Authors: Langan, Ruth Ryan
Ruth Ryan Langan
First published in paperback, 1985.
Electronic Edition Copyright 2012 Ruth Ryan Langan
Cover art by Tammy Seidick
To Elly, Marianne, and Jan
who share the adventures
I wish to thank Kitty at the Travel Agency of Walled Lade, Michigan, for showing me Alaska.
San Francisco, 1880
Streams of unintelligible Swedish issued from the mouth of the woman in the bed. The neighborhood midwife smiled her approval as the mottled baby, still wet from birth, gave a lusty howl. Placing the infant in her mother’s arms, she leaned down.
"It’s a girl, Inga. A beautiful, healthy girl. What will you name her?"
The woman’s lids trembled. "Where’s my Patrick?"
The neighbor shrugged. "Off somewhere, I expect. Chasing another rainbow. What’ll you name her?"
The mother’s voice softened, dreamlike. "What day is this?"
A smile touched her mouth, then lit her eyes. "September. A fine name. September Malloy. Tell the world, Patrick and Inga Malloy, now of the United States of America, have just welcomed their first child, September Malloy." Weary lids fluttered, then drooped.
The midwife took the baby and washed her, then wrapped her in a square of flannel.
Glancing at the figure in the bed, she nodded. A big strapping Swedish woman like Inga would give Patrick many fine children. Then, hopefully, he’d stop chasing all those dreams and stay home where he belonged. Times were hard enough. A woman trying to raise a baby, while married to a fool, had a harder time than most.
"Mrs. Rooney. Send one of your sons for a doctor. Please."
"Humpf. Don’t need no doctor. Got a midwife for your mum. That’s good enough."
"No." September swallowed back the temper that fought to surface and took a deep breath. "It’s different this time. She needs a doctor."
"Can’t be no different this time. Seven times that woman’s birthed since you, and lost all seven. Nobody on this earth can give her a healthy baby. Only God. Why spend good money for a doctor?"
"Because my mother’s dying!"
The angry words echoed along the halls of the San Francisco tenement. Children’s heads poked out of doorways, then were pulled back roughly by unseen hands. A few neighbor women, their curiosity piqued, ambled along the hall and edged into the room, only to walk out quickly, shaking their heads.
The plump Irish woman studied the defiant girl. She had her mother’s waist-length, silver ash-blond hair and pale, translucent skin. But not her mother’s gentle disposition. From her rogue of a father, she had inherited striking blue eyes with pale flecks of gold and green around the pupil. Star eyes. She’d inherited something else from Patrick Malloy. His gift of Blarney. She could charm the fish right into her net, if she wanted. Her only flaw, to which all the neighbors could attest, was her hair-trigger temper and biting tongue. That’s what came from not having a father around to wield a strap. And from not giving a child a Christian name, thought Brigit Rooney. What kind of a heathen name was September? Poor thing. Patrick had thrown a fit over that name. The whole neighborhood heard it, that day he’d come home. But by that time it was too late. He’d been gone for nearly three months after her birth, and the name was registered.
"Please, Mrs. Rooney." September’s voice lowered pleadingly. "Send one of your boys for the doctor. And hurry."
Whirling, she fled to her mother’s side. Helpless to do more, she bathed Inga’s face, studying the bloated features. She had attended her mother through the difficult pregnancies so many times. And always it had been the same. Only this time, it was worse. Much worse.
"September?" The voice seemed strangled.
"I’m here, Ma. I’ve sent for a doctor. You’re going to be all right."
Pale blue eyes searched her daughter’s face. "Don’t be afraid for me. It isn’t the dying that’s hard. It’s leaving you and my Patrick."
"Shh. Ma, you’re not going to die."
"September, we both know." She closed her eyes, as if seeing had become too great an effort. "Remember all I’ve taught you. Truth. Honor." Her lips twisted into a weak smile. "My journey now will be a short one. Soon I’ll be with my mother and father, and my brother Lars. But how I’ll miss you and your father. Look after him, September. He has such big dreams. I wanted to be here for him when he returned. I wanted . . ."
Inga’s breathing grew more labored. Twisting, writhing, she lapsed into her native Swedish, calling for parents long dead. The pain became intense, until, her screams piercing the air, she plunged into blessed unconsciousness.
By the time Timmy Rooney led the doctor up the dark, littered stairs of the wooden building, Inga Malloy had been delivered from her veil of tears. The child inside her gave up its life, as had the seven before him.
September stopped the doctor on the threshold. "You’re too late. My mother’s dead. And the baby."
"I’ll see for myself."
As he began to move past her, she said in a monotone, "I’ll not be paying you. You did nothing for her. If you set foot in this room, you do it out of the goodness of your heart."
He turned and studied her a moment, then swept past her. He understood her anger. He shared it.
The midwife had delivered the still-born babe. It lay, knees bent, in the crook of its dead mother’s arm. The doctor checked for a pulse, looked across the room at the young girl, then pulled the sheet over the lifeless forms. As a doctor, witnessing this sort of thing had become commonplace. As a man, the futility of it all overwhelmed him. Without a word, he walked from the death-filled room.
Subdued, Mrs. Rooney shuffled in with a bowl of soup. "Here, girl, eat."
Numbly, September sat at the wooden table and felt the warmth return to her tired body.
"What will you do now?" Mrs. Rooney asked quietly, averting her gaze from the mound in the bed.
"Find my father."
"Don’t be a fool, girl. He’s off chasing another pipe dream. No telling where he’s gone this time."
"He’s gone to Alaska, to search for gold."
"Gold," she sneered. "That one’s been looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow ever since I’ve known him."
September stood and rinsed the bowl and spoon, dried them carefully, and handed them back to her neighbor.
"Maybe this time he’ll find it," she said quietly.
"Now you listen, girl." Brigit Rooney’s voice grew stern. "Your mum was crazy in love with that man. Her love blinded her. In her eyes he could do no wrong. But don’t you go making the same mistake. He’s a fool dreamer. Probably believes in leprechauns and fairies, too. There is no gold at the end of the rainbow. There’s only more pain, and more heartache. You’ve got to be sensible now. Go to Father Cleary. Tell him what’s happened. Maybe he can get you day work in one of the big houses up on the Hill. There’s good money to be made if you’re willing to work hard."
Work hard. She’d known nothing but hard work from the day she was born. The proud head lifted. September’s chin thrust defiantly. "I said, I’m going to find my father."
"In Alaska?" The woman turned away with a swish of starched apron. In the doorway, she turned. "You wouldn’t last one day in that godforsaken place. September Malloy, if you go to that frozen wilderness, you’re as big a fool as your father."
Two pair of eyes watched from the shadows as the bundled figure hurried across the windswept deck of the boat. Clutching the rail, she leaned far over and retched, then sank to her knees. For long moments she sat, crumpled against the slimy wooden planking, too weak to stand. At last, calling on some inner strength, she pulled herself upright and lifted her face to the frigid air.
The woolen shawl she had draped over her head slid to her shoulders. A gust of wind caught her hair, prying little tendrils loose from the neat knot at her nape. In the moonlight, the ash-blond strands gleamed like a silvery cloud.
Silhouetted against the night sky, she stood a moment longer, breathing deeply of frosty air and sea mist. Her profile revealed long lashes, high cheekbones, a small, turned up nose, and a firm chin. The rest of her was engulfed in a long, coarse woolen dress that reached to the top of her boots and a black coat, at least two sizes too big.
Lifting the shawl over her head, she turned.
One pair of eyes continued to watch dispassionately. All his years of stalking caused him to continue watching, even when he should have turned away to respect her privacy.
While the second pair of eyes watched, a plan had already begun to take shape. No longer a disinterested observer, his gaze roamed appreciatively over the small figure as she passed. Taking a gold watch from his vest, he noted the time of her departure, then returned the timepiece to his pocket.
The stench below decks rolled over her in waves. Walking to her blanket, September lay down, tucking the shawl about her ankles. If she could manage to fall asleep quickly, she could escape for a few hours from this nightmare.
All around her, children wailed, and women wept behind their hands. Some sobbed openly.
They had been on the mail steamer
out of San Francisco for two days now. Not originally built for passengers, the rush of humanity heading toward the gold fields of Alaska had forced the captain to improvise. Every available inch of space below deck was littered with people and their belongings, crammed together so tightly they barely rolled as the ship braced through the rough sea. Women and children were in one small section below deck, while the larger part was given over to the men.
By day, almost everyone crowded the open deck, eager for sunlight and fresh air. Some of the tougher ones braved the biting cold on deck all night rather than endure the stench below.
"Oh Lord. He’s so cold, if he wasn’t breathing I’d swear he was stiff."
"What?" September sat up and turned toward the whimpering woman. "Who’s—stiff?"
"My Will here. His little lips are purple."
September leaned over the huddled mass. The girl, hardly older than September’s seventeen years, had kept to herself since the voyage began. While the others hurried above deck during the day, she and her young son had stayed with their pile of belongings, as if afraid they’d lose their place or be robbed of their possessions once they left.
September pressed her hand to the forehead of a boy of about three. He was burning with fever. "He’s not cold. He’s hot. Feel him."
Anxious brown eyes widened. "Oh Lord! Now he’s trembling. Shaking so bad, I can hardly hold him still."
"Here." September handed the girl her shawl. "Wrap him in this. I’ll moisten my handkerchief in some water. We’ll have to bring down that fever."
She scurried between the bodies to a bucket of water, then hurried back. Kneeling down beside them, she wiped his face with the handkerchief, then folded it and draped it across his burning forehead. Violent shudders shook his body.
"Ma. I’m so cold," he muttered.
"Here." September removed her mother’s heavy coat and began wrapping the boy in it.
"No. Not your coat. You’ll freeze down here."
At the girl’s feeble protest, September whispered, "Shh. I’ll take the shawl. You keep the coat around him. He’s going to get a lot colder before the night is through."
With a look of gratitude, the girl cradled his frail body in her arms and began cooing to him.
September folded the blanket to protect her from the damp, cold deck beneath her, then wrapped the shawl around as much of herself as she could manage before lying down.
As she hovered on the edges of sleep, she realized how fortunate she was to have managed to secure a berth on this boat headed for the Alaskan gold fields.
After seeing to her mother’s burial, September had disposed of their meager belongings and hurried to the docks, determined to camp out there until she could get on a boat bound for Alaska.
Despite the hundreds of people milling around the dock in San Francisco, dickering for a berth on a boat, September had managed to get aboard, with help from an unexpected source.
One of the Clancy boys had found a new way of making money. All the street children of San Francisco found ways to make a dollar. Terrance Clancy had used his mother’s life savings, without her knowledge, of course, to purchase as many tickets as he could on a boat bound for Alaska. Then, selling them on the dock for as much as five times the price, he realized with a laugh of carefree innocence that he’d found his gold mine right here on the San Francisco docks.
Terrance, like most of the young men, had been smitten with September Malloy ever since he could remember. But she had been different from the other girls. Her mother feared that the long absences of the man of the house would drive her daughter into the arms of the first handsome man who came along. So she kept a tight reign on the girl. And September herself seemed disinterested in the opposite sex. There had been too much hard work to do, especially in light of her mother’s frail health, to have any time left over for boys.
When September approached Terrance for one of his precious tickets, his heart melted. She would be forever in his debt, he reasoned. And besides, the poet in him reached out to the young woman, desperate to find her long-lost father. Eager to please, he had sold her the ticket for just what he had paid the ticket seller.
As she walked across the wharf, clutching the ticket to her heart, Terrance caught her almost fiercely by the shoulder. His boyish features grew grim.
"I’ve seen the kind of men going to Alaska, September. They’ll not honor their women." Peering around anxiously, he thrust something cold into her hand. "Keep this with you. And don’t be afraid to use it if you have to."
He stared at her earnestly, as if wondering if he should say more. Then, with a grim smile, he squeezed her shoulders as if she were one of his little sisters. "God go with you, September Malloy."
As she watched his retreating figure melting into the crowd, she glanced down at his gift. A razor-sharp fish knife glinted in the sun. She shoved it deep into her pocket and promptly forgot about it.
September had sold or bartered everything, or nearly everything of value to make this trip. The little pouch of money was sewn inside the bodice of her dress. She touched a hand to the gold chain and locket around her neck. She had saved this, her mother’s greatest treasure. Nothing would ever cause her to give it up. Inside was a picture of her father. She would show that picture to every person in Alaska, until someone recognized him. Pinned to the inside of her dress was a pouch containing two hundred dollars. Enough to buy proper gear for the rigors of the Alaskan wilderness. Even if she went through all her money, she vowed, she would never sell her locket.
Now that she was finally on her way, nothing would stop her. A dreamer, was she? She’d show them. She’d show all of them. She’d locate her father, and together, they would find the biggest strike in all of Alaska. Oh, they’d be a grand pair. Decked out in all their finery.
Her father, with that charming brogue of his, used to call her his wee princess. When they found their gold, they would live like royalty.
With a soft smile lighting her features, September escaped into dark, dreamless sleep.