. That left only the ones with obvious flaws. So far they had turned her down as well.
Lily heard her mother's voice as clearly as she had on that final day her mother died. Sell it all, right down to the sheets I'm lying on and have yourself a life worth remembering.
And what could be more memorable than joining the mad pulsing rush of stampeders pouring north on the way to the goldfields? But somehow she didn't think her mother had intended her to be marooned by circumstance in these stinking mudflats.
How could she have known, when she spent her last dollar for her ticket, that Dawson City was five hundred miles inland, over mountains and down rivers, a place so wild there were no roads or trains, not even a telegraph? How could she have guessed that it was a journey she could not make alone?
So her search for a partner began. But after nearly a month in this swamp, hauling freight from the muddy beach to the tent town with her dog cart, she'd made a tidy bankroll and had been turned down more times than she could count. Lily longed to be in Dawson by the spring breakup. It was October now, and already the winds blew colder than January in San Francisco. Would she even see Dawson by next summer?
The first boat scraped up on the mud, beaching as the wave dissipated. The next one rolled in ten feet behind. She knew what would happen next. The poor men would lose everything to the greedy water, while the rich ones would buy protection, paying whatever the haulers demanded to move their precious goods to high ground.
Lily chose potential customers with care, seeking a possible match. Her huge Newfoundland mix, Nala, and her small cart could not handle the larger loads.
Most of the men climbed over the sides into kneehigh surf, sucking in their breaths or swearing as the icy water bit through their clothing. The first had just reached the wet mud when the crew began tossing their belongings out like so much rubbish.
One man clutched a single valise, his eyes wide with terror. A wave caught the boat as he tried to jump and fell into the sea. Lily held her breath as he disappeared beneath the crashing water. The oarsman used the paddle to nudge the submerged man toward shore. He came up sputtering and lost his grip on the bag. The tide cast it far past him and then dragged it back before he could wipe the stinging seawater from his eyes. The next wave knocked him down again, but brought his case close to her. Lily lifted her skirts and plucked the soggy suitcase from the surf, hauling it out of harm's way. Nala whined, unhappy when her mistress ventured too close to the sea.
"It's all right, girl." She righted the case and stooped to pat her dog. "Maybe this one will take me."
The man crawled up on the mudflats, spitting up seawater. She had to admit he was a scrawny fellow, but beggars could not be choosers. She felt winter's fast approach like a killing frost. She must get through the pass before the real cold came.
She waited for the man to straighten. He looked even more poorly prepared for Dyea than she had been. He reached for his bag.
"Thanks, missus. You sure saved me."
"You need a cart?" she asked.
"No, missus. I only got this here." He clutched the handle, showing her the suitcase she'd rescued.
"How about a partner?"
"You know a man looking?"
The little pipsqueak actually had the audacity to laugh.
"Oh, now, I might just as well tie an anvil round my neck as try and haul a woman to Dawson."
She scowled, until she noticed him shivering.
"Camp's that way." She thumbed over her shoulder toward the dunes, beyond which a tent city grew in the mud like mushrooms on a rotting log.
Lily gathered her flagging confidence.
"Come on, Nala."
She picked up several fares and collected her fees. Her purse had never been so large. But her adventure lay over the passes. A life worth living, her mother had said, but what had she meant? Lily wasn't sure; death had taken her before she could ask.
Lily lifted her collar against the cold wind that blew off the water. If she made it to Dawson City, would she have enough stories to fill her up like a pitcher of milk, with warm memories and satisfaction?
Stories to tell her children and grandchildren. Lily smiled.
Did you know your old granny once climbed the Chilkoot Pass?
"Did you know she failed and had to go home with her tail between her legs?" Lily pressed her lips together and shook her head. No, she wouldn't.
She lifted her chin and scanned the passengers in the next dinghy hoping, praying for a chance to do as she had promised.
The boat grounded and newcomers scrambled overboard trying vainly to avoid a soaking in icy water. Most had little in the way of property and scampered up the beach like crabsall except one man. He remained in the punishing surf accepting box after box from the oarsman and tossing them, one after another, the eightfoot distance to the shore.
The undertow should have taken him off his feet, but somehow he held his position.
Lily measured him with her gaze. His clothing looked new and expensive. She judged him to be one of the idle rich who came north out of boredom, unlike those who were driven here by desperate circumstances. He had more gear than any other passenger on the beach. A rich fool, then, with no notion of what to pack and what to leave. Probably had his bloody silver tea service in one of those crates. She hated him on sight, for hadn't she worked sixteenhour days for men just like this one? But no more. Now she answered only to herself. Her mother would like that.
She expected Pete to cut in front of her, offering his mule team to haul the dandy's gear, but he was far down the beach attending the three launches that had arrived just before this one.
The dandy was all hers. Anticipation coiled in her belly, as she fixed her eyes on the darkhaired man like a hungry rat eyeing an apple core.
She stepped closer. He certainly was big, with none of the flab she associated with men who could afford to eat regularly. She glanced at his hands, noting their size and substance. His shoulders were more than just wide; they seemed to be hung with some quantity of useful muscle. Did he get them boxing in some men's club?
He had secured the load on shore, but now the next waves shot over his boots to lap at the mountain of cargo, lifting two large crates and dragging them back into the water. He caught both and easily hauled them back to safety. She noted the bulging muscles beneath his fancy new coat as well as the power and agility with which he moved. She estimated the distance of the hightide line and the speed of the current.
He'd never save it allnot alone anyway. What was in those boxes? Would he do anything to save them?
He looked strong enough, but stamina was needed as well and a drive born from the fear that rich men lacked. A man foolish enough to come here with this many boxes might be foolish enough to accept her offer.
She took a definitive step toward him and then pulled herself up short. What if he turned her down, too? Her cheeks burned with humiliation at the thought. It was one thing to be cast off by one of her own, quite another to be sent packing by this greenhorn dandy. She liked the term greenhorn, once someone had explained that it meant an inexperienced newcomer and compared the men to young animals with new, or green, horns.
He had not noticed her yet, intent as he was at singlehandedly bringing his belongings to high ground. He continued his frantic dance for many minutes, finally coming to complete stillness as he stared out at the inlet. He'd seen it now, the second wave of water reaching ten feet as it rushed toward him. His chin nearly touched his chest. Ah, now that was an expression she recognizedfor hadn't she seen that look in the faces of so many hopeless men and women when the jobs dried up back there?
It was a rare thing to witness one of his class brought so low. She savored the moment.
He glanced up. Their eyes met and held. He recognized the truth now; that even he couldn't save it all. She would offer her services and see just what sort of a man fate had cast in her path. It wasn't the offer she wanted to make, but best to test the waters first. She stooped to pat Nala, who sat with her long pink tongue lolling.
Part of her hoped he would turn her down. But surely he couldn't tell by looking at her what she was or where she had come from. She wore fine clothing now and had paid good money for lessons to help eliminate the traces of her Irish heritage that had clung to her every word like cold porridge to a bowl.
She set her jaw, gathering her courage. Her desperation eased the next step.
"Would you like help moving your belongings?" She had concentrated hard not to drop the h in help.
"You're a hauler?"
His clipped New England accent held no hint of the gentle brogue of the Irish. He managed his h effortlessly, while simultaneously adding a definite inflection of skepticism. She inclined her head, dignified as a queen.
She took in his black hair and a straight nose that spoke of a childhood which did not include being clouted in the face.
Lily fingered the bump at the bridge of her own nose then dropped her hand, suddenly very selfconscious. All the Shanahans were fighters. No shame in that.
She met his gaze, inhaling sharply at his soulful whiskey colored eyes. He wore no hat and his unruly hair brushed his wide brow. His skin glowed from the exertion with perfect good health. Why he was young, she realized, perhaps only twenty, the same age as Lily. Had his size made her think he was older? He held her gaze and for some reason she couldn't seem to breathe as he looked at her. Her gaze fixed on the curve of his upper lip, the twin lines upon his cheeks that flanked his mouth, the dark stubble that he'd likely scraped away before leaving the steamship this morning. His jaw was wide and the muscles looked strong as if he spent a good deal of his time clenching his teeth.
When she met his eyes again, she felt offbalance and slightly dizzy, as if she were the one who had been dashing in and out of the shifting waves.
The man was handsome as sin, but Lily forced herself to breathe, if a bit more quickly than customarily, for she'd not be caught gawking at him like a child at a candy store window. "How much?" he asked.
This time she noticed that the rich timbre of his deep voice seemed to vibrate through her insides. She pressed a hand to her middle to gather her flagging resolve.
"I'm not interested in your money."
He frowned. Was he so used to buying everything he needed? She pushed back her indignation. No time for that now.
He quirked a brow, finally fixing her with those arresting eyes before taking the bait. "What would you have from me then?"
"I find myself in need of a partner to Dawson."
His jaw dropped and then he recovered himself and grinned.
"You're joking." He cocked his head. "Are you serious?"
"Well, I rather think you would be a liability." She didn't argue, but only glared at him as another threefoot wave beat against his legs, rocking his foundation.
"Well, you're a dark horse yourself, but I'm in a gambling mood."
His eyes widened at the insult. "You think I'm a liability? How so?"
How so? She wanted to smack the smug arrogance off his handsome face.
"A greenhorn dandy, with not enough sense to secure his own supplies. Did you think that servants lined the rivers here with the nuggets?"
He lifted his hands to stop her as another wave hit. Two crates smashed together, spilling wood shavings onto the mud.
"Not to worry," she called, "with luck that bore tide will drag you right back to Seattle."
That seemed to strike a nerve, for his face reddened.
A vicious wave crashed into his goods, washing away his indignation. He scrambled to keep hold of his possessions. The tenfoot tidal wave had made half the distance to the shore, rolling a hundred yards beyond the steamer. Lily hoped they had placed the vessel on a long line. She'd seen similar tides take down ships even larger than this one.
"Come, Nala." She placed a hand on her dog's harness and her hound rose.
"A trade," he offered, his voice tinged with desperation. "I have goods."
She turned away.
Damn him and his tendollar words. Liability, my ass. Doubtful he'd keep his word anyway. Few ever did. Lily gripped Nala's harness and started off. She had wasted enough time.
She didn't, making him run after her.
He blocked her path, wet to the waist and panting with the exertion of keeping what was more than any one man had a right to hold.
"Be reasonable," he begged.
She laughed, making no attempt to hold down her brogue. "To hell with dat!"
Another wave hit, cresting her boots. It swept away one of his boxes, taking it too far for him to recover, but he tried, rushing into the surf to his knees, preparing to dive and then thought better of it. That showed some sense. Water this cold could cramp the muscles of even the strongest swimmer. She bet he could swim. Probably had private lessons in a pool in Newport. She had learned when her brother had thrown her off a pier one hot July afternoon.