© Christine Power
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STORY SO FAR:
1858: Fort Victoria, British Columbia is hit by gold rush and overwhelmed by tens of thousands of miners attracted by San Francisco news reports of “Gold nuggets plucked from the Fraser River.” Within weeks, Fort Victoria is the largest town on the west coast of the American continent.
EMILY BYRNE recently arrived with mother, SARAH, to join JACK BYRNE. Spoilt and headstrong Emily despises her father’s scout RED (half-English, half Chehalis Indian).
After learning Sarah is pregnant with another man's child, Byrne sees Emily flirting with LT JAMIE RYDER, and thrashes Emily. Heartbroken, she runs away, determined to follow Ryder – posted to the goldfields on the mainland.
She stows away on a steamship. On board, she is befriended by ROSIE fleeing the Irish famine and escaped slave, SAM. Also aboard is MRS ANGELICA THOMAS, widowed by her own hand, and ALF, her secret partner in crime. They have criminal intentions when learning that a reward has been offered for the return of Emily.
When Emily reaches Fort Langley, she discovers Ryder has been posted further upriver so she joins her new friends who will travel upriver on by war canoes. When hindered by foul weather, they pull over for the night.
Emily woke from a deep sleep by the need to pass water. She tried to ignore it for as long as she could, but, bursting to go, she crept out of the bedding.
All was quiet, and the wind had dropped. Emily looked around to see if anyone was watching her, but the men on guard were hunched over the camp fire, dozing.
She snuck past Rosie into the bushes, carefully parting the dripping bushes until she found a place where she was well-hidden. There was enough room to squat while holding up her bulky skirts above the wet foliage underfoot. She looked around, listening for nocturnal animals.
Hearing nothing worrisome, she lifted her skirts higher and untied the drawstrings of her pantaloons. Tentative and squeamish, she dropped them, then hunkering down to relieve herself. Before she fully relieved herself, she heard twigs crunching behind her. As she turned, a large sweaty hand clamped her mouth. Beard stubble scratched her cheek. A strong arm encircled her waist.
The dead animal smell of wet hair and other male odours were overwhelming. Terrified, Emily tried to scratch out his eyes, but she couldn’t reach. He twisted her arm and forced it up her back. The pain was excruciating. He tightened his fleshy hand across her mouth preventing her from screaming.
He dragged her into the bushes as she struggled, in vain, to get away. When she tried to kick out or dig her heels into the earth, her entangled pantaloons restricted her legs. Terrified, she reached out to grab and hold onto branches or bushes, to no avail. All she got for her attempts were thorns stabbing her hand and nettles stinging her bottom.
Emily’s terror grew as he dragged her further away from the encampment. No-one would know she was missing unless Rosie woke up. She heard nothing. No-one called her name. If she were to escape, she must break his grip. But how? He was too strong for her. He hauled her through the forest, hoisting her over logs and boulders.
Struggle as she might, she was unable to free herself. Giving up hope, she imagined the reaction of her father and mother if her body were found floating in Harrison Lake, scalped and disfigured.
She resigned herself to a painful death. She prayed to Jesus for the strength and courage to endure whatever happened. Recalling her catechism, she begged forgiveness of her sins, for her waywardness, for dishonouring her parents. Memories of her brothers, her grandparents, her childhood friends, flittered through her mind and, lastly, a fleeting memory of the lieutenant’s tender touch.
She gave up all hope.
All of a sudden, her captor stumbled, cursing as they both fell to the wet earth. He landed on top of her, and his hand slipped. Her tears of self-pity turned to rage. This time, she didn't hesitate to fight back, unlike the time she was beaten by her father because she was taught to honour and obey her parents.
Without thinking, Emily sank her teeth into the calloused and fleshy part of his hand. She bit so hard her jaw hurt. He yelled out in surprise and pain.
Emily was determined she wouldn’t let go, like her Grandmamma’s Staffordshire bull terrier clenching a branch in its jaw.
She heard noises coming from the forest. Someone was calling her name; help was at hand. But Emily’s sense of propriety prevented her from letting go the grip of her teeth on his hand: she was half-undressed.
She struggled to make herself respectable but, in her efforts, her jaw slackened. It was all the leeway the man needed, wrenching his hand free leaving bits of flesh between Emily’s teeth. She screamed. He took hold of her arm and dragged her down to the lake. She strained for sounds of help, but all she heard was the coyote howling in the dark.
Her feeble attempts to escape were futile. Hitting the man was as effective as hitting out at the air; twice her size and brawny, he didn’t flinch.
By this time, the man was hauling Emily towards the canoe, dragging her through the freezing waters. When knee deep, he grappled with her skirts, trying to lift her into the craft.
At last, she heard the sounds of voices, of bodies crashing through the undergrowth.
“Help, Rosie, help,” Emily screamed as loud as she could.
She kicked and struggled and managed to wriggle free of his grasp. She fell face first into the water. Enraged, he grabbed her hair, yanked her head up then plunged it underwater again. She gasped for air when her head bobbed up to the surface. He forced it down again and again until her body went limp. Having subdued her for the moment, he tried again to get her up and over the side of the canoe.
The canoe floated into deeper waters. He struggled to hold onto both the craft and Emily who was recovering her senses. Desperation fed her the strength to fight on. She thwarted him, scratching and biting, as he attempted to recapture her.
Sam and Paul were running down the beach towards them, their pistols raised.
Her captor tried again to haul her over the sides of the canoe. Again, she managed to squirm out of his grasp. This time, he punched her in the head with such force; she was knocked unconscious and fell back into the lake.
By now, he was in danger of being captured. He shoved Emily ahead into the deeper waters before pushing the canoe out. After clambering into it, he made one last effort to reach her, but she floated away from his hands. Seeing Sam racing towards them, he gave up. He stabbed the paddle into the water, leaving Emily for dead.
* * *
The man's canoe was already out of reach. Sam was about to give up when he saw Emily’s body drifting into the darkness. Wading into the water, he called her name.
There was no response. The current caught Emily, dragging her further away from him.
Sam’s powerful arms crashed through the water. He reached her as she was going under again. He struggled with her waterlogged clothes, his fingers fumbling in his attempts to turn her onto her back.
Emily's body was a dead weight.
Sam struggled to hold onto her, finding it hard to swim against the current. After several tries, he managed to lift her head up to keep her nose and mouth out of the water.
Still, he couldn’t prevent the waves from rippling over her face. He towed her back and dragged her limp body up the pebbled beach; waves sucked at her feet, reluctant to give her up.
By this time Rosie had reached the waterline. She knelt down beside Emily.
“Sweet Jesus, Sam, she’s dead,” Rosie cried.
Sam knelt on the wet beach beside Emily’s prone body.
Rosie stood over them, “Is she breathing? Will she be all right?”
“I don’t know,” he said, turning Emily on her side, thumping her on the back to force the water out of her lungs.
Emily’s skin was a greyish pallor, her lips blue. Her unseeing eyes appeared to be looking up at Rosie but were glassy as though her spirit was no longer present.
Rosie dropped to her knees, muttering Hail Marys. “Can you save her?”
“She ain’t responding.”
Paul re-joined them. “I couldn’t keep up with him. He got away.”
He looked down at the drowned girl, “She’ll sleep with the spirits this night.”
Sam wouldn’t give up, putting more pressure on her back.
“Come on, Emmy, darlin’,” urged Rosie, now holding the girl’s cold hand between her two hands, rubbing furiously to get some warmth into her.
Still, there was no response.
Rosie sat back on her heels, tears trickling through the mud on her cheeks, “Is she dead?”
“I’m not sure,” Sam felt for Emily’s pulse. He shook his head, “I think she’s gone.”
Rosie cried out, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, please intercede on behalf of this poor girl.” She leant over and smoothed Emily’s wet hair back from her face; her tears were dripping onto the girl’s cold skin.
There was a gurgling sound; Emily was choking as though she’d heard her friend’s prayers. She threw up, coughing and spluttering, lake water spewing out of her mouth.
“Good girl,” encouraged Sam, putting his arm under her, propping up her limp body.
When Emily finished vomiting, she flopped back onto the beach, weak and incoherent.
“It’s OK. You’re safe now. Take it easy,” said Sam.
He and Rosie took Emily’s arms and helped her to her feet, supporting the girl as they headed back to the encampment.
Paul walked alongside apologising he couldn’t catch her assailant.
Emily gave him a wan smile. Still coughing up water, she was unable to speak, and stumbled along, depending on her two friends. As they walked, she spat out bits, as though ridding herself of the man’s raw flesh.
A blazing fire greeted them once they got back to the encampment. Rosie brought Emily’s sleeping sack and laid it closer to the flames. Mrs Thomas offered her a cup of coffee.
The others stood around, looking awkward, unsure what to do to help.
“I’m beginning to wonder why I ever ventured into this lawless wilderness,” said Miss Ashton, glancing around as though Emily’s abductor might be lurking in the bushes.
However, Mrs Thomas leapt into action; she was like a mother to the poor bedraggled girl, fussing over her, fetching one of her shawls to put around Emily's shoulders, insisting she sips a few drops of laudanum.
Emily recoiled at the smell of sweet sassafras. It was the odour which permeated her mother’s bedroom during and after her confinement. Her mother’s moods swung erratically from elation to utter dejection. Perhaps Emily would never have run away if she’d been able to confide in her but she never knew whether she’d be clasped to her mother’s bosom or clouted on the ear. It was too late now.
Sitting by the fire, Emily’s tears may have been for the mother she’d lost to laudanum or the horrors she’d endured in the night. Or both.
* * *
By this time, Emily’s attacker, Alf had put a few miles of the lake between them. As he paddled, he tried not to think about his latest failure. It would be bad enough when he met up again with Angelica.
He heard the howling of a lone wolf hidden in the forest, and it seemed to echo his frustration. He felt stupid and lonely. As he paddled across the dark lake, his thoughts turned to the other woman in his life: his lawful wife. The one he’d run out on back in San Francisco.
Renée stood by him in all the hard times, through the years of debts and hunger; slogging behind him through the dusty gold fields of California and raising their son who’d now be fourteen.
With only the sound of the water dripping off the paddle, he couldn’t help harking back to his life with her; a gentlewoman, she’d been unfailingly faithful and supportive. He couldn’t stop the niggling qualms now floating up to the surface. He’d deserted them when times were good when he’d given nuggets freely to waiters, shopkeepers and new acquaintances; buying ‘drinks for all’ in saloons. He'd abandoned them when the beautiful widow in black seduced him; he ensnared in the viscose web she'd spun.
Alf propelled the canoe towards Port Douglas. Trapped in a labyrinth of evil; the two of them were wanted for theft and murder in several American states.
He saw no way out. He was too old to change and flat broke. When he was gold-rich, everyone was his friend, and the women were attractive and willing. But right from the start, Mrs Thomas insisted on keeping a tight rein on the money. “In your best interests,” she’d said, “before you drink or gamble it all away.”
Out in the middle of the bay, his arms ached; he was tired, sore and disgruntled. His resentments mounted; she’d taken all the money while he’d done the heavy work, like getting rid of the bodies. It was his pesky job to bury them. It was he who took all the risks while she stayed in the background, looking beautiful; fondling the gold nuggets for which they’d killed so many men.
At no time did she allow him to forget she knew enough to ensure a noose around his neck. Many times over; she knew all the crooked and criminal actions he’d taken.
Occasionally, he’d persuaded himself he’d be better off leaving her, start all over again, maybe go back to Renée, it was as though Angelica read his thoughts. She used all her feminine charms to seduce him all over again.
Alf always fell for it; bewitched by her and hooked as securely and helpless as a salmon struggling on the end of a fisherman’s lure.
He both dreaded and needed to know whether she knew by now that he'd messed up. He couldn’t face losing her: the only woman who'd eagerly submitted to his carnal desires like no other.
He thrust the paddle into the black waters eager to see her, hold her, and make sure she was still his. He counted the strokes as the canoe took him closer to Port Douglas where they’d be together again.
After such a restless night, morning came too soon for Emily and the rest of the travellers. Pale sunlight greeted them when they woke. The women passengers rose first. Unused to sleeping on hard ground and still shaken by the ruckus in the middle of the night; they were groggy and tired.
Emily slept little, tossing and turning, scared of closing her eyes. “Why?” she wondered, “why me?”
When Mrs Thomas joined Emily and Rosie by the fire, they were hunched over the flames, rubbing their hands to get warm. After exchanging a few words about the terrible attack on Emily and expressing her shock and sympathy, Mrs Thomas asked, “Did you see the monster who attacked you?”
Emily shook her head, “It was dark, and he grabbed me from behind.”
“What a pity. Such a monster must be found and punished. What about the half-breed? Remember - the one with red hair who asked about you at Fort Langley.”
When Emily looked blank, Mrs Thomas said, “Could it have been him? Think now.”
Emily’s brow crumpled, and she shook her head. “I don’t know.” She recalled the violent and bloody stories the women at Fort Victoria attributed to Red. Could it be him? Why was he following her? It was all too much. Emily tried to shove the thoughts away.
“I’ll be alright,” she said, although her voice shook and her face was pale, “I don’t want to inconvenience anyone. I’m ready to carry on with our journey to Port Douglas.” All she could think about now was finding Lieutenant Jamie Ryder, convinced he would know what to do: he’d protect her.
Before moving off, Paul offered them small parcels of pemmican, Rosie accepted, but Emily declined his offer of the native food.
Rosie urged her to try one, “Eulachons the Indian’s call them. - herring mixed with dried salal berries.”
Emily did as she was told, like a helpless child, and then wrinkled her nose at the strong fishy taste. She felt like retching but chewed a little bit more to please her friend.
Her distaste didn’t go unnoticed. As she nibbled at the next morsel, she happened to glance at Miss Ashton. When their eyes met, they simultaneously pulled a face. Within minutes, they were bent over with helpless giggles. The more they tried to stop, the worse it became; the young women were powerless to stop the tears of laughter. For a few moments, Emily felt as though she was teetering on the brink of madness.
Emily no longer felt alone. Rosie and Sam were kind to her but this simple wordless exchange somehow communicated kinship. She’d have no idea who Miss Ashton was or why she was making this unspeakable journey upriver, but Emily determined she’d get to know her better.
After they’d eaten and the men were dousing the fire with water, Paul took Emily aside. “Did you see the man who attacked you? Was he Indian or white man?”
Emily said, “It may have been the man who attacked me on board the SS Umatilla. But I can’t be sure, for I couldn’t see much in the dark.”
“We can do nothing here, we wait till we get to Port Douglas,” Paul said before turning to the group. “Gather baggage, early start,” cancelling out any moans and yawns by chucking a bucket of water over the fire.
Although the weather was bright and the breeze was pleasant, Emily felt groggy and couldn’t shake off her fears. From now on, not knowing who’d attacked her, she felt under threat. Every dark shadow in the forest was his hiding place; she imagined him watching her; waiting for an opportunity to attack her again.
As the canoes entered the narrow winding channel of Little Harrison Lake, Emily’s first sight of Port Douglas did nothing to alleviate her apprehensions
The shanty town of Port Douglas sitting at the bottom of a densely forested hillside looked as though carved, no, burnt into a crescent shape.
There’d been a savage raping of what was once a place of beauty with towering spires and magnificent stands of hemlock, fir and cedar overlooking a pristine bay. Now, it was peppered with ugly fire-blackened stumps up to ten feet in width punctuating the hurriedly erected wooden huts and canvas lean-tos.
Torrential rain turned the lakeside to sludge. Sordid and bedraggled, the town was like a ravaged whore pleading her sorry story beneath the soaring majesty of the forest above.
Emily was disappointed Mrs Thomas, and Miss Ashton went ahead; their canoe now empty and pulled up on the beach.
While the Indians carried up the baggage, she and the rest of the passengers made their way up the mucky incline. At each step, she cursed under her breath, dragging her frock along, its hem heavily laden with a thick cake of clinging mud.
When they reached the town itself, she was relieved to see wooden planks raised above the filth and mire. The horse road was muddy and strewn with boulders, hitching rails and water troughs.
Like Fort Victoria, Port Douglas mushroomed overnight by the arrival of tens of thousands of gold-seeking miners. After surviving the Georgia Straits and the Fraser River, miners now faced the dangers of trekking up a treacherously narrow Indian trail to get to the faraway goldfields.
The dwellings were a hodgepodge of quickly erected buildings: log huts, shake houses, split timber and bark huts. Already, the inevitable tent city was taking over, occupied by everything from a butcher’s shop to the blacksmith. The clanging hammer of the latter on his anvil resounded above the general hubbub.
“We stay tonight at a boarding house,” said Sam as he, Rosie and Emily hauled their baggage up the hill.
The pandemonium and buzz of activity hovered over this apology for a town. Men in filthy clothes sprawled out on the boardwalks bemoaning their failure to find gold. Some played cards; some staggered around in the worst states of fighting-mad drunkenness. Along the road, men flogged and bellowed at exhausted pack horses and mules loaded with ore from the goldfields.
At first, Emily was aware of the excitement and enthusiasm driving recent arrivals but, as they walked on, she put her handkerchief to her nose against the stench of liquor, urine, tobacco and animal droppings,
Sam found directions to a dilapidated building at the top end of the town. By the time they arrived, Emily and Rosie were exhausted, barely able to walk another step; wet, uncomfortable, hungry, tired, and itching in unreachable places.
The desk clerk took one look at the black man accompanying the two young women and, before Sam spoke, said, “Sorry, sir, but we already gave the last rooms away. Prospectors are turning up in their thousands.”
Emily thought the desk clerk didn’t seem in the least bit sorry. In fact, he’d given the information with a sneer on his face.
Sam looked completely deflated.
Emily, unable to walk much further, asked “Can you at least point us to another establishment?” surprised at her nerve.
The clerk treated her with less civility than he’d given the black man.
Defeated and about to gather their belongings to leave, they heard a woman’s voice: a voice all three recognised.
“I’ll look after this, Jones,” said the woman dismissing the clerk with the wave of her hand.
Before them stood Mrs Thomas who looked as though she’d never suffered the discomfiture of dragging her skirts and belongings through the muck.
Her fair hair was dressed and built up on top of her head, parted fashionably in the centre. Her crinoline dress was pristine, her stylish boots shining, as though they’d never touched a boardwalk. She looked as though she’d be more at home in Queen Victoria’s court.
“I’m afraid this establishment has some way to go before it rivals anything in San Francisco,” she said, apologetically. “But it is my rather ambitious aim.”
She was charm itself as she shook hands with each of them, drawing them towards the tiny dining area.
“Unfortunately, it is true we are full. Port Douglas, like Victoria, is overrun by miners. We could have rented our rooms out a hundred times over.”
She motioned for one of the maids to attend to their needs.
“Please, order whatever you wish, it would be my pleasure. Having shared such a terrifying experience on Harrison Lake with you, I couldn’t see you left on the beach tonight.”
She brushed off their thanks, “I have friends with whom I shall stay overnight. Please accept my offer until you’ve made further arrangements.”
She refused all offers of payment, “I wouldn’t think of it. Someday, I may be in need of a friend.”
She showed them to her personal quarters, assuring them the maid would provide enough towels and kettles of water to clean them. She hoped they’d enjoy the food.
“Make yourself comfortable until you can move up to Rainbow Creek,” she said, leaving them to their own devices.
While putting her few belongings in the closet, Emily looked out the window. Below, she saw Mrs Thomas crossing the road accompanied by Miss Ashton.
As she brushed her hair, Emily wondered if Miss Ashton was the woman’s daughter; the two appeared to be so intimate. Emily felt somewhat envious. For a moment she recalled a time when she and her mother were close, remembered the smell of the rose fragrance of her mother’s warm body. Biting her lower lip, she pushed the painful memory away.
She suddenly caught her breath. Following the two women was the man with the red kerchief. Her first instinct was to open the window and shout to Mrs Thomas, warn her. Then she saw him turn in the opposite direction from them.
Was he the one who’d tried to abduct her? From where she stood, she couldn’t see whether he had a bandaged hand; her view was blocked by a mule pulling a cart, followed by horse-drawn carriages. The man was swallowed up in the bustling crowds.
Emily turned away from the window; sure she’d never feel safe again.
The next day, after a good sleep in real beds with clean sheets and followed by a hearty breakfast, Emily, Sam and Rosie decided to explore the town.
As they walked by a one-room wooden shack, Emily looked inside. Although boasting a stone fireplace, the floor was nothing more than tamped-down mud. Packing crates served as table and chair. There was no bed, merely a nest of clothes in the corner.
Rosie and Sam were undaunted by these sights. Having survived many bitter experiences, they’d both developed the determination and confidence to cope with whatever came their way.
Sam was more interested in buying mining tools. A wooden bucket with a metal rim was piled up with kerosene lamps and small tools, some for prospecting and others for any repairs to the cabin; “I ain’t seen it yet. Don’t what shape it’ll be in.”
In the meantime, Rosie and Emily shopped for dried goods: oats, rice, flour and tea.
“£1 an egg. You must be codding me,” said Rosie.
“Demand and supply, lass,” said the owner of the canvas-covered stall. “Hens can’t keep up with the gold rush,” he wiped his hands on his dirty apron. “Port Douglas’s overrun with miners looking for gold,” he carefully wrapped the few eggs Rosie could afford. “Tens of thousands,” he continued, “only a few months ago, we had only a few townsfolk.
Taking their money, he said, “I’ve seen hundreds limping back after losing everything. It’s a godawful trail. I’ve got a hunch I’ll be the one making my fortune.”
The next shopkeeper was less friendly than the last. “You the women belonging to the black fella?” sneered the butcher as he expertly swung his cleaver, severing the skinned leg of a deer, spraying blood across his dirty apron.
Rosie gave a warning tug to Emily, determined not to be provoked by the man. It was no worse than the abuse hurled at them when they’d boarded the steamer in Fort Victoria. They held their tongues and carried on with their errands, ticking off the items they needed.
When they came across a gunsmith’s stall, Emily lingered. She thought of the man with the red kerchief and the look of hunger in the eyes of many of the people in town. Given the violent attacks she’d survived, she was determined to have some way of protecting herself.
She’d discussed this with Rosie the day before, “I insist I buy us both you a firearm. I’ll take no more chances. I’m determined to make sure I can fight back with more than my teeth and nails.”
“That one,” she pointed at the Colt on the counter. “And that one,” she pointed to another Colt, “and a box of shells.”
At least she was familiar with the use of guns, taught to shoot in England and Fort Victoria when her father allowed her to practice with his Colt.
“You ain’t plannin’ on a duel are ya?” grinned the gunsmith.
“Sure now, would you be me second, at 5 o’clock in the morn?” Rosie playfully retorted as Emily counted out the money for the two pistols and ammunition.
“Nah, I’m joshing,” he said, “Nice pieces these two, hope you don’t have cause to use them.”
“Sure an’ I will if I have to,” Rosie carelessly aimed the empty gun at the trader who backed away, feigning fear. Rosie laughed.
Emily reached over and changed the direction of the barrel; she would have to teach Rosie how to handle it with caution.
As they walked along the boardwalk, they made a detour around some men flicking bullwhips; intimidating passers-by for a bit of fun. Although she’d no thoughts of drawing her gun, she felt the cold metal and felt reassured.
Walking through the unruly town was a sobering experience. At least the Fort Victoria retained a semblance of order and some respect for the common law.
When a group of Douglas Indians walked by, she squeezed Rosie’s hand to repress her nervous giggle.
The natives dressed in a bizarre mixture of European and Indian garb. Borrowed black frock-coats adorned with outsized necklaces of beads, feathers and small animal bones. Cast-off trousers were finished off with twisted metal anklets above feet, bare or shod in moccasins. European top hats decorated with streaming tinsel paper sat above leather-brown faces painted with streaks of vermilion.
Slowly, dodging rocks and mud, Emily and Rosie found their way back to the boarding house. They pushed through the chaos of traders bellowing out their wares, avoiding waggons and horses clattering by and held their breath when passing byways turned into stinking open sewers by the influx of thousands of miners.
They saw men who told of enduring merciless extremes of heat, snow or ice before limping back into town. Many were shoeless, their clothes tattered and torn, their feet cut and bleeding. Close to starvation, their bony skeletons draped loosely with sagging rolls of skin.
These sorry sights didn’t seem to deter the tens of thousands who now poured into Port Douglas with their dreams of making their fortunes.
* * *
At every opportunity, Emily made enquiries, “Are the Royal Engineers based nearby?”
“Will I do instead?” asked one joker. Others offered to give her ‘a good seeing to’; another rogue offered to take Emily to the lieutenant, while others offered gold nuggets for a kiss.
They steered well clear of the noisy drunks lounging around on the boardwalks. Always present for Emily was the fear her attacker might be amongst them. Or, around the next corner.
“Emily, I think it would be better if Sam made enquiries about your lieutenant. Let’s go back.”
Within a few hours, Sam brought back a man who told them someone of the lieutenant’s description was recently posted up to the goldfields at Cayoosh.
When Emily, excited, enquired, “How do I get up to the Cayoosh?” she encountered broad grins and shaking heads. “No Ma’am,” she was told, “there ain’t no easy route – especially for a young lady like you.”
When she persisted, “Young lady, the only way up from here is an old Indian trail. It’s treacherous. You ain’t got a chance of getting through.”
Emily reached a dead end; she faced the alternative of waiting for the next steamer back to Fort Victoria, to face humiliation and disgrace, or wait at Port Douglas in the hope Ryder would return.
But, she wouldn’t give up after coming all this way. She'd no idea what she was going to do now.
By the evening, when the three of them sat down to eat, they were thoroughly disheartened.
Rosie smiled wanly. “This miserable shack of a town isn’t what I imagined when the missionaries touted for brides for gold miners. Somehow, their campaign lent a golden sheen when reassuring us.”
She shook her head and mimicked the do-gooders, “Your gentle touch will bring comfort and order to the lives of these lonely men.”
Under the guise of saving the souls of these men, were the tantalising tales of riches, of gold and diamonds and pearls. Whether they used those exact words, they’d painted a picture of promise and hope.
None of those smooth-talking evangelists talked of the despair, the squalor, the filth, degradation and utter devastation of the miners’ dignity. Rosie saw no possibility of happiness in partnering those she saw today.
“I should have known better; I heard the same weasel words from the priest when all around me, Ma and Da and me friends, were dying in me arms. Wouldn’t you know it, after all, his fine words, the priest himself dropped dead.”
She looked around at the ragged failures around them. “Can you believe, it, Emily,” Rosie said, “How mithered I was when getting ready to come here. I worried meself sick about having the right frock and bonnet for me arrival.” She sat at the table, shaking her head, “I must have been stupid. Can you imagine me scrambling over rocks and sliding down those mud hills in the latest Parisian crinoline?”
“Thank God I met Sam,” said Rosie. In him, she’d found someone with a common background, no matter how many thousand miles apart. Since meeting Sam, the experiences they’d already shared, revealed qualities in him worth more than gold.
“We’ll all feel better after we’ve slept in a real bed tonight,” Rosie returned Emily’s gesture, squeezing her hand. “I’m sorry there’s no word of the lieutenant,” said Rosie. “We’ll keep asking after him.”
But Emily’s eyes were already closed; she’d fallen asleep without finishing her meal.
Rosie and Sam took an elbow each and guided her up to bed, then crept off to bed themselves.
Before they fell asleep, Rosie said, “We can’t let her wander around alone in this hellhole.”
Sam agreed, “She ain’t roughed it much in her life. A lone woman in this town – she’s lookin’ for trouble. Better she comes with us.”
Rosie’s face lit up with delight; she’d sorely missed the company of her family and especially her little sisters who’d perished in the famine. “I’ll talk to Emily in the morning and tell her. If she wants, she’s welcome to come with us to Rainbow Creek,” said Rosie. A big smile on her face, she went over to Sam, “God bless you for your kindness. You won’t regret it.”
She leant over and kissed him full on his smiling mouth.
The next morning, the three friends, or ‘greenhorns’ as some old-timer called them, met for a prepared breakfast of bacon and eggs, the latter a rare luxury.
“What do you think?” The Irish girl twirled around, showing off her new buckskin trousers.
Emily tried, unsuccessfully, to hide her disapproval.
Rosie’s grin sagged. Then her chin held high; she declared, “At least I won’t be dragging a shovel-full of muck behind me.”
Emily grimaced, “I must admit this is no place for a crinoline.”
Once seated, Rosie put her hand on Emily’s arm. “What are ye going to do now you've no word from your fella?” When Emily could only shake her head, Rosie said, “We thought ye should stay with us awhile, until you're sorted out. Isn’t that right, Sam?”
For Emily, the offer came as a welcome reprieve; she’d hardly slept wondering what she would do. Unwilling to face the embarrassment of going back to her parents in disgrace, she thanked the couple for their kindness, adding, “I have a small amount left of my legacy. I’d be willing to pay for my lodging.”
“No need,” Sam said, “The cabin’s some distance from town - we thought you’d be company for Rosie when I’m working.”
* * *
An Indian Packer waited outside with his mule to carry their belongings down to the beach. “Time to go,” said Sam, “The old man told me there’s a trail from here, but, for reasons I’ll explain later, Charlie here will take us around by canoe.”
Emily was relieved to see that the Packer wore buckskins, unlike the gaudily costumed Indians they’d seen the day before.
Decisions made, Emily and Rosie collected their personal baggage while Sam and the Indian loaded the tools and provisions.
As they were about to leave, Mrs Thomas came down the rickety wooden stairs and headed straight over to them; her hand held out. "I’m so delighted to have caught you,” she said, “I’d hoped you were staying in Port Douglas a while longer, but I understand you are already going on to Rainbow Creek.”
When she shook Emily’s hand, Mrs Thomas drew a small white card from her pocket and handed it to Emily. “I hope we'll have the pleasure of your company the next time you are in Douglas. Let us have tea together and get to know each other.”
Emily’s face lit up. “Yes, of course.”
“Good, it’s settled. Now, I must acquaint myself with this establishment, so I wish you a pleasanter journey than the one we shared on the lake.”
As Mrs Thomas moved on about her business, greeting others as she went, Emily watched her, filled with admiration at the woman’s regal bearing; wishing she possessed such ease and confidence. She wondered why such a sophisticated woman should choose to live in such a God-forsaken place.
Gold, she reminded herself remembering the day she and her father watched the SS Commodore disgorging its gold-crazed passengers in Fort Victoria.
Here also, she'd seen people from every sort of background. The hotel clientele was an eclectic and indeterminate mixture. Some men wore the attire of bankers or solicitors in frock-coats and colourful, eye-catching waistcoats, whereas miners in dirty and threadbare clothes were gold-rich - for that day anyway.
Before Emily could speculate further about the past life of the widow, and why she’d ended up in this ramshackle town, Sam returned with Charlie; they were ready to go.
However, once they'd reached the canoe, Emily realised they were leaving behind the last vestiges of civilisation. By all accounts, they were off into the true wilderness. They’d be fending for themselves with no neighbours on whom to call for help. By the time the canoe was gliding through the calm waters, she regretting having agreed so quickly to go with her friends.
At least, she thought, Sam had mentioned a footpath, a trail between Rainbow Creek and Port Douglas; an escape route if needed. Reassured, she settled back and decided to enjoy the expedition.