ANGEL’S DAUGHTER: Book Two of the Angel Trilogy

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San Francisco, 1867—A beautiful heiress is kidnapped and put aboard a ship bound for distant lands, a deed with mysterious ties to the building of the transcontinental railroad . . . a ferocious sea battle at Hong Kong . . . an unstoppable warrior . . . a Chinese mistress of unspeakable evil . . . a thrilling locomotive chase through the Sierras . . . and a family of steel-spined women who yield to no one.

The Connellys are back! Corriuption reaching to the highest levels of the building of the new state of California poses a threat to the Connelly empire. The pace never slackens as Kathleen and her daughters Megan and Danielle battle enemies at home and abroad in Book Two of The Angel Trilogy.

EXCERPT:  Chapters One and Two

 San Francisco, California

 1867

1.

 The big copper-colored stallion pranced down the dirt street in brilliant sunlight, neck arched, feet lifting high, sunbeams chasing across its glossy, muscular flanks.  Snorting as if to draw attention to itself, the horse seemed to carry its passenger with pride. 

Regally upright aboard the broad back, Megan Daley gave up nothing to the magnificent horse beneath her.  Her dark red hair bounced around her shoulders.  Sunlight chasing across its broad waves highlighted the interwoven threads of gold.  She wore a jacket and skirt of emerald velvet, a perfect compliment to her intensely green eyes.  There was a teasing smile on her sensuous features as she surveyed her domain.  Motherhood had stolen none of her arresting beauty; she still brought traffic to a standstill.  She was the center of attention, as the Connelly women unfailingly were.   

It was Megan’s habit to ride into San Francisco each Saturday from her magnificent blufftop home overlooking the Pacific Ocean, leaving husband Alex and daughter Bridget to spend the day as they wished.  She preferred shopping alone, and would always end her trip with lunch at her favorite restaurant. 

Now on a sunny May afternoon, she gently guided her horse up to the front of the restaurant and dismounted.  Her booted foot had barely touched the ground when a young boy bounded forward, all undisguised eagerness to serve, to take the reins of the big stallion.

“Afternoon, Miss Megan,” the boy said brightly, doffing his floppy cloth cap.  “Take your horse?”  Though she was married and had a child, some people still called her “Miss Megan”.  

Megan flashed him a broad smile.  “Of course, Jimmy.  A little water for him, as usual, and make sure he’s firmly secured to the hitching post.”

“Yes ma’am!” Jimmy said.  “I’ll take good care of Shamrock, you can be sure of that.” 

“I know you will, Jimmy.”  Megan removed the shopping bag slung over her saddle horn and mounted the boardwalk in front of the restaurant.  “I’ll see you in a while.”  She glided into the restaurant, her passage recorded by every pair of eyes within fifty yards.  Motherhood had done nothing to diminish her spectacular figure; generous breasts and hips were clearly evident beneath her fashionable attire.  Even Jimmy, at age 12, couldn’t resist an admiring shake of his head.    As she approached the front door, it opened for her, and a smiling maitre’d beckoned her inside.

The numerous onlookers up and down the street slowly returned to their affairs, some men the target of frowns from their wives at their helpless stares of admiration.

One pair of eyes lingered longer than the rest on the door through which Megan had passed.  Dark and malevolent, they belonged to a short, florid bullnecked man named Othniel Wanamaker.  He stared at the door as if he could burn a hole in it with his vision.  Finally, fists clenched, he turned away down the boardwalk. 

Every Saturday afternoon, Megan made a visit to the same restaurant.  And every Saturday, Wanamaker was there to stoke the fires of his rage.  Two years had not dimmed the enmity he bore Megan Daley, nor diminished his desire for revenge.  As if it were yesterday, he could still feel her hands on his, forcing them down on the plunger, setting off the blasting powder that sent his freight warehouse sky-high in a thousand pieces, to rain about him in flaming ruin.  The fact that it had been his blasting powder, the same blasting powder he had planted underneath the trestle of the railroad Kathleen and her husband had built, mattered little to him.  Nor did the fact that he had intended to blow the trestle to Kingdome come, and send the locomotive to the bottom of the ravine, along with anyone unfortunate enough to be aboard it. The sad reality was that Pacific Freight, the mule-team freight business he had built from nothing, no longer existed.  He had never recovered from the destruction of his warehouse.  Shaken by the killing of his chief enforcer Martin Hofmeister, and the suicide of his confederate Ansel Platt in their failed attempts to destroy the Connelly women, he was a broken man.  Wandering off to San Francisco, he had survived on the fringes of society for the last two years, his once-pressed clothes now shabby, his formerly clean-shaven face too often wearing a few days’ growth of beard. 

And so he watched her, hoping for some idea, some inspiration that would show the way to his revenge.  It was all that kept him going.  And on this spring day, he thought he had one.  Reassuringly, he patted his pocket and felt the crackle of the newspaper page within as he scurried down the street to his appointment like a fat rat. 

 

The three Connelly women wielded great power and influence in Central California, from the raw boomtown of San Francisco east to the Sierras.  Kathleen, the matriarch and head of three business empires—cattle ranching, shipping, and railroad—still possessed the aristocratic beauty and fearlessness that had won her widespread admiration across the new, still wild state of California.  Finally giving in to numerous requests, she had run for the state legislature, and won.  There, her reputation and commanding presence were so respected she had been elected chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. 

Her adopted daughter Danielle—orphaned as a French immigrant at age fourteen—had become a brilliant businesswoman whose judgement Kathleen trusted so completely she had made her CEO of all three of her companies.  It kept Danielle busy, but she seemed born to the task. 

Then there was Megan, whom Kathleen referred to as “my wild daughter”.  It was an apt description.  Wherever she went, Megan drew a crowd.  Her beauty stirred longing in men—all wanted her; none could have her.  In women it produced suspicion; surely a woman so beautiful could not be trusted around their men—or any man.  Megan did nothing to discourage the wagging tongues.

Many felt there was a fourth Connelly woman in the making—Megan’s daughter Bridget.  Though only five, she was visually a copy of her grandmother Kathleen, with raven hair and startling sky-blue eyes.  And she had already started to display some of the same character traits—an utter fearlessness, and a steel-spined, unyielding determination to get what she wanted.

Kathleen had a sentimental attachment to gold mining, and so had not yet let go of her one remaining mine, though it barely made a profit.  The family had invested cautiously in Colorado silver mines, which had risen to prominence as the California gold fields were fading.  So far their investments looked good. 

Their railroad, the Sierra and Western, which ran from Placerville to Sacramento, had been made possible by Megan’s triumphant recruitment of two hundred Chinese laborers.  It did a steady and growing business, and was poised for expansion.  Too, with Sacramento now the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad, as had been predicted, their line would connect to it there, increasing its value even more.  The railroad could yet become their largest operation.

But so far, it was the shipping empire that had truly burgeoned.  Kathleen’s flagship, her treasured 251-foot black-hulled clipper Emerald Isle, was still the fastest ship afloat.  To this she had added over twenty other vessels of various sizes, from small coast–runner barks and side wheel steamers to fleet ocean-crossing clippers.  Her vessels regularly made runs up and down the West Coast, north to Alaska and south to Panama and down the Pacific coast of South America.  With the completion of the Panama railroad in 1855, it no longer made sense to risk runs around Cape Horn unless the cargo was too large to carry by rail.  From California Kathleen’s ships also sailed east to the Orient, ranging from China to Australia carrying a wide range of goods.  The agreement Megan had worked out with San Francisco merchant Yuen Ling-Po for the railroad laborers had provided Kathleen with steady business sufficient to show a good profit, even with the twenty per cent discount Ling-Po received in exchange for the two hundred workers.  And that ongoing agreement, profitable for both sides, had provided Kathleen and her family, through Megan, with unsurpassed influence and goodwill in San Francisco’s Chinese community.    

 

Megan finished her meal and went outside to retrieve Shamrock.  Jimmy, sensing accurately the time she would be finished, stood stroking the big head reins in hand.  She gave him a generous tip and accepted his help in mounting.  She had never cared for riding sidesaddle, and rode astride like a man, which only served to increase her slightly scandalous reputation among the cattier women who secretly envied her.  “A proper lady rides sidesaddle,” one had once sniffed haughtily at her.

“Yes, but I’m no proper lady,” Megan had replied with a grin, then whirled her horse away.

“You can say that again,” the woman said to herself.

Megan rode back home with her shopping prizes slung over her saddle horn.  It was about forty-five minutes at an easy gallop to the bluff overlooking Pacific breakers.  The late afternoon sunlight played off her long glorious hair as she loped Shamrock up the long driveway and slowed to a halt in front of the carved double doors.  Their magnificent cut-glass oval windows made an elegant entrance to the Daley house.  Not quite a mansion, it was still an imposing sight.  The two-story Victorian encompassed about 4,000 square feet.  There were big bay windows on either side of the entrance, and turreted towers at the east and west front corners.  The house was situated with the entrance facing south, providing a view along the ocean shore from the porch that ran the entire width of the front. 

The front doors burst open and a small hurricane in a frilly white dress sped across the porch and into Megan’s arms.  “Mama!” Bridget cried.  “I missed you.  Did you get me something?”  Her black ponytail bobbed back and forth.

“Yes, but you shall have to wait until after dinner.  What did you and Papa do today?”

“We went to Aunt Danielle’s,” Bridget said.  “Do I really have to wait?”

“I think so,” Megan replied, straightening up from their embrace as her husband came out to greet her.  She dropped her bag and hugged him tightly.  “Dear Alex.  You’re so sweet to indulge me every Saturday.”  She tousled his reddish-brown hair playfully.

Alex was tall at about six feet one, with a thick lock of hair that sometimes hung down over his smooth forehead nearly to the sandy-colored eyebrows above his dark brown eyes.  He had pleasing, regular features with a hint of freckles, dominated by a strong, straight nose.  But now he gave her a mock frown.  “I don’t like the sound of this.  How much did you spend this time?”

Megan smiled sweetly and slipped an arm around his waist.  “Oh, not so much.  Don’t fret.  I’ll make it worth your while—tonight.”  She knew, as usual, that he wasn’t really upset with her.  Megan had played such a vital role in bringing the railroad project into reality that no one in the family could deny her anything.  Everyone was aware of the danger she had placed herself in to secure the Chinese laborers that had broken the boycott Pacific Freight had imposed through threats and murder.  But no one knew the full extent of the price she had paid.  That was something she kept to herself.

Alex had proven a worthy addition to the family.  He had come back into her life in 1863, just two days before Danielle’s wedding to Robert Bradshaw.  He had been lost to them since 1860, when Kathleen had banished him in a rage over Megan’s pregnancy.   Bridget was his, the product of a one-night liaison Megan, in one of her wild moods, had brought about.  She had seduced him, pure and simple.  Bridget, amazingly enough, showed no trace of his genetic contribution.  If this bothered Alex, he didn’t let on. 

Since marrying Megan in a double ceremony with Danielle and Robert’s wedding on the bluff near where their house now stood, Alex had shown he could succeed at any task given him.  A top hand with animals, he had primarily been given responsibility for the acquisition and care of livestock for all the Connelly families, but Megan didn’t hesitate to push for more when she talked to her mother.  “He can do anything, Mother,” she would say.  “Just give him a try.”  Kathleen always promised to give it some thought.  Though she was married to Ben, there was no doubt that Kathleen still called the shots for all of the family businesses.  She was the unquestioned matriarch.  Ben was content with that, pursuing his own construction engineering projects. 

Somewhat to Kathleen’s surprise, Megan and Alex had welded into a tightly bonded couple whose mutual admiration was clearly evident.  Kathleen’s soft spot for Megan’s happiness, and her guilt over her banishment of Alex, had overcome her doubts about him.  

As they glided into the parlor, which was decorated with abundant large ferns, Megan gave Alex a kiss as she slipped her arm from his waist.  She put her shopping bag on the parlor table and brushed the hair back from her face.  “So, what’s happening at Danielle’s?” she said.  “Is she still upset about the last board meeting?”

“She’s calmed down a little.  But she thinks we need to keep our ear to the ground about what Eli Leatherwood may be up to.”

“Hmph.  I don’t like the man,” Megan said, pulling off her riding gloves and tossing them on a table.  “Never did.  If Mother’s ever made a mistake, it was letting him on the board.”

“Forget him for now.  I’ve got great news,” Alex said, holding up a letter.  “Your mother’s coming over next month.  And she’s staying for a while.”

Megan brightened.  “Wonderful!  I can hardly wait.”

Though Ben had designed and built magnificent blufftop homes less than 200 yards apart for Megan and Danielle and their families, he and Kathleen continued to live at their spacious mission-style ranch house outside of Sacramento.  It was the centerpiece of the 20,000-acre Eire Ranch.  Ben and Kathleen’s immense spread was utilized mostly for raising cattle, but also contained significant acreage in grain crops.  They traveled to San Francisco three or four times a year, including once each summer for a Board of Directors meeting.            

 

The next evening, Danielle and Robert came striding over through the tall grass in the late afternoon sunlight.  They often shared evenings with Megan and Alex on the front porch of each other’s houses.  Danielle moved with the easy grace French women displayed, a quality that had aroused particular interest in the hard-bitten frontiersmen of the new state.  Too, her thickly accented English and serene gray-blue eyes never failed to enchant.  When she was single, she had never lacked for male attention, though she was not beautiful.  Megan welcomed them warmly and bade them sit with her on the porch.  “Alex will join us soon,” Megan said.  “I think he’s reading a story to Bridget.”

Danielle and Robert sat on a large canopied swing near Megan.  Robert’s thick brown hair was, as always, parted down the middle, his smooth, handsome lawyer’s face clean-shaven and tanned. 

Megan smiled at him.  “Still the handsomest lawyer in San Francisco, I think,” she teased.  

“Such flattery will do you no good,” Danielle countered.  “He’s still dedicated to me.”

Robert gave her a sly sideways look.  “I don’t know.  You haven’t called me handsome lately.”

Danielle poked him.  “I’m making sure you don’t get a big head.  Megan isn’t helping.”  She smiled broadly.

Megan looked at her closely.  “Hmm.  I know that face.  You look like you’re bursting to tell me something.  What are you hiding?”

Danielle blushed and ran a hand through her long, wavy chestnut hair.  “I’m expecting.”

Megan shrieked and sprang to her feet, leaning over to embrace her.  “Sister!  At last!  Oh, I’m so happy for you.  How wonderful.  When is it coming?”

Danielle leaned into Robert in dreamy repose.  “I’m not sure yet.  Sometime in late summer or early fall.”

“Well, it’s been a long time coming.  I couldn’t be more pleased.”

“Though we’ve been trying for a long while, the timing is good now,” Robert said.  “The delay has allowed us time to get the law firm strongly established.  We’re now the third largest firm in San Francisco, and closing in on second.”  Marrying into Ben and Kathleen’s far-flung business empire, Robert had decided to specialize in corporate law, and had become the family attorney for all business matters.

Alex came out to see what the commotion was all about, carrying Bridget on his shoulders.  Both joined the group on the porch.  For a while, the adults were content to watch in silence as Bridget played in the tall green grass in front of the house, chasing her cat and rolling a hoop.  Below them to the south, Pacific breakers rolled in in endless succession, their white foamy expanse peaceful and hypnotizing in the evening light.  “Let’s go down to the beach when Mother comes,” Megan said.

“I’d like that,” Danielle replied.  “I wonder,” she mused, “how many years those waves have been rolling in like that.  Thousands?  Millions?”

“Long before people were around, I’m sure,” Megan said.  “And they’ll still be rolling in thousands of years after we’re gone, I imagine.  It kind of makes all our lives seem smaller.”

Danielle grew silent again.

“Something else on your mind, sister?” Megan said, able to read Danielle well.

Danielle looked out to sea, a frown on her long Gallic features.  “Eli Leatherwood.”    

 

Othniel Wanamaker paused at the entrance to the impressive three-story Market Street building.  The front was all gray stone blocks and white marble.  Above him, at the top of the stone steps, large brass-trimmed doors beckoned invitingly.  Windows decorated with gold filigree gave a glimpse into the interior, where elegant chandeliers hung from the paneled ceiling.  He pulled out his pocket watch.  Right on time.  He looked up the steps again.  How he longed to walk up those steps, to throw open the doors like he belonged there!  Someday, he vowed silently, someday I’ll walk through those doors like I own the place.  Someday they’ll notice me.  Someday it’ll be like before.  Then, his expression turning sour, he walked around behind the building and into the back entrance.  

Once admitted inside the back door, he went up a flight of stairs to a second-floor office, where he knocked firmly three times on a closed door.

“Come in,” he heard a voice beckon.

Wanamaker twisted the doorknob and fixed a smile on his face.  It never hurt to put on a positive expression when meeting with Eli Leatherwood.  He swung the door open and went in.

Elijah J. Leatherwood sat in a leather chair behind an elaborate oak desk.  The desk boasted carved ornamentation at the front corners, and was polished to a high luster.  The desktop was mostly bare, with a wooden tray holding a few papers on one side, and an elegant green-shaded kerosene lamp on the other.  The man behind the desk did not look up at Wanamaker’s entrance, but continued writing with a metal-tipped ink pen on a paper in front of him.  Handsome in a decadent sort of way, he was dressed in an impeccably tailored pin-stripe suit, a white shirt with a starched collar, and a black silk tie at his throat.  His hair, black on top and silver-gray on the sides, was cut with precision.  The nails on his long fingers were buffed and flawless.  There was nothing about him that was not precise, calculated, and perfectly in order. 

Wanamaker shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other.  He always felt shabby and inadequate in the man’s presence.  And he always felt humiliated when Leatherwood made him wait, which was all too frequent.  Someday I’ll make him wait, he thought.  The tables will turn.  Then we’ll see how it is.  I don’t care if he is the biggest financier in San Francisco; he won’t always be so high and mighty. 

Finally, Leatherwood put down his pen, looked up from his writing, and motioned Wanamaker into a chair.  “Well, Wanamaker, what’s on your mind for this week’s appointment?  Been out following Megan Daley again?”

Wanamaker’s smile twisted and his eyes narrowed.  “You bet.  Saw her just a while ago.”

“How’d she look?”

Wanamaker’s expression turned sour.  “Beautiful.  Like always.  People bowin’ and scrapin’ to do her biddin’.  Like it is with all them Connelly women.”

Leatherwood steepled his fingers together and looked at Wanamaker with curiosity.  “I don’t know why you resent that so much.”

“I done told you,” Wanamaker said, scowling.  “And someday I’ll have my payback.”

“Ah yes, the warehouse incident.  Well, payback is overrated.  A poor way to motivate yourself.”  He smiled, eyes gleaming.  “Now, payback with profit—that’s something worth pursuing.”  He leaned forward, looking intently at Wanamaker.  “Hmm,” he mused, “I think there’s something you want to tell me.  Did you discover anything interesting?”

Wanamaker’s look of self-satisfaction deepened.  He reached into his pocket.  “Damn straight I did.  Look at this.”  He pulled out the newspaper and put it in front of Leatherwood.  “Found it tacked to a wall in a shack, bein’ used as insulation.” 

Leatherwood looked at the yellowed newsprint for a moment as if it were unsavory.  “A piece of newspaper?” he said doubtfully. 

“It ain’t the paper.  It’s what’s on it.  Open it up.”

Leatherwood reached out and gingerly opened up the folded paper, which crackled with age.  It was an old edition of the Alta California.  For a moment he was puzzled, then his eyes caught a series of headlines on the right-hand side.

HEIRESS FOUND DRUGGED IN HOTEL LOBBY

      OPIUM SUSPECTED

WEALTHY MOTHER ATTACKS TWO CHINAMEN

His eyes scanned the story for a few minutes, then he looked up at Wanamaker.  “The heiress was Megan Daley,” he said.

Wanamaker oozed smugness.  “That’s right.  She was still Megan Connelly then.”

Leatherwood rested his chin on his fingers.  “I’d forgotten about that, but I remember it now.  That was back in ’62.  I heard Kathleen Connelly nearly tore the lobby apart trying to get at those Chinamen.  Hmm.  You know, that’s the only whiff of scandal I’ve ever heard about with that family.  Never did know just how Megan Daley got hold of the opium—or why.”

“I heard she struck a deal with some Chinaman for all the workers that done built that railroad.  It has somethin’ to do with that.  That’s all I know.”

“So,” Leatherwood said, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands in his lap. ”What’s on your mind?”

“Wel-l-l-l,” Wanamaker said slowly, “I figger I’ve uncovered somethin’ I can use.  That bein’ Megan Daley and that opium.  I’ve heard tell you try that stuff once and you never forget it.  Could be she’s still got a yearnin’ for it deep down inside.”  He paused and leaned forward, piggish eyes closed to slits.  “Maybe she should get some.  It’d give me satisfaction to tempt her, maybe see her get hooked on it.”

Leatherwood looked at him with an unreadable expression.  “So that’s it?  You want to get some opium in front of Megan Daley and see what she does, see if she can be tempted into using it again?  Maybe bring her down?”

Wanamaker nodded enthusiastically.  “Yeah, that’s it!”

“So what do you need me for?  Don’t I pay you enough to keep your eyes and ears open around town that you could afford opium?  You can get it in any John Chinaman store in Chinatown.”

“It ain’t the opium.  It’s a good pipe I need.  Somethin’ real fancy, somethin’ she just couldn’t resist usin’.”

“I see.”  Leatherwood turned in his chair to the window behind him, looking out across the San Francisco vista and over the bay for long minutes, saying nothing, lost in thought.

Wanamaker grew increasingly uncomfortable with the silence.  He was beginning to wonder if Leatherwood had somehow dismissed him when the man finally turned around to face him again.  The expression on his face made Wanamaker break out in a cold sweat. 

“Oh, Wanamaker, you are such a despicable low-down cad.  How could you even think of doing such a thing to that beautiful woman?”  He leaned across the desk, eyes burning.  “I like it.”

Wanamaker let his breath out in a sigh of relief.

“Could be you’ve found the only weakness that family has,” Leatherwood went on.  “Kathleen Wilson’s a regular Rock of Gibraltar.  She can’t be bought, influenced against her better judgement, or swayed one inch from her chosen goal.  Lord knows I’ve tried.  And that damned Frenchwoman—if she hasn’t got a head for business!  The greatest instincts for corporate structuring I’ve ever seen.  No matter what I’ve thought up, she always seems to be ready for it, if not one step ahead of me.  But Megan—”

Wanamaker leaned forward on the edge of his chair.  “Then you’ll help me get my revenge?”

Leatherwood looked at him in silence for a moment, then broke out in peals of laughter.  “Wanamaker, you lack vision!”  He fixed him with a cold smile.  “There’s potential here for infinitely more mischief than that.”

Wanamaker shrank back and looked at him blankly.  “There is?”

Leatherwood chuckled, a positively evil sound, Wanamaker thought, and over the next fifteen minutes proceeded to launch into a lengthy discourse that dazzled him with its scope and complexity.  He could never have imagined that his proposal could have such far-reaching consequences.  When Leatherwood at last seemed finished, Wanamaker was shaken.  “You really think you can do all that?”

Leatherwood smiled.  “Could be.”

“My God,” Wanamaker said, “if any of that stuff actually came to pass, and either Ben or Kathleen Wilson found out we were connected to it, we’d both be dead men.”  

“Well, then we’ll just have to make sure they don’t find out, won’t we?” Leatherwood replied.

Wanamaker squirmed uneasily in his chair.  The prospect of repercussions far beyond what he had thought to put in motion both excited and disturbed him.  He knew Ben and Kathleen played for keeps when they were wronged.  He would have to be careful, more careful than he had ever been.  “So, how do we start?” he said.

Leatherwood smiled, a cold expression devoid of compassion.  “With a gift.”

 

The following Saturday, Megan made her customary ride into San Francisco, and as usual, ended her visit at her favorite restaurant.  She ate a leisurely meal, then left her table for a moment and stepped outside to tell Jimmy that she would be leaving soon, after she had dessert, so that he could get Shamrock ready to ride.

Returning to her table, she sat down and froze.  A box had appeared on the table.  It was elegant, long and narrow, and polished to a high sheen, with jade filigree inlaid on a hinged lid. There was a small white card attached to it with green ribbon. Puzzled, she looked around to see who might have left it.  She saw no one she had not seen previously since she had been there.  She called the waiter over and asked him, but no, he had not seen who had placed the box on her table.  She thanked him and turned her attention back to the mysterious object. 

It is certainly beautiful, she mused.  She picked up the card, which was folded over, and opened it.  There was elegant writing inside that said,

From  an  Old  Friend

She put down the card, removed the green ribbon from the box, and slowly opened the lid.

And began to tremble.

 

Wanamaker watched from hiding as Megan burst through the doors of the restaurant and out onto the boardwalk.  She appeared agitated, glancing up and down the street.   Then she quickly strode to Shamrock, mounted, and galloped away.  Jimmy was left scratching his head at her hasty departure.  A few minutes later, a young busboy came casually out of the restaurant, and, unseen by anyone else, went around the side of the building, pulled the polished box from under his apron and hid it on the ground behind a loose piece of siding.  Wanamaker waited a few minutes, then casually sauntered over to where the box had been left, picked it up, and walked off.

 

Megan tried desperately to calm herself on the ride home.  Someone, for reasons she couldn’t guess, was bringing an old nightmare back into her life.  She had never given her family all the details about her negotiations with Yuen Ling-Po.  The Chinese had built Ben and Kathleen’s railroad from Sacramento to Placerville, in defiance of the scare tactics and even murder Pacific Freight had employed to intimidate white laborers in the Sacramento area.  She had negotiated skillfully to acquire the workers.  Her family knew she had been required to smoke opium with Ling-Po to close the deal in good faith; they had found her passed out in the lobby of her hotel, accompanied by two of Ling-Po’s guards.  She had still been heavily drugged.

What she had never told them was the depth of the hold the opium had taken on her.  There were times when she could still taste it on her tongue, could still feel the sweet smoke flowing into her body, could still remember the weightless bliss that had carried her away.  It had been five years, and still she could not forget.  Ever since, she had studiously avoided any forays into Chinatown, had removed herself from any circumstances where opium might surface. She knew how deep-seated the craving was, how strongly her body sometimes wanted it.  And she kept it to herself, her only secret, one she dared not share with anyone.  Now someone was placing temptation in her path again.  Why? she pondered as her house came into view.  She breathed deeply and tried to calm herself for Alex and Bridget.

 

Eli Leatherwood watched with amusement as Othneil Wanamaker fumed in frustration in the chair before his elegant desk. 

“She didn’t take the bait!” Wanamaker said bitterly.  “She got up and left, in a hurry.”

Leatherwood chuckled.  “Wanamaker, it becomes more evident every time we meet why I’m where I am and you’re where you are.”

“I can do without the insults,” Wanamaker replied sullenly.

Leatherwood gave him a sober stare.  “I didn’t get rich by being impatient.  Patience is indeed a virtue.  That’s a quality you need to learn.  No, I really didn’t expect her to take the bait this time.  But from the sound of things, you really got a rise out of her.  She was agitated, from the report that busboy gave you.  That’s a start.”

“So, what do we do now?  Try next Saturday?”

“No, that would be too predictable.  We’ll wait two weeks, then try again.  That’ll keep her off balance.”

“S’pose she goes to another restaurant?”

“Then you’ll just have to know which one, won’t you?  And bribe another busboy.”  He reached forward and opened the polished box Wanamaker had placed on his desk.  He opened the lid and smiled with satisfaction, lifting the opulent hand-carved opium pipe out of its case.  “A beautiful piece of work, I must say.  Had I the bent for opium, I’d find it hard to resist myself.  I think next time we’ll sweeten the pot a little, so to speak.  Now, if there’s nothing further to report, I have business to attend to.”

After Wanamaker shuffled out, Leatherwood leaned back in his chair and gazed out the window toward the harbor, reflecting on the opportunity Wanamaker had presented him with.  Though financially successful, he lusted for power, for prominence.  In fact, there was one position in particular he coveted—that of railroad baron.

He’d read of the heroic exploits of the Big Four—Stanford, Crocker, Huntington, and Hopkins.  They had the contract to build the Central Pacific Railroad from Sacramento east across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, there to come together somewhere on the other side with the Union Pacific, which was building west from Omaha.  The two roads were to meet at an as-yet-undetermined spot, where they would complete a glorious transcontinental line that would link the nation east and west—and profoundly transform it.  He knew many people thought it couldn’t be done, but he was sure it would be.  And with his financier’s knowledge of how the Big Four had structured their contracts, he also knew incredible wealth was coming their way, even if they were struggling now.  The four men were as ruthless, rapacious, and greedy as they came.  Just the sort of company he could relate to.

Yes, the railroad was the coming thing, and he wanted to be part of it.  And now Wanamaker had unwittingly provided him with the possible means to do so.  Because the Big Four weren’t satisfied to be masters of the Central Pacific.  They hadn’t even gotten their road over the Sierras yet, and already they were angling to buy up every other railroad in California.  Leatherwood knew Stanford in particular wanted a monopoly on the railroads within the state.  He wanted them all.  And he would get them.  Except one.  Leatherwood made it his business to know what was happening in the financial world, and he knew that Ben and Kathleen Wilson had steadfastly refused all offers from Stanford to sell their railroad.  Small wonder.  They had built it with their own money.  No government loans of bonds, no land grants, no nothing.  It was paid for, it made a profit, and most important of all, it was complete—unlike the other railroads the Big Four were after, which had hardly any miles of track laid. 

Leatherwood knew what Stanford apparently didn’t—there would be no budging Kathleen Connelly Wilson, nor her husband.  But if he could find a way to get those two out of California for an extended period of time—well, anything was possible.

Grandiose visions danced through his head.  If he could deliver the Wilsons’ railroad to Stanford, what a reward could be his!  He would hold out for president of the newly acquired railroad, of course.  And then the Big Four would become the Big Five.  Yes, his name would look good alongside theirs.  And from there, the sky was the limit.  After all, Stanford had already gotten himself elected Governor of California.  Hell, even old Charley Crocker—whom an acquaintance of Leatherwood’s had described as “a living, breathing, waddling monument to the triumph of vulgarity, viciousness, and dishonesty”—had been elected to the state legislature.  Surely there would be a place for Eli Leatherwood there too.   

 

It was two weeks before Megan felt like venturing into San Francisco again.  She had kept herself busy at home, and when Alex occasionally inquired if there was anything wrong, she had sweetly said, “No”.   She decided to change restaurants for her afternoon meal, having been too upset by her experience to return to her favorite haunt.  It wasn’t the mysterious gift that scared her so much as the realization that the old desire still burned deep within.  Even so, she couldn’t countenance sharing her weakness with her family, not even Alex.  It was a shame she didn’t want to admit. 

Cutting her shopping trip short, she decided on impulse to visit a restaurant on the waterfront, with a view of vessels anchored peacefully in the harbor.  She looked out across the scene and could identify three of her family’s ships riding at anchor.  Somewhere out on the Pacific, there were over twenty more.  They made up one of the largest shipping companies on Pacific waters.     

She found a shady spot to tie up Shamrock, tipped an attendant to watch the big stallion, and went inside.  After perusing the menu, she decided on a seafood dish, and ate a leisurely meal.  When she was ready to leave, the busboy came to her table.  He piled up her dishes, then paused.

“Ma’am, I was asked to give you this,” he said.  He pulled something from under his apron and hurried away. 

Megan sat in shock, her face a mask of dismay.  The box was back. 

Suddenly galvanized with anger, she sprang up and ran after the busboy, who dove through the kitchen doors.  By the time she got into the kitchen, all she could see was the back door to the restaurant swinging wide.  She ran to the door, and saw the boy running furiously down the dirt street. 

Megan sprinted around to the front of the building.  “Give me the reins!” she shouted at the attendant.  He did, and she vaulted into the saddle without using the stirrup.  She dug in her heels and Shamrock erupted into motion.  At the back of the building she spotted the boy a block away, running hard.  He looked back and saw her, fright on his face at the sight of an angry redhead on a huge stallion bearing down on him.  Shamrock stretched out to top speed. The big horse ate up the distance with enormous strides, dirt flying from his hooves as he rocketed down the street.  She gained ground quickly and was only twenty yards behind the boy when he swerved into an alley.  Shamrock pounded up to the alley and she pulled him to an abrupt halt.  The narrow space was full of trash. There was no room for her to pass.  She could see no sign of the boy.  He had either gone into a door somewhere or found a way through the debris.  Disappointed, she turned Shamrock around and walked him back to the restaurant, where she gave the reins back to the attendant.  She stalked inside and went straight to the manager.  He knew nothing about the boy except his first name.

“I doubt you’ll see him again,” Megan said.  “I’m sorry I rushed out so abruptly.  I was upset.”  She returned to the table.  The box was still there.  I don’t want this thing to show up again next time, she thought.  Maybe if I take it, this foolishness will stop.  She picked up the box, paid her bill and left.   

In deep shadows across the street, Othniel Wanamaker fixed a look of smug satisfaction on his face and walked away.

 

Megan stalked into the house and threw her shopping bag into a corner.  Fortunately no one else was home to see the scowl on her face.  She stomped around, blowing off steam.  After a while she returned to the parlor, pacing back and forth, staring at the shopping bag on the floor.  After a few minutes of tormented indecision, she sat down and pulled the bag to her.  Opening it, she pulled out the elegant box.  She took it gingerly onto her lap, and, finally, opened the lid.

The same magnificently worked opium pipe lay within, nestled in blue velvet.  About eighteen inches long, it appeared to be made of ivory, and was covered with detailed scrollwork swirling around inlaid pieces of jade and abalone shell.  Sighing, she stroked its length.  Her fingers caressed the small bowl fixed to the pipe a few inches from one end.  She felt a faint stirring deep inside.  Then a wave of nausea swept over her.  There was something else inside the box.  She could smell it.  Lifting the velvet cloth, she saw what she knew was there—a ball of opium paste. 

Trembling, unable to stop herself, she picked up the opium ball and held it under her nose.  Suddenly she was back in Ling-Po’s elegant parlor in Chinatown, drawing the smoke deep into her lungs, terrified but determined, and then floating . . . .  Her face twisted in torment and she mashed the opium ball back into the case, then slammed the pipe in with it and closed the lid.  She ran to the kitchen and rummaged about for some twine, then, finding some, wrapped it securely around the box.  Stumbling out the front door, she ran with the box to the edge of the bluff above the beach about 100 yards away.  By the time she reached it, her cheeks were wet with tears.  Raging at her need, her face twisted into a mask of anguish, she flung the box off the cliff, saw it tumble over in the air and land in a patch of beach grass far below.  Then she sank to her knees, sobbing into her hands.   

 

Three days later, Megan and Alex walked over to Danielle and Robert’s house.  They all sat together on the front porch in the fading evening light.  “Are you having morning sickness?” Megan asked Danielle.

“Yes,” Danielle replied.  “It’s a bother.  But I’ve waited so long to have it, it’s still more exciting than bothersome.  I don’t mind.”

“Oh sister, I’m so happy for you.  Have you given any thought to a name yet?”

“Well,” Danielle said with a grin, “Robert and I are wrangling about it, but I am determined that if it is a girl, she shall have a proper French name.  If it’s a boy, he shall have an American name.  We agree on that much.”

“Hmm,” Megan mused, “I expect you’ll be showing by the time of the stockholders’ meeting this summer.”

“Yes,” Danielle replied.  “I’m glad I won’t be farther along than I am, though.  Something tells me I’ll need a clear head for this meeting.”   

“You expecting trouble?” Alex put in.

“There could be,” Robert spoke for the first time in a while.  “Danielle doesn’t like the way Eli Leatherwood’s been acting the last couple of meetings.  He seems hostile to our best interests.”

“I’m not sure I understand the concern,” Megan said.  “The man’s a snake, but he owns only nine per cent of the railroad stock.  Our families, counting Ben and Mother, still own an overwhelming controlling interest, 70 per cent.”

“True,” Danielle said.  “But the railroad’s the only family business not completely owned by us.  Since we expect to expand with lines up and down the western slopes of the Sierras, and farther into the Sacramento Valley, it’s more valuable than ever.  And the transcontinental railroad’s coming to Sacramento, no doubt about it.  When our line links up with it, it will vastly increase its value.  Ben and Mother own the shipping company and the cattle operation outright, so there’s no danger there.  But the railroad’s going to become our most valuable holding, and it’s the only place we’re vulnerable at all.  I can’t discard the impression that Leatherwood has his eye on gaining a controlling interest in it.”

“Never happen,” Alex said.  “Rich as he is, he couldn’t swing that.  We’ll never sell our company shares anyway.”

“No, but he could buy influence,” Danielle said.

“I wish we’d never offered railroad stock to the public,” Megan said.

Danielle sighed.  “I know, so do I.  But the fact is we needed a fresh infusion of capital at the time to finish it.  Not doing so would have strained our resources to the point other operations might have been vulnerable.”  She turned and looked away, out over the vast Pacific, silent for a moment.  Then: “I probably worry too much.  By himself, Eli Leatherwood can’t hurt us.  But sometimes I get the feeling he’s really just a front man for someone else.  Someone powerful.  Someone ambitious.” 

 

Megan suspended her weekly rides into San Francisco.  When Alex asked why, she simply said she thought she had enough clothes for a while.  Instead, she took to riding Shamrock along the high ocean bluffs near her house.  Her mind whirled with conflict; she cursed the flame of desire that burned deep within her.  When she finished her rides and turned Shamrock over to her stable hand, she would run into the house and scoop up Bridget, hugging the girl tightly, sometimes reluctant to let loose.  “I love you, little one,” she said.  “I’ll never fail you.  I won’t.  I won’t.” 

“Mama, are you all right?” Bridget said, her sky-blue eyes wide.

“Yes, I am,” Megan said.  “I’m just fine.” 

But she wasn’t.

          

Three weeks after her last encounter with the box, she saddled up Shamrock and rode out alone toward the ocean.  She gave the big horse his head and let him stretch out in long strides along the bluff top, the tall grass whipping at his legs.  She exulted in the wind, her luxuriant coppery hair streaming out behind her.  She let Shamrock run until he slowed of his own accord, then turned for home.  The house was still a mile away when she stopped at the top of a path leading down to the surf.  She sat in the saddle, staring down at the beach for a long time.  From where she sat, she could just make out the patch of beach grass where the box had landed, at the bottom of the cliff below her house.  After a while, she became aware her hands were twisting the reins tightly.  She grasped the saddlehorn in a death grip, breathing heavily, trembling, and lowered her head to rest on Shamrock’s neck.  When she straightened up at last, there was anger and resignation on her face.  Slowly, she turned Shamrock from the bluff top path and down the trail to the beach below.  

 

 

 

  2.

Megan approached the clump of tall beach grass warily, one foot seeming to place itself in front of the other on its own.  She was at war inside, hoping the box wasn’t there, even as she looked for it.  Walking back and forth through the reedy grass, she couldn’t see it.  A couple of times she glanced upward apprehensively to see if anyone might be standing on the bluff top above, watching her.  But there was no one.

She began to get angry as she poked through the grass.  She was sure this was the spot.  Just as she was about to give up, a flash of color caught her eye.  Her heart thudded in her chest as she recognized the twine she had tied around the box.  It was still firmly in place, she saw, as she picked up the box.  She stared at it for long moments, emotions roiling in her head.  For a fleeting instant she had the urge to throw the box as far as she could into the surf, but then she turned and stuffed it into her saddlebag.  She mounted and rode away, a stony expression on her beautiful features.         

 

Eli Leatherwood looked across his polished desk at Othniel Wanamaker as one might examine a newly discovered species of insect.  There was caution along with the curiosity.  “Wanamaker, you look nervous.  That makes me unhappy.  Are you losing the stomach for this operation?”

Wanamaker ran a hand over his face and grimaced. “Boss, you know how bad I want payback on them Connellys.”

“Yes, I know.  You don’t talk about much else.  As I’ve told you, you need to broaden your horizons, do something else with your life.”  He leaned forward over his desk and fixed Wanamaker with a chilling stare.  “But since you’ve brought me this little opportunity, I expect you to play your part—or I’ll be forced to decide you’re no longer a team player.  And that means I’d have to make sure you’re kept quiet.”

The nasty implications left hanging in the air caused Wanamaker to shiver.  “Boss, you can count on me, really you can.  It’s just that—well, sure, I want to punish her.  And her damned mother too, but—but I never figured on doing to her what you got in mind.”

Leatherwood looked out the window, an expression of impatience on his face.  “Are you with me or not?” 

Wanamaker lowered his head, unable to look at the man.  “Yeah, I’m with you.  All the way.”

“Good.  Now, what do we know so far?  We know she has the box.  Or at least she took it home.  What she’s done with it is anyone’s guess.  We need inside information to see if she’s taken the bait, or if we have to plant another lure.  I happen to know she’s got a stable near her house, with a full time stable hand to look after that big horse she rides around on.  Think he’d be willing to cooperate if the price is right?”

Wanamaker shook his head.  “Impossible.  The Connelly women choose their employees real careful-like.  They pay them good, and they inspire unquestioned loyalty.  You won’t get to him.”

“Well, then we’ll find some other way.  Work on it.  I provided her with a very small ball of opium.  If she’s smoked it, I don’t imagine it lasted very long.  She’ll want more.  But I don’t think we can try planting a new box with another opium pipe in her favorite restaurant again.  I doubt she’ll go for that another time.  Besides, time is short.  No,” he said, looking out the window, deep in thought, “we need to tempt her into making a trip to a place where she’s vulnerable.  I’m going to do a little checking around, and see if I can find out exactly who provided her with the opium that time three years ago.  So if you’ll excuse me,” he said, rising, “I’ve got business in Chinatown.  Maybe we can lure her back there.  And then,” Leatherwood said, a Satanic grin on his chiseled features, “we strike.” 

 

Megan gave no thought to bringing the opium pipe into the house again.  Instead, after she rode home and had dismounted in the stable, she gave Shamrock over to her stable hand, and then waited until the boy walked the big horse outside for a cooldown.  Then, unseen, she hid the box behind a bale of hay and went into the house. 

For two days she stayed clear of the stable.  But she didn’t forget what was waiting for her there.  She knew there was no reason she should feel the pull of the opium.  She had everything a woman could want—wealth, power, family, admiration, beauty.  She was the most fortunate of women, she knew that.  Yet, deep within her was the hunger for a dangerous thrill, a risk-taking, that all she had could not extinguish.  When, on the third day, she got a letter saying her mother would arrive the next week, she could deny it no longer.  With Kathleen’s powerful presence in the house, she would never make a clandestine trip to the stable.  If she was going to do it, it would have to be now.

That evening presented the possibility.  Bridget had gone to bed tired, and could be expected to sleep soundly.  Alex, she knew, could sleep through an earthquake.  She could risk an hour away from their bed.  So she lay awake, pretending to sleep while she stared at the ceiling as Alex breathed softly beside her.  In the dark room, she cursed her weakness, knowing she was about to fail her family, but unable to stop herself.  I don’t deserve them, she thought.  She waited until three in the morning, then got up and went to Bridget’s room.  She stood looking down in silence at her daughter.  The girl’s glossy black hair spread over her pillow like a fan, except for an errant strand that lay across one smooth cheek.  Tears rolled slowly down Megan’s cheeks; her hands formed tight fists.  My daughter, she thought.  How precious and perfect you are in sleep.  No tantrums, no demands.  Mother was known as The Angel of the Gold Rush.  You are my own angel, but you are so much like her.  Both of you are so determined, so resilient.  And I am so weak.  Oh, why must I need!  Why are my right thoughts so easily broken?  Daughter, please forgive me.  She turned away.

Drawing her robe tightly about her, she silently descended the stairs of the dark house.  From a drawer in her sewing desk, she took a single long knitting needle, then retrieved a box of matches from the kitchen.  She paused at the front door to light a lantern to guide her feet, then went out.  The moon was full and the night air brisk; a slight breeze sent ripples through the long grass in the field around the house.  She shivered and quickened her pace toward the stable.  It was about seventy yards downwind from the house.  Reaching the big doors, she eased one of them open and slipped into deep darkness.  She heard the rustle of horses’ feet as her entrance caused the animals to stamp nervously for a moment.  They were not used to a visitor this time of night.  She uttered soothing words as she held the lantern high, searching for the bale of hay behind which the box was hidden.  She found it right where she had put it three days earlier.  She sat down on the bale and, with shaking hands, tore the twine off the box.  She opened it and lifted out the magnificent pipe, then the ball of opium paste.  For long seconds she stared at them, breathing heavily.  Then she retrieved the knitting needle from her pocket and skewered the opium ball with it.  Ordinarily she would have used a small oil lamp to heat the opium until it was sticky, then place the ball in the small bowl affixed to the pipe, where it would stick as she held the pipe bowl over the lamp.  The opium ball would blister and smoke as it was heated; she would draw the smoke through a hole in the bottom of the bowl, down the length of the pipe, and into her lungs.  Lacking the oil lamp, she turned the wick up high in her lantern, and held the opium ball over the glass chimney with the knitting needle.   She watched in satisfaction as the opium slowly began to heat and bubble.  When it looked gooey, she reclined into a prone position, held the opium over the pipe bowl and drew in the smoke.  It was less than satisfactory and she had to reheat the opium a couple of times, but it worked.  The opium ball was very small, and it was quickly consumed.  She lay her head down on the straw floor of the stable in dreamy repose.  Her muscles were so loose she felt like she was going to melt into the floor.  She could see a piece of the moon through the crack of the open door.  The moon came down from the sky and sat next to her for a while, a luminescent eye that regarded her balefully.  You failed your family, it said.  You’re weak. Not like your mother.

No one is like her, Megan replied.  No one else measures up to her.  I don’t even try.  I know I failed.  It’s not the first time. 

It won’t be the last, the moon said.  You’re weak . . . .

Go ‘way, Megan said.  I don’t need you to remind me.  Go ‘way!  

The moon rocketed away out the door.  She lay for a while in limp surrender to the drug, letting it carry her on a warm river of joyous fulfillment.  Disconnected fragments of thought came, circled around her mind, and went.  At one point she was sure her body was going to float upward and bump against the stable roof.  She clutched desperately at the straw to prevent it. 

Because the opium ball had been so small, she was not under its influence for long.  She didn’t know how much time had passed when she finally raised herself to a sitting position.  Groggily, she put the pipe back in its box and returned it to its hiding place.  Then she casually wiped the knitting needle on her robe, picked up the lantern, and made her way back to the house.  She put the needle back in her sewing desk, looked in on Bridget, who still slept soundly, then returned to her bed alongside Alex.

 

Someone was shaking her.  She could hear her name being called, far away.

“Megan, wake up.”

With some effort, she opened her eyes. 

Alex was looking down on her, smiling gently.  “Aren’t you the sleepyhead this morning,” he said.  “It’s nearly ten o’clock.  I haven’t seen you sleep this long in a while.  You must have been very tired.”

Megan sat up.  Sunlight was streaming through the lace curtains.  She rubbed her eyes.  “Yes, I was.  Sorry.”  She reached for her robe and pulled it around her.

“Hmm,” Alex said, reaching toward her, “how’d you get straw on your robe?”

Megan momentarily stopped breathing.  “I—I don’t know.  Housekeeping must be getting sloppy.  I’ll speak to them.  Maybe Bridget brought it in.  I think she was making a doll out of straw the other day.  Now,” she said, grinning at him, “is it too late for some breakfast?”           

 

Four days later, on June 7th, Kathleen arrived.  Megan was at her stable, leaning against the corral fence stroking Shamrock’s big head.  At a hello from behind her, she turned to see her mother striding toward her.  She walked along the path worn in the tall grass between her and Danielle’s houses.  The narrow path forced Ben to walk behind her.  Megan smiled broadly as she watched her mother approach.  As always, Kathleen walked with an authoritative, confident stride.  She had a regal bearing that demanded attention, and the gray hairs shot through her glossy black mane only increased her stature as a woman who commanded, if not universal affection, a healthy respect.  She’s as commanding as always, Megan mused.  I wonder the grass doesn’t part for her, like Moses’s Red Sea.  She ran to meet her mother, and threw her arms around her.  “Oh Mother, I missed you so!” she cried.  “It’s been since Christmas this time.  That’s too long.”

Kathleen pulled back and studied Megan closely with extraordinary sky-blue eyes, the same eyes that had convinced Northern Paiute Indians years earlier that she was an evil spirit, the same eyes that stopped most people in their tracks. 

As so often happened, Megan was, at close range, momentarily hypnotized 

“Megan, are you well?” Kathleen asked.

Megan was flustered, if only for a second.  “Of course, Mother, I’m fine.  Why?”

Kathleen cocked her head to one side like a bird sensing a worm underground.  It was an old gesture that told Megan her mother was probing for something.  “Oh, I don’t know,” Kathleen said.  “Something about you seems—different.  Well, I suppose that tells me it has indeed been too long.  I stand reprimanded.”

Megan turned her attention to her stepfather.  “Hello Father,” she said, embracing him tightly.  “I love you,” she whispered.

Ben lifted her off the ground and then set her gently back down.  “You’re more beautiful than ever, if that’s possible,” he said, smiling.

“Oh, all right, I’ll fix your favorite meal.  Please, come into the house,” Megan said.  “Are you stabled over at Danielle’s this time?”

“Yes, it was her turn,” Kathleen said.  “We’ll be staying there for a bit, then come over here.  We’ll relax for a few days.  Then it will be time to start preparing for the stockholders’ meeting in July.”  

Mother and daughter walked off toward the house, arms around each other’s waist.  Megan glanced sideways at her mother, searching for some sign of the fragment of vulnerability that had surfaced the year before.  The previous summer, Kathleen’s father died in his sleep at Eire Ranch.  True to her promise to him, she had taken his body back to New York, and there laid him to rest beside his beloved wife, and Kathleen’s mother, Maggie.  Megan had been there when he passed away, and it was the only time she could remember seeing her mother cry.  It hadn’t happened when the Indian, Two Moons, had stolen Megan.  It hadn’t happened when Danielle, as a teenager, was nearly spirited off by a French couple who wanted to raise her as a proper French girl.  And it hadn’t happened when Kathleen lay near death with Two Moons’ arrow in her chest.  But that night, a small ghostly shadow of little-girl Kathleen had surfaced, had broken free from some deep prison to manifest itself on her body, her face, for a brief time.  For a while, Kathleen had not been a fortress, a bastion of strength and emotional self-sufficiency.  For just a little while, she had needed. 

Now, as Megan looked at her mother, it was clear that the weakness had been forcibly reburied, the chink in the wall sealed up.

 

Othniel Wanamaker jutted out his lower jaw in vexation.  With his puffy cheeks, it made him look a bit like an impatient goldfish as he regarded the boy across the table.  They were alone in a quiet corner of a waterfront restaurant.  It was the same boy he had bribed to present Megan with the box the second time.  His name was Hiram.

“Boy, don’t get greedy on me,” Wanamaker groused.  “I can always find somebody else.”

Hiram grimaced and ran a hand through his sandy hair, his freckled cheeks turning red.  “It ain’t the money, mister, really it ain’t.  It’s just that Megan Daley almost ran me down last time.  It was just luck I stumbled into that alley where her horse couldn’t go.  I don’t cotton to crossin’ them Connelly women.  I’ve heard people who do end up dead.”  He paused, looking especially pained.  “From what you told me, it’s a wonder you ain’t dead.”

Wanamaker leaned back, chin up and thumbs under his suspenders.  “Well, I ain’t.  That’s because I know how to handle ‘em.  And if I can handle them, I can sure handle you.”  He paused and looked sharply at the boy, letting the implied menace sink in.  When he thought it had, he said, “Now, this is real simple.  All I want is for you to tag along on the next delivery of hay to Megan Daley’s stable.  It’s all been arranged.”

“How?”

“Never you mind.  The less you know, the better for all of us.  You help unload the hay.  Mind you work hard at it.  Look like you belong.  Before you leave, slip this—“ he produced an envelope from his coat pocket—“into one of her saddlebags.”

“How’m I to know which saddle is hers?”

“Ask the stable hand, if he’s there.  If he ain’t, look for a saddle that’s kinda reddish, with a silver saddlehorn.  I don’t reckon there’ll be two of them.” 

Hiram looked like he wanted to be somewhere else. “What’s in the envelope?”

“That ain’t for you to know!  Like I said, the less you know, the better.  Open it and you’ll regret it.”

Hiram took the envelope and got up to leave.  “I’ll be takin’ payment now.”

Wanamaker slid a twenty-dollar gold piece across the table. “And when you’re back in town, lay low until I call for you again.”

“You better keep the money comin’,” Hiram said.  “I ain’t been able to find a job since I had to run out on the last one.  Word gets around fast in this town, I guess.”  The boy shuffled out.

Wanamaker watched him go with a sour expression on his face.  Then he poured himself a fortifying shot from the nearly empty whiskey bottle in front of him.  This stage of the operation was risky. There was a chance the letter would be discovered by someone else.  And if it was read, the whole operation would be over.

The boy was right, word did spread fast in the raw frontier town—whether it was true or not.  Good thing, he reflected, that the letter couldn’t be traced to him.  He had set the wheels in motion for a dangerous game, and he was caught in the middle.  The Connelly women and their husbands were on one side, and they were lethal when they were aroused.  On the other side was Eli Leatherwood, and that, well, that was a deal with the devil if ever there was one.  For the first time, he began to regret his thirst for vengeance.   

 

If Wanamaker could have seen Eli Leatherwood at that moment, he would have been vastly amused.  Because that man was himself feeling the fear of the consequences of what he had set in motion.  For Eli Leatherwood was face to face with someone whom he feared every bit as much as Kathleen Wilson. 

He shifted nervously in the big leather chair, acutely aware of the elegance of the office in which he sat.  All around him was polished brass, lush carpeting, crystal, and carved wood.  It was the sort of surroundings he would normally be comfortable in; it suited his refined tastes.  But there was one thing that looked out of place, and it unsettled him greatly—the man behind the desk before him. 

The big man scowled at him.  He had dark hair, and a short chin beard on an otherwise clean-shaven face.  Dark eyes burned beneath black brows.  He was wearing a black suit over a black vest and white shirt, with a black bow tie around his thick neck.  “Well, are things proceeding according to plan?” he asked.

“So far, so good,” Leatherwood replied.  “We know—”  He stopped at the big man’s raised hand.

“You know I don’t want any details,” the man said.  “I don’t want to know how you plan to get the Wilsons out of state for a while.  Just that you can do it.  Still think you can?”

“Yes,” Leatherwood replied.  “And are you still willing to provide funds to grease whatever wheels need it to help make it happen?”

The big man’s scowl deepened.  “Eli, I want the Sierra and Western railroad.  It’s the last—and best—piece I need to rule the coming railroad boom in California.”

“But no federal land comes with it,” Leatherwood said.  “It’s land-poor.  The Wilsons bought a narrow right of way just wide enough for the roadbed.”

“Yes, but as I’ve said before, the road is finished and it’s profitable.  Acquiring it would not only give the Central Pacific an additional source of income, which we badly need at present; it would also legitimize our operations here.  That would win us favor with the federal government when it comes time to ask for more funding.  And we need all the help we can get.  Besides, geographically, the Wilsons’ line is ideally placed to expand south along the western flank of the Sierras, and from there into all of southern California.  In fact, I happen to know they’re going to announce plans to do just that at their upcoming stockholders’ meeting.”

“Your sources are good.”

“I depend on it,” the man said.  Then he swiveled his chair to the side and stared out the window.  “Besides,” he said, “Kathleen Wilson’s opposed me once too often from her seat in the Senate.  She allied herself solidly with the good citizens of Placerville when they introduced that proposition in ’64.”[1]

“No surprise there,” Leatherwood said, “since her railroad runs right to Placerville.  What else would you expect?  When defeat came, she accepted it graciously.”

“Well, she and the Placerville crowd fought us without quarter as far as it went,” the big man groused.  “She’s chummy with Wells Fargo, who’ve contributed big sums to her railroad trying to extend it through Placerville over the Sierras to Washoe.  And she’s entirely too friendly with the Alta California.”[2]

“All things you’d take advantage of if you were in her place,” Leatherwood said.

“Well, I won’t take it.”  Leland Stanford turned back from the window and skewered Leatherwood with a chilling glare.  “You brought this deal to me, Eli.  You thought it would work, if you could get the right backing.  I’m skeptical that it will, but I’ll do my part.  However, my capital and influence are not limitless.  You have the seat on the Wilsons’ Board of Directors.  Make sure you do your part.  And Eli,” he continued, “should you fail, we never met.  I’ll leave you to twist in the wind by yourself.”

Leatherwood was sweating beneath his carefully groomed and poised appearance.  He knew Stanford meant it.  But he wasn’t ready to wilt yet.  Gathering his courage, he leaned forward in his chair.  “Leland, I’d advise you to back off on that talk.  You need me.  I know things you don’t know.”

Stanford regarded him coldly.  “Such as?”

Leatherwood fought to remain calm.  What he knew was the fact that Ben and Kathleen didn’t own all of the land their railroad ran across.  There had been two parcels they had had to settle for five-year leases on, thanks to Wanamaker’s efforts to sabotage their project.  And those leases were about to expire.  What he didn’t yet know was the status of the Wilsons’ efforts to either renew the leases or acquire the parcels outright.  But he also knew Stanford would squash him like a bug if the former governor perceived him as a liability, and he needed some leverage for survival. 

“I think it wise to hold some information in reserve,” he told Stanford, trying to read the big man’s expression.  “You just remember that when you get your hands on that railroad, I expect to be named president of the line.”

The late afternoon July sun shone warmly on the three Connelly women as they strolled along the beach below Megan’s house.  As sometimes happened on beach walks, their husbands had walked ahead so they could be free to talk man talk.  Kathleen was content to let them go.  “They don’t see each other often enough,” she said, eyeing the men walking about fifty yards ahead.  “Let them have some time together.”  She winked at Megan.  “Later we’ll find out what they’re talking about.”  A few yards ahead of the women, Bridget danced on the sand, daring the seawater to wet her toes as it surged up the beach and flowed back.  Walking between her daughters, Kathleen spread her arms and embraced them both, smiling with delight as the surf foamed about their feet.  “I can’t imagine anything more wonderful than this moment,” she said, “walking through the surf with my daughters.  I do miss the beach so much, living over in Sacramento.”

“You should move here, Mother,” Megan said, swinging her feet back and forth as she walked, scribing wide arcs in the sand with her toes.

“So you keep saying,” Kathleen replied.  “But whatever would we do with that enormous house?  Besides, it’s usually a little too cool for me here.  You’ll just have to come visit more often.”  She looked to her right at Danielle.  “Danielle, you’re definitely showing now.”

Danielle patted her expanding abdomen.  “Yes, no doubt about it.  The morning sickness has slacked off, and I’m just happy to watch my belly grow.  Soon Bridget will have a playmate.”

“Well, you always were too thin.  The baby has put a little meat on your bones, and I like what I see.” 

They walked along in silence for a few more minutes.  Then Kathleen said, “Tomorrow we’ll start fleshing out proposals for the stockholders’ meeting.  It’s less than three weeks away, and the Board of Directors meeting two days before that.  We’ll want to firm up our ideas before then.  Danielle, how’s Robert’s presentation on the proposed expansion coming along?”

“It’s shaping up well.  He’ll be ready, never fear.”

Kathleen was silent for a moment.  Then she said, “I’d like him to be prepared for the unexpected, in case we’re confronted with a power play from Leatherwood.”

Megan broke in suddenly.  “Mother, could you please move over to my house early?  I know you were going to wait another week.  But it would be good to have you there now.  Please?”  She looked at Danielle.  “Danielle, would you let her come a week early?”

Danielle recognized the earnest pleading in her sister’s eyes.  “Yes, yes of course.  I don’t mind.  Oh,” she said, looking away, “you’d better see to Bridget.  She’s getting a little far from us.”

Megan strode away to her daughter.  Kathleen and Danielle watched her closely as she went.  Danielle frowned slightly.  “What was that about?”

Kathleen’s blue eyes were fixed on her younger daughter as Megan chased Bridget through the sea foam.  “I don’t know.  But something’s not right.  I sensed something—I don’t know what—as soon as I got here.  I’m beginning to feel guilty for being away from you both so long.  It really isn’t that far to come.  I’ll see if I can talk Ben into staying longer.  If there’s something going on with her, I’ll find out.  You can fool me when you really want to, Danielle.  But she never could.”   

 

Hiram wiped damp hands on his pants as the buckboard loaded with hay made its way up the last few yards of driveway to Megan’s stable.  He hadn’t said two words to Reno, the boy beside him who was driving the buckboard, since the trip began. 

The boy, a few years older than himself, had looked at him curiously a time or two, then was content to drive in silence.  Now as they pulled up to the barn, he spoke.  “Dang, Jimmy would go and get sick on me when I need him for this delivery.  If you’re going to fill in proper for him, you’ll need to buck your share of bales, boy.  We’re here,” he said, pulling back on the reins.  “Fetch a little water for the horses, while I see who’s about.”  He jumped down and went into the barn, returning in a minute.  “Looks deserted.  That stable hand of hers oughta be here, but we’re a tad early.  Come on, let’s get to it.”

Hiram tied the horses to a hitching post, and they set to work unloading the hay bales.  It was a far cry from busing tables in a restaurant, and he nearly staggered under the weight of the first bale. 

“Dang, boy,” said Reno, “you oughta see your face!  It’s red as a whorehouse lantern.  Why, I’d think you never lifted no bale before.”

Hiram said nothing, plodding into the barn with the bale, cursing the day he met the shabby little man who got him involved in this crazy business.  He made several trips, peering into the darkened interior each time in search of Megan’s saddle.  On the fourth trip in, he spotted one that matched Wanamaker’s description.  It looked like no other in the barn, and he decided that had to be it.  But it was toward the back, several yards away from where they were stacking the hay.  How was he to get to it?  He had to think of something fast; there was only one more bale to be brought in. 

“I’ll take the last bale,” he told Reno.

“Suit yourself,” Reno said, climbing up on the buckboard seat.

Panting, Hiram staggered into the barn with the bale, mind racing furiously.  As he slammed the bale down, inspiration came to him.  Slowly he walked back to the barn entrance.

“Come on, boy,” Reno urged.  “I got a cold brew waitin’ for me.”

“I—I gotta go,” Hiram said, looking embarrassed.

“Hmph.  Well, all right, just be quick about it.  Go on out back a ways from the barn, into the tall grass.  Mind there ain’t no womenfolk around to see you.”

Hiram wordlessly ducked into the barn, went straight to the saddle, and took the letter from his back pocket.  It had suffered from the rough trip out on the buckboard, but he couldn’t help that.  He chose one of the saddlebags, lifted the flap, and put the letter in.  Then, heart pounding, he ducked out the back entrance of the barn and relieved himself.  He walked quickly back into the barn, buttoning his pants as he went.  He was four steps in when he stopped dead, breath catching in his throat.

Sky-blue eyes such as he had never seen regarded him coolly.  They were set in a face of refined features and smooth alabaster skin.  Though he had never met her, he knew immediately who stood in front of him.

“Lost your way, young man?” Kathleen said.

“Uh, no, I ah,”  he stammered, then turned red when he realized his hands had frozen on his trouser buttons.

Kathleen smiled.  “It’s all right.  Nothing wrong with it.  Now, you’d better get along.”

“Ah, yes ma’am,” Hiram replied hastily, and beat a quick retreat out the door and up into the buckboard seat.

Kathleen followed him out.  “It’s a warm day,” she said to Reno, “perhaps you and your assistant would like to stay for lemonade on the porch.”

“That’s mighty kind of you, ma’am, it really is,” Reno replied.  “But we gotta get back right away.  Maybe next time.”

“Very well,” Kathleen replied.  The buckboard turned from the barn and rolled away.  She followed it with her gaze.

Hiram was sweating, and not from his recent exertion.  He could feel her eyes on him as they drove away. 

Reno looked over at him and chuckled. “Well, I see she had the usual effect on you.  That was the Angel, in case you didn’t know.”

“I know who it was,” Hiram replied morosely.  “Ain’t no one else looks like that.”  Like many people, he had heard plenty about the Angel.  Some of it seemed pretty fantastic, and he wasn’t ready to believe all of the tales.  He had heard she had crossed Carson Pass with her daughter in the dead of winter and survived, the first woman to do so.  He had heard an Indian tried three times to kill her, and the third time he had put an arrow in her chest, and she not only didn’t die, she killed him.  That other men who had crossed her were dead by her hand. 

“Ain’t she somethin’?” Reno said, interrupting his thoughts.  “You know, the Indians thought she couldn’t be killed.  I think that’s a bunch of superstitious hogwash myself.  Still, it makes me a little uneasy to be around her.  That’s why we didn’t stay for the lemonade.”      

 

When Hiram got back to town and gratefully said goodbye to the hay-hauling operation, he looked up Wanamaker.  He had to wander the docks for a couple of hours to find him, but when he finally did, he didn’t waste any time saying what was on his mind.  “I’m through, mister.  Don’t ask me to do no more of this.”

Wanamaker regarded him through slitted eyes.  “Why, you look plumb spooked, son.  What’s got into you?”

“The Angel was there.”

Wanamaker turned a shade paler under his two-day growth of beard.  Nervously he ran a hand over his chin.  “She was, huh?  She didn’t see you plant the letter, did she?”

Hiram wrung his cap nervously.  “I really don’t know, mister.  I don’t know what she saw.  All of a sudden-like, she was just there, like she popped out of a wall.”

Wanamaker poked Hiram on the lapel of his jacket. “Now you look here, boy.  Don’t you go buyin’ into any of that superstitious nonsense.  She’s as mortal as you or me.”

“All the same, I ain’t havin’ nothin’ more to do with this business.  I don’t fancy meetin’ her again.”

“All right,” Wanamaker said, backing up a step.  “Then you lay low and keep quiet ‘til this is over.  There’ll be money to see to it.  You got that?”

“Yes sir.”  Hiram started to turn away.  “I’d stay clear of that lady, mister.”  With that, he melted into the crowd.      

 

The Connelly women and their husbands gathered in the conference room of Danielle’s blufftop home on a Thursday afternoon.  Because Danielle was Chief Financial Officer for all operations, and her husband Robert was Chief Legal Advisor, business meetings were always held in their home, where there was a room reserved for such matters.  They were gathered to discuss strategy and proposals for the upcoming stockholders’ meeting. 

Even though it was Danielle’s house, the seat of honor was reserved for Kathleen.  Ben had never cared for business affairs, and was content to let Kathleen be the acknowledged matriarch while he went about his own projects.

It would have been hard for it to be otherwise.  Kathleen naturally dominated any gathering she was part of.  Her regal bearing radiated control and commanded respect.  People listened when she spoke, and, when push came to shove, deferred to her wishes.  It unfailingly turned out to be the best course of action. 

Kathleen had done her best to raise her daughters to be like her.  It was ironic that her adopted daughter, Danielle, was more successful in that than Megan, the child she had borne.  Danielle was a natural corporate leader, with an astute command of facts and figures, and vision usually one step ahead of the competition.  She had constructed strong businesses that had unfailingly shown a profit, and Kathleen had come to have limitless respect for her business acumen. 

Megan was another matter.  A strikingly beautiful, impetuous, woman-child, she had never shown an interest in affairs of business, even though as Kathleen’s daughter she was one of the principal owners of the companies.  She was usually content to go along with whatever the others decided.  Her inspired and expertly negotiated deal with the Chinatown merchant Yuen Ling-Po, that had provided the manpower to turn a railroad dream into reality, seemed to have been an isolated contribution.  Since then she had been content to fade into the background—as much as that was possible for a woman of such arresting appearance.  Instead, she relished the role of wife, mother and wealthy socialite.  

Now as the meeting was about to start, she customarily excused herself, saying she wanted to go riding.

“I wish you’d stay,” Kathleen said. “I value your opinion, you know.  And you and Alex do own twenty per cent of the businesses.”

“I know, Mother.  But I trust Alex’s judgement.  Let him represent me.  Besides, Shamrock needs a run.  Bridget is down for her nap, so now’s a good time.”

Kathleen turned to Megan’s husband.  “Alex?”

He nodded.  “It’s all right.  I’ll brief her later.”

Megan walked out, and Kathleen watched her go with regret.  “I keep hoping she’ll change and want to be part of this, but I guess it’s just not who she is.  Well, to business.  What’s first on the agenda?”

 

Megan strode to the barn, eager to be astride her big stallion.  Her stable hand was off duty, so she set about the task of saddling Shamrock herself.  After bringing him in from the corral and giving him a thorough brushing, she set the saddle blanket on his broad back and then hoisted the big saddle on.  She reached under his belly to grasp the belly band, then brought the end of it up through the saddle ring.  She wound the band around through the ring several times, then, checking to see the horse wasn’t swelling up his belly as he sometimes did in hopes of keeping the band loose, she cinched it up.  Once it was tight, she stepped in front of the horse.  She leaned down and grasped one foreleg at the knee and pulled gently.  Shamrock obediently shifted his weight.  She pulled the leg up, stretching the horse’s belly skin forward to insure no loose skin was caught under the belly band.  Then she repeated the procedure with the other leg, checking the bottom of each hoof as she did so to insure Shamrock’s feet weren’t caked with mud.  Then she checked his hind feet.  Satisfied, she took the bridle and tapped the bit gently on Shamrock’s teeth until he opened his mouth and let her slide it in.  She gently maneuvered the bridle over his ears, and pulled the forelock of hair out from under the band across the top of his forehead. 

She led the horse out into the sunlight and was about to mount when she noticed the flap to one of her saddlebags was unfastened.  She pulled down on the strap to pull it through the buckle, and heard a faint rustle of paper.  Curious, she opened the saddlebag.

There was a letter inside.  The envelope was expensive paper, but it was wrinkled and bent, as if it had spent some time in someone’s back pocket.  Her name was written on the front.  A premonition made her heart start thumping.  After a moment’s hesitation, she tore open the envelope.  There was a short message inside, written on fine rice paper in a familiar hand, the same writing she had seen on the note in the box containing the opium pipe. 

Honorable Megan,

I hope the gift pleased you.  If you would like more,

come to the address  on the card.  It is best you come alone.

Your Friend,

Yuen Ling-Po 

There was a card enclosed on which were Chinese characters; below that was written a street address in English.  She had not kept the card Ling-Po had given her that dark night three years before, when he had pulled her off a dangerous Chinatown street just before she was going to be set upon by two muggers.  So she couldn’t be sure the address was the same.  It didn’t seem familiar. 

Megan was puzzled.  Though her family did a steady business with Ling-Po, shipping his goods to and from the Orient under the contract she had negotiated, the old trader himself had studiously avoided any direct contact, preferring to conduct business through intermediaries.  He had doubtless received a firsthand report of how enraged Kathleen had become when she found Megan deep in the bonds of opium after smoking it with him to close their deal. 

That had been fine with Kathleen, who had frostily declared she had no wish to meet him, and besides, didn’t want his blood on her hands.  Ben knew she wasn’t kidding, and made sure Kathleen steered well clear of any dealings they had with his organization.

But now he was making an overture to her.  Why?  It didn’t make sense.  She couldn’t imagine he would endanger his shipping contract by risking Kathleen’s wrath. Their business negotiations had been concluded with honor for both sides; there could be no imbalance there.  She felt ambivalent about him.  On the one hand, she had never quite come to terms with the fact that he had exposed her to opium, and with the subsequent yearning it had ignited in her.  On the other, there could be no doubt that he had saved her from a possibly horrible street crime when she had foolishly put herself in a vulnerable situation. 

She paced back and forth, turning the letter over in her hands, while Shamrock obediently shadowed her footsteps.  For three years she had successfully hid her desire for more of the drug.  They can’t know about this, she thought.  I can’t chance one of them coming across something like this letter.  Whatever he wants, I can’t allow Ling-Po back in my life.  I have to sever the connection once and for all.  She was going to have to see him one more time.  And she was going to have to go alone.

 

She worked Shamrock hard that day, flying fast along the bluffs, red hair streaming out behind her, grass whipping around the horse’s feet.  When they rested, she spent long moments staring out at the white sea foam, breathing deeply of the salt air, trying to wrap her soul around the vibrancy of being young and alive, to feel complete and satisfied, to strengthen her resolve against needing anything more.  She thought of how dear Bridget and Alex were to her. 

She waited until a week before the stockholders’ meeting, then decided it was time to put an end to the threat.  There was no way she was going after dark.  She would go in the middle of the day, when plenty of people would be around.  She took Bridget over to Danielle’s, as she often did when riding into town.  Alex was gone off somewhere with Ben and Kathleen, so the house was empty. 

She wasn’t going unarmed.  She didn’t have a gun, but Alex did, and he had made sure she knew how to use it.  She went upstairs to their bedroom and retrieved the big .44-40 pistol from its bedside table drawer.  The drawer had a hidden locking mechanism that prevented Bridget from opening it.  She checked the cylinder to make sure it was loaded.  It was.  Slipping it into her purse, she went downstairs, out to her stable where Shamrock had been readied by her stable hand.  Saying she would be back in no more than three hours, she rode off.  

She walked Shamrock all the way into town, resisting the big stallion’s desire to run.  He was a bundle of nervous energy beneath her, as if he could sense her tension.  He knows something’s up, she thought.  I don’t know how, but he knows. 

In San Francisco, Shamrock’s feet lifted high as she rode down the dirt streets, comforted by the number of people milling about.  As she entered Chinatown, it didn’t take her long to realize the address she had been given wasn’t the same one where she had last found Ling-Po.  Maybe he’s moved, she thought.  No, that was unlikely, given the size and elegance of the elaborate living quarters he had taken such pains to conceal.  Then a chilling thought occurred to her.  Maybe it’s not him at all.  Maybe someone else is using his name to attract me for some reason.  She reached down and reassuringly patted her purse, feeling the hard steel of the pistol within.  It’s probably not true.  Why would someone do that?  Then again, I don’t know why he would do it.  Well, I’ve come this far, and I know how to use this pistol.  There’s plenty of people around.  I’m going to see this through.

After a couple of turns, she came to the street listed on the card, and found the address in the middle of the block.  She slowed to a halt in front of the building, a nondescript structure that housed, according to the sign on the front in both Chinese and English, a general store.  She could see a variety of canned and packaged goods, and some hardware, through the dusty windows, along with small signs and cards with hand-lettered Chinese characters.  Megan knew Chinatown stores could be a front for almost anything, and didn’t let the plain storefront fool her.  She felt safer on Shamrock, so didn’t dismount, but could see no movement inside through the windows.  She noticed a broad alley to her right, and walked Shamrock over to it.  It was wide and clean, leading to a large dark opening at its back that she thought could be the front of a receiving warehouse for the store and surrounding buildings.  She saw no movement there either.  She glanced around at the streets, which contained a few Chinese who seemed to be ignoring her.  Taking a deep breath, she squeezed her legs into Shamrock’s side, urging him forward at a slow walk.  She brought the purse up closer to her hand.  The dark, silent space loomed ahead.  She came to a halt ten feet from the entrance.  There was still no sign of life.  She was about to turn away when a small Chinese man emerged from the black interior, walked a few steps toward her, and bowed low.  He was dressed in the dark, pajama-like clothes and cloth shoes common to the Chinese, with a small round hat atop his head. 

“Welcome, Honorable Megan,” he said, smiling.

“You know me?” Megan said.

The little man looked up at her, displaying yellowed teeth in a broad grin.  “Certainly, Missy.  Who does not?”

She frowned at him.  “You are not Yuen Ling-Po.  Where is he?”

The man’s smile grew even broader.  “I am here in his place, Missy.”

Megan was beginning to smell a rat.  She fished the card out of her saddlebag and thrust it at him.  “Did he send me this card?  Or did you?”

The man looked at the letter.  “The Honorable Ling-Po most certainly sent it, Missy.”

She regarded him coldly, a current of fear causing her neck to tingle.  “I don’t believe you.”

The little man bowed again.  “As you choose.  I mean no harm.  Perhaps you would care to partake of some most excellent ah-pin-yin[3] while you are here?”

“No,” Megan said severely.  “I’m through with that.  And I’m here to tell you I don’t want any more of these messages or gifts in my life.  Stay away from me, I mean it.  If there is any more of this, you will suffer dire consequences.  Do you understand?”

The man was all fawning compliance.  “Of course, Missy.  As you wish.”

“Good.  Now, I’ll be on my way.”  She turned Shamrock around— and saw to her dismay that high gates had been silently shut behind her, blocking off the alley from street view.  She thrust her hand into her purse, pulling out the pistol, ready to draw aim on the little man.  But when she turned back, he was gone.  Fighting rising panic, she turned Shamrock around in a circle, looking for a target. 

Suddenly four men waving blankets erupted through the gate and ran toward her.  Before she could stop him, Shamrock shied away and bolted into the darkened interior at the other end of the alley.  Coming in from bright sunlight, Megan could see nothing inside.  She whirled Shamrock around in a circle, knowing as long as she was still on the big stallion, she had a chance.  She could sense the movement of running figures around her.  Shamrock neighed in fright and confusion.  She had the gun in her hand, but couldn’t see well enough to take aim at anything.  Abruptly she felt hands on her left leg, pulling her down.  She thrust the gun across the saddle and fired.

A deafening roar filled the room, she heard a moan, and the hands fell away.  Her eyes had adjusted to the dark now, and she could see four men circling her, and one on the ground, his chest a mass of blood.  “What do you want?” she shouted.

“You, Missy,” one said. 

“Let me out, or I’ll shoot you all,” she answered.

“Can’t do that,” the same man said.  He threw a wadded up blanket at Shamrock’s head, causing the horse to back up in fear.  Megan fired at the man, but missed.  Shamrock reared up at the gunshot, and her head smashed into an overhead beam.  She tumbled to the ground, unconscious.

The men came at her.  But Shamrock wasn’t budging from his fallen mistress.  He stood near her prostrate form, ready to charge anyone who dared approach.  One man, thinking he could scare the horse off with shouting and arm waving, ran at him.  Two hooves smashed into his chest, and he flew backward, dead.

“Light the torches!” one of the others shouted.  Two flaming torches were quickly produced.  The men carrying them advanced slowly on Shamrock.

“Easy!” another said.  “We can’t let the horse get away.  Just back him off her.”

Shamrock didn’t budge for a moment, but then the fire waving a few feet from his muzzle became too much, and he whirled from Megan, running out into the alley.  To the dismay of the men, though, he didn’t stop there.  Running hard at the gates, he smashed through them and raced out into the street, reins trailing from his bridle.  In moments, he was out of sight.

“Damn!” one of the men said.  “This ain’t good.  If the horse heads home without her, it’ll raise the alarm.  We gotta move extra quick now.  Get her in the wagon and get down to the docks, fast.” 

In less than three minutes, the arena in which Megan had fought so desperately was empty.  There was seemingly no trace of her, of the men who had captured her, or the bodies on the ground.

 

Othniel Wanamaker was waiting at the docks as the wagon carrying a concealed Megan arrived.  “You’re way early.  What happened?” he said to the wagon driver.

“Change of plans,” said the man.  “She didn’t go for smokin’ opium again.  We had to get rough.”

Alarm spread across Wanamaker’s face.  “What do you mean?”  He reached into the wagon and pulled back the canvas cover of a box.  “Damn!  What did you do?  There’s blood on her head!  I said she was to be brought unharmed.”

“Best we could do,” the man said sourly.  “She’s still breathin’.  Considerin’ where she’s going, what does it matter?”

Wanamaker got close to the man, furious.  “It matters!” he shouted.  “She won’t bring a good price if she’s hurt.  Dammit, you bungled the job.”  He paced back and forth on the dock in anger.  “Well, there’s nothin’ for it now.  Get her on board, quick-like.  The sooner we all disappear, the better.”

The man looked at the unconscious Megan, an evil leer spreading across his face.  “By God, that’s one fine-lookin’ woman.  Never been close to somethin’ that beautiful. Wouldn’t never have no better chance to jump her bones.”  The two thugs with him gathered closer, smiling in agreement.

“Any man who touches her won’t live until sundown,” sounded an iron voice behind them.

Wanamaker and the three men turned.  The men he had hired were low-class brutes and gutter brawlers, but fear gripped them as they stared at the figure regarding them coldly. 

The man was tall and solidly built.  He was wearing a heavy seaman’s coat, and there was a red silk bandana around his neck.  A strong scar ran across his ruddy face from his left temple down to his jaw line.  He had gray eyes, curly black hair, and a gold earring in one ear.   A strong nose with an arched bridge sat above a mustache that flowed into a goatee.  One huge hand rested on the hilt of a dagger that was stuck under his broad belt.

As he looked at the men gaping at him, a cruel smile twisted his lips.  “I made a deal for a woman in top condition.  If you’ve hurt her beyond repair, I’ll hunt you down one at a time and cut out your liver.”

Wanamaker was shaking despite his best efforts not to show it.  If he’d made a deal with the devil in the person of Leatherwood, this had to be one of old Lucifer’s disciples.  “This here’s Cap’n Parmenter,” he told the three men, who had backed off from Megan a couple of paces.  “Now no more talk.  Get her on board.”    

  Megan never felt herself lifted from the cart in the covered box, and taken onto a fast opium clipper at dockside.  And she never felt the ship raise anchor and slowly sail from the harbor, out into the vast Pacific.   

  


[1] In the California legislature and the Nevada Constitutional Convention of 1864, propositions were drafted and lobbied for that would have awarded several million dollars to the railroad company that first reached the California-Nevada border.  These attempts to influence the continental railroad to use the Placerville wagon road route over the Sierras instead of the Central Pacific’s Dutch Flat wagon road were both defeated. 

[2] A San Francisco newspaper noted for its hostility to the Central Pacific Railroad in the early 1860s.

[3] opium

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