I have been living with the Connelly women, inside my mind, for eight years now. I have seen them through tears, travail, and ultimately, triumph. My matriarch, Kathleen, has made an amazing journey since I first met her eight years ago in the loft of that little farmhouse in Carrick on Shannon, Ireland, or just days later, when she put her foot down at the entrance to a ramshackle emigrant boarding house on the Irish coast and tearfully said “I want to go home”. At the time, I literally could not have imagined the adventures she would come to face, nor the strength of character she would so unfailingly display through all of them. She has gone from frightened immigrant to mother, gold miner, and matriarch of a great family. Daughter Megan has journeyed from spunky girl to rebellious teenager to impetuous but courageous diva. Adopted daughter Danielle was transformed from pitiful orphan to confident, steady, and brilliant businesswoman.
Sometimes it seemed the saga of the Connelly women was already written down somewhere, and I was merely discovering it to bring to the attention of the world. These women, who have taught me so much, are nearly as real to me as flesh and blood, and have had as great an impact on my life as most actual persons I have met.
Thus it is with great reluctance that, with this book, I bring their story to a close. The temptation to continue the saga is strong. But this is, after all, a trilogy, and herein is the third book. I have no doubt, however, that the courage, determination, and integrity shown by Kathleen, Megan, and Danielle will shine through in the lives of characters in books yet to come.
As for the adventures of Bridget, the fourth Connelly woman, you must look below . . .
“All shall be well, and all shall be well . . .
For there is a Force of love moving through the universe
That holds us fast, and will not let us go.”
—Julian of Norwich (ca. 1342-1413)
EXCERPT: PROLOGUE AND CHAPTER ONE
Off the Northern California Coast
The clipper ship Pride of Eire made her way south through rolling seas on a fair wind. Blue skies overhead held large fluffy clouds that looked down on her passage. Distant off to port was the coast of northern California. To starboard there was nothing, all the way to Asia.
Pride of Eire was a cargo ship bound for San Francisco, holds loaded with glacier ice from Alaska, milled lumber from the Pacific Northwest, and wheat, barley, and corn from the west coast of Canada. She was a Mackay clipper, and like her sister ships, she was rigged to achieve maximum speed in hard winds, and boasted a sturdy build for the taxing voyage around Cape Horn. She was 250 feet long, with three masts and a high ratio of length to breadth. She shipped a crew of 45, and was built in Boston in 1855, originally launched as the Pacific Flyer. She was old now, though, and the development of paddle steamers and other new craft had rendered her an anachronism. She was near the end of her life at sea, and due for retirement.
Captain Angus MacLeod leaned against the port railing, looking out over the sea in the late afternoon light. He took the carved ivory pipe from his teeth, tapped it against the railing, and fished in a jacket pocket for a refill of fresh tobacco. As he searched, he was joined by a young sailor, who leaned against the rail next to him, took a deep breath of the evening air, and smiled.
“G‘day, Cap’n,” seaman Andrew Yarrow said genially. “It’s a beautiful evening. We’re makin’ good time. I reckon we’ll be in San Francisco by mid-day tomorrow.”
“Aye, we should,” MacLeod answered. “It won’t come any too soon. It’s been a long voyage.” MacLeod, a big barrel-chested man with silver hair and a closely cropped white beard, had spent most of his life on the ocean, and had captained ships on all of the seven seas. Like every ship’s captain in the employ of Connelly-Wilson Shipping, he had been hand-picked by the Angel herself. And like Pride of Eire, he was due for retirement. Now, having found his tobacco pouch, he filled the pipe bowl, tamped it down, and lit the tobacco, shielding the match from the breeze with his cupped hands.
“I been doin’ good this voyage, ain’t I, Cap’n?” Yarrow asked, a thick lock of blond hair dipping down over his forehead from under his seaman’s cap.
“Aye,” MacLeod replied without turning his head. “You’ve done well enough.”
“Think I can make able seaman next year?” Yarrow asked.
“You get enough sea time in, I think there’s a chance.” MacLeod seemed distracted, glancing sternward as he spoke.
The young seaman followed his gaze. “Cap’n, I’ve noticed you been glancing astern now and then the last couple of days. You looking for something?”
“Aye.” MacLeod was silent then for a long moment; at first Yarrow didn’t think he was going to continue. Finally he spoke, voice heavy with reluctance. “We’re being followed.”
The boy turned his gaze back astern. “I’ve seen nothing since we left Portland, Cap’n. What makes you think so?”
MacLeod took the pipe from his teeth. “Forty years at sea, boy,” he said gruffly. “There’s a ship back there, all right. I could feel her just over the horizon before I could see her. I’ve caught a glimpse a time or two. It looks to be a dark vessel of some kind. More than that I can’t tell.”
Yarrow looked doubtfully out over the wake of the Pride of Eire. “Could it be they’re just on the same course, Cap’n? Ship traffic’s heavy on this route, after all.”
“Nay, lad. They’ve matched us tack for tack since I first spotted them. I smell trouble. But they seem content not to close with us, to hang back.”
“What they be waitin’ for?” Yarrow asked.
“I don’t know,” MacLeod said a deep frown on his face. Then he stuck the pipe back in his teeth and turned from the rail.
Pride of Eire sailed on south through the waning afternoon. Just after sunset, the steady wind that had driven them south for hours died away to virtually nothing. The sea became calm and flat as a lake. MacLeod tried various tacks to find a driving breeze, but Pride of Eire gradually slowed to the point they were barely making headway. To make matters worse, they were drifting into an enveloping fog.
MacLeod strode to the stern railing. After a moment, he turned to his First Mate. “Open the armory and arm the crew.” He peered astern. “They’ll be coming.”
The First Mate turned and barked an order to the Second Mate, who went below. In minutes every man who could be spared from sailing was armed and standing at the rail. They watched as the fog continued to thicken, and waited for they knew not what. All was silent save for the faintest of rustling in the canvas overhead and the gentle lap of water against the hull.
The black ship came at them out of a wall of fog less than 100 yards astern, and a few degrees to port. It was moving at an unimaginable speed, white bow wave boiling ahead of it. It was less than half the length of Pride of Eire, but its swiftness stunned the sailors watching its rapid approach with dismay.
“It’s a propeller ship!” MacLeod shouted. “Clear for action! All hands general quarters! Prepare to fire on my command.” I pray to God it doesn’t come to that, he thought.
The dark ship bore down on them like a seagoing express train from hell, angling in on the port side. No crew was visible on her deck, which was covered with concealing structures. As she drew alongside, three gunports opened up on her starboard side, and cannon erupted at point blank range, slamming into Pride of Eire with deafening impact. The big clipper ship staggered from the blows, and a hail of splinters from shattered wood raked the crew.
“Cap’n, there’s no one to fire at!” a seaman shouted in panic. There was still no one visible on the deck of the black vessel; it appeared unmanned, as if a ghost ship.
“Make ready nonetheless. Fire!” MacLeod shouted. Every man carrying a weapon cut loose on the propeller ship, but the light arms they were using had no visible effect on the superstructure. Then it was past and out of range, vanishing into the deepening twilight and fog.
A deadly silence settled over the ship. MacLeod, despite all his years at sea, years that included numerous encounters with pirates, was shaken. “Injury report, Mr. Graves,” he said to his First Mate.
Graves walked rapidly up and down the ship, checking with the crew. In less than a minute he returned to MacLeod. “No fatalities, Cap’n. A few injuries from flying splinters, some disorientation from concussion shock, some minor bleeding. We’ll have a few out of commission for a while.”
“Very well,” MacLeod said. “See to—”
“She’s coming back for another pass!” someone shouted.
The ship came at them again out of the fog at an even higher speed than before, a juggernaut of destruction. MacLeod watched in helpless horror as the black craft closed on Pride of Eire as she drifted helplessly in the gathering night.
“Be they pirates, Cap’n?” his Second Mate said.
“Can’t be,” MacLeod shot back. “Pirates don’t ply these waters. We’re but two miles off the coast of California, for God’s sake.”
“What’ll we do if they attack again?” a seaman said, voice tinged with fear.
MacLeod looked grimly at the approaching vessel. “Surrender,” he said.
The attacker lined up for a close pass to starboard. As it slowed and drew abreast, cannon ports snapped open and flame shot forth as three more cannonballs slammed into Pride of Eire. A huge geyser of water erupted skyward amidships as the ship shuddered from the impact.
“We’re holed at the waterline!” First Mate Graves shouted.
Worse was coming. A large salvo of flaming projectiles shot up from the dark ship, raining down over Pride of Eire. They landed in the sails and hit the deck from stem to stern. In seconds the clipper ship was ablaze in a dozen places.
“Cap’n, they ain’t pirates,” Andrew Yarrow shouted in panic. “They mean to kill us!”
“Aye, that seems certain,” MacLeod said sadly. He pounded the rail in frustration. “But why?” He barked orders and the shell-shocked crew scrambled to put out the fires as best they could.
Their mysterious attacker had once again disappeared into the darkness and fog. An eerie silence settled over the devastation, punctuated by moans from the wounded. The blackness was lit by flames from burning sails as Pride of Eire began to list to starboard. MacLeod looked around. Some of his crew were down, bleeding from flying objects or stunned from the impacts of the cannonballs. It took him only a few seconds to realize those still on their feet were fighting a losing battle. He called Graves over to him, ready to do something he had never done in all his years at sea.
“All hands on deck, Mr. Graves. Everyone to the boats and lower away. We’ll make for yon coast.”
“Aye aye, Cap’n,” Graves said. He turned and shouted over the din. “Abandon ship! All hands to the boats!”
But even that was to be denied them. The crew watched in horror as the dark ship appeared again. It sat still in the water this time, fifty yards off the port side. Its bow was pointed straight at them. As the crew watched, frozen with fear and indecision, two long projectiles shot out from holes on either side of the bow. They plopped into the water and headed straight for the stricken clipper ship.
“Torpedoes in the water!” Graves shouted. Everyone ran to the starboard railing, away from the approaching death. They barely reached the railing when Pride of Eire lifted skyward from two tremendous blasts. Huge chunks of wood flew through the air. The mainmast toppled to the deck, mangling crewmembers under a flaming tangle of sails and shroud lines. One of the boats fell into the sea. The other hung from the starboard railing by its bow. An even bigger explosion smashed the ship to pieces as grain dust in the hold exploded. A ball of fire swept over the mangled deck, sending seared seamen into the sea as Pride of Eire, her back broken, began a slow plunge to the bottom.
Andrew Yarrow was blown off the deck by the final blast from the hold, and found himself struggling to the surface in cold water laden with debris. He looked around in panic, heard the cries of the injured and dying. He spotted MacLeod on his back on a large section of decking twenty feet away. He swam over to him but even before he reached him he knew his Captain was dead. He felt dizzy. Aware of a warm wetness on his cheek, he reached up a hand and drew it back bloody. He was bleeding from the head. Struggling to remain conscious, he could see that twenty yards away the black death ship was slowly approaching. He was pretty sure that whoever was on board that ship—assassins who had still not revealed themselves—had been intent on killing everyone on board and were not there to rescue survivors. He let go of the decking containing MacLeod’s body and swam over to a nearby tangle of wood and shroud lines, ducking under it and surfacing beneath.
He was right. To his horror, the ship cruised slowly through the wreckage. Figures clad in black leaned over the railing. They were methodically shooting every survivor they came across. Cries for help, pleas for pity were ignored. Yarrow watched helplessly, unnoticed tears streaming down his cheeks. He wanted to shout out in protest, but had just enough presence of mind left to keep silent. Slowly the ship came his way, headed straight for his refuge in the wreckage. Shaking with fear, he lowered himself as far as he could into the water and prayed. The ship drew alongside. The figures held torches above him, probing the wreckage with long poles. One grazed his shoulder. With his head held back to get as low in the water as possible, his gaze was upward. For the first time, he could clearly make out the features on the faces of the attackers in the flickering torchlight. What he saw shocked him as much as anything that had yet happened.
Finally satisfied, the attackers bade the ship move on, gradually moving off into the darkness. Yarrow was left alone on the sea, bleeding and wracked with pain. Gingerly, he emerged from under the tangle of wreckage, swam over to a section of the mainmast floating nearby, and climbed on top. His ribcage felt like it was on fire, and he was sure something was broken. A terrifying silence settled over the carnage. He clung to consciousness, for how long he couldn’t tell, afraid he’d slip off the mast. Just before he passed out, he thought he heard the faint roar of surf in the distance. But he wasn’t sure.
San Francisco, California
The corporate headquarters of The Connelly-Wilson Companies took up one entire end of a city block on Market Street, in the heart of the city’s business district. At six stories high, it was one of the most impressive buildings in the district. Solid-looking—and solidly built—it boasted a handsome exterior consisting of Sierra granite and Italian marble on the ground floor. A granite staircase flanked with brass railings led up to the main entrance, where highly-polished oak doors set with hand-decorated glass panels waited to swing wide for those fortunate enough to have business inside. Upper floors were clad in a handsome facade of stone, expertly laid.
The building contained the main offices of Kathleen and Ben Wilson’s far-flung business empires. From there decisions were made affecting the shipping, ranching, and rail operations that had spread across California and the Pacific Ocean, all the way to Asia.
On the top floor was the corporate conference room, with a magnificent view of the harbor. It was paneled top to bottom with teak, stained and polished to a high sheen. Thick maroon carpeting inlaid with golden threads forming elegant swirl patterns covered the floor. In each corner were large ferns in enormous pots glazed with bright colors. Dominating the room was a long conference table of polished oak, with decorative teak inlays. One end of the table was slightly tapered on both sides, leading the eye inward to the large high-backed red leather chair that sat at that end.
Inside the room, twelve men were seated around that table in silence, looking occasionally at the empty red leather chair.
And they were waiting.
In the foyer outside the conference room, beyond the broad entrance doors that glowed with a soft sheen, a young woman, dressed in fine business attire, paced back and forth. She was of medium height, slender, with lustrous wavy black hair that hung slightly below her shoulders. Her complexion was pale, her skin smooth, with a narrow, finely wrought nose and sharply arched eyebrows. A delicately rounded jaw line led to lips that were beautifully formed but a bit thin, the only imperfection in her otherwise stunning beauty. But above all this, her most arresting feature was the color of her incredible eyes. They were an astonishing sky-blue with a touch of mauve, somewhat reminiscent of cornflowers. So light and pure in color were they that it seemed as if miniature puffy white clouds should be visible floating in each iris. Those eyes were a genetic gift from her grandmother, Kathleen Connelly Wilson, the legendary Angel of the Gold Rush. Her name was Bridget Daley.
She strode nervously from one end of the foyer to the other, occasionally shooting glances at an elegant gold watch hung on a chain about her neck. Her head snapped around as the door on the other side of the foyer opened and a middle-aged woman with flame-red hair entered.
Megan Daley looked nothing like her daughter. Forty-two now, her figure had not surrendered to the passing years and two more children. Generous breasts and hips were emphasized even more by a comparatively small waist. Her long hair remained defiantly free of gray, and her emerald-green eyes glowed with the joy of being alive. Now, as she entered the foyer with a flourish, she looked her daughter up and down.
“Mother, I’m late!” Bridget groused. “They’re waiting for me in there! Where have you been?”
Megan hugged her daughter and then drew back, giving her an approving smile, hands still on Bridget’s arms. “I’m sorry. But never fear, people will always wait for us Connelly women.” She winked. “Especially men.”
“You said you had something for me,” Bridget said impatiently. “That I wasn’t to go into the meeting without it.”
Megan smiled at her first child again and reached her hands up to the back of her neck. “Yes. And here it is.” She lowered her hands. In them was a necklace of worn beads.
“Your rosary necklace?” Bridget said.
“Yes, daughter. But it’s so much more than it appears. This necklace goes back farther than you could imagine. Oh, if it could talk!”
Bridget crossed her arms and sighed in irritation. “I have a feeling you’re going to tell me all about it.”
“Yes, I am.” A faraway look came into her eyes. “This necklace was originally a wrist rosary that belonged to your grandmother Kathleen. She brought it with her from Ireland in 1846, when she came over with your grandfather.” A fleeting look of pain crossed her face. “With Terry.”
“Mother . . .”
Megan gathered herself, shaking off the flicker of distress that gripped her every time she thought about her slain father. “Now,” she said, pressing on, “the reason this was a wrist rosary is that in your grandmother’s day in Ireland, the Irish were forbidden by the bastard English to publicly observe their religion. They couldn’t wear their rosaries in public, so they developed the wrist rosary, which could be hidden under long sleeves, but still worn. It was called an An Paidrin Beag. Mother gave it to me on my wedding day. She said it was a link to the old world and a symbol of both the struggle we encountered and the faith that got us to America—and to California.”
Bridget was silent, staring at the time-worn necklace and beads.
“Then,” Megan continued, “when I was kidnapped—you were five—I didn’t have it with me. Mother took it aboard Emerald Isle when she, Alex, and Ben came after me. She said she ran it through her fingers so often, it broke. She restrung it into a necklace, and gave it back to me when I was rescued.” At that she leaned forward, put her hands around her daughter’s neck, and fastened the necklace in place. She pressed it lovingly against Bridget’s chest. “No Connelly woman should be without it. Now you’re ready.”
Bridget looked down, fingers brushing the rosary necklace. “Thank you, Mother.” She bit her lip. “I’m still nervous.”
Megan gave her a disapproving frown. “Now, we didn’t send you to Wharton School of Business for nothing,” she admonished gently. “And graduating at the top of your class, no less! I know it’s the first meeting you’ve chaired, but I have faith in you. Besides, Danielle will be along soon to help you out.” She tenderly brushed a lock of Bridget’s ebony hair back into place. “And don’t fidget,” she said softly, placing her hands over Bridget’s, who had been twisting them in anxiety. Then she leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “Now. Go, and conquer.”
Bridget slowly turned from her mother and placed one hand on each of the brass handles of the doors to the conference room. Taking a deep breath, she pushed the doors open wide.
* * *
Earlier that day, as dawn broke along the Northern California coast at Eureka, two fishermen, father and son, crested a dune at the back of the beach to walk along the ocean in the early morning stillness. It was their habit, on the rare days they were not putting to sea to fish, to do so before setting about the day’s work mending nets or another of the tasks that kept fishermen endlessly busy.
They had not taken two steps down the face of the dune toward the water when they both stopped abruptly and stared in astonishment. The beach before them was strewn with wreckage for hundreds of yards. Large chunks of ship decking, masts tangled with shroud lines and stays, milled lumber, barrels, shreds of sails, and countless other debris large and small littered the sand or lay in the surf, incoming waves washing over it.
“Pa, it’s a ship!” the boy cried.
“Aye,” his father said grimly. “What’s left of one.”
“I thought I heard explosions out to sea last night,” the boy said. “Could that have been what brought this about?”
“Could have,” the man said. “We’d best go down there and look around. Though I’m afraid what else we might find.”
* * *
Bridget looked around the table of expectant men. Seasoned business professionals all, they represented every facet of the far-flung Connelly-Wilson empire. Most of them had been with the company for a long time, and had been chosen by the Angel herself when her fortune was new. More than a few had come up the hard way, starting as sailors, gold miners, merchants, and entrepreneurs of various kinds from the limitless variety of occupations represented in the early years of the raw California frontier. Though polite enough not to stare in her direction, she knew they were waiting for her to show she was in control. She also knew they were eminently used to seeing her Aunt Danielle, a master of business, in the chair she now occupied. For more than thirty years, there had never been anyone else.
Unseen beneath the table, she twisted the handkerchief in her lap between her hands and took a deep breath. “Mr. Tompkins,” she said to a silver-haired man three seats to her left, “your report, please.”
Tompkins, representative of the Connellys’ Nevada mining interests, shuffled a small stack of papers in front of him and began talking. Bridget listened attentively, occasionally taking notes on a large tablet in front of her. She methodically made her way through two more reports when Danielle quietly opened the doors at the opposite end of the room, came in, and settled into the chair at the other end of the table.
“My apologies for being late, Bridget, gentlemen,” she said softly. “I was unavoidably detained.” In truth, she had had no intention of being on time. She wanted Bridget to start the meeting and get the experience of being in charge for the first time. Now she flashed a gentle smile at the ebony-haired young woman. “Please do go on.”
Danielle was now forty-six. Her auburn hair was tinged with gray, but there was a gentle light in her gray-blue eyes, and she still moved her slender figure with the easy grace that had long made Frenchwomen so attractive to the rough frontiersmen. Her accent was still strong, and utterly charming.
She had given birth to two more children , a boy and a girl, since her near-disastrous breech baby in 1867, when Kathleen had had to reach deep into her womb to turn the baby around for safe delivery. The subsequent pregnancies were untroubled. She and her husband Robert Bradshaw, an attorney, owned the second-largest law firm in San Francisco, and the most respected. Between Robert’s legal expertise and Danielle’s incredible gift for corporate administration, they made a formidable team that had helped the various Connelly-Wilson enterprises prosper.
She had been on the job a long time, though, and the wear of years of staying one step ahead of competition and underhanded corporate predators such as, in the 1860s, the directors of the Central Pacific Railroad, had taken its toll. She always won, but had lately expressed a desire to her mother Kathleen that she would like to ease out of her responsibilities. To that end, when Bridget became old enough, they had sent her east to the finest business school they could find. Bridget had responded brilliantly, though keeping her happy so far from home had required regular trips east on Kathleen’s part, and some occasional shopping trips to New York.
Danielle remained silent as the various reports continued to be presented. Bridget outwardly looked calm, though Danielle could tell that underneath she was still on edge. The next report of the day was that of the shipping arm of the family businesses.
Bridget noticed that Levi Helms, a barrel-chested man with a neatly-trimmed white beard who was Vice President for Connelly-Wilson Shipping Ltd., looked grim. “How are things going out on the Pacific?” she said.
The man grimaced. “I have some distressing news. Pride of Eire didn’t make port yesterday.”
Bridget’s eyes widened slightly. “Did we receive a telegram confirming their departure from Portland when she left?”
“Yes. She was delayed there two days for repairs to the rudder, but departed in time to have made port yesterday around noon. She didn’t show. I’ve instructed staff to inform me immediately when she does.”
Bridget at last decided to bring Danielle into the conversation. “Danielle, what are your thoughts on this?”
Danielle pursed her lips momentarily, then spoke. “A highly unlikely event. Captain MacLeod is one of our best. He’s noted for making port on schedule. Perhaps they encountered more trouble and had to put in somewhere.”
They were interrupted by a young man who opened one of the big doors and advanced to the conference table, a piece of paper in his hand. He glanced briefly at Bridget, then walked to Helms and handed him the paper. Helms looked at it and his jaw clenched.
“What is it?” Bridget said.
Levi Helms slowly raised his head to look at her. “A telegram from the harbormaster at Humboldt Bay. They found considerable ship wreckage on the beach this morning. They were able to make identification of the source. Pride of Eire is believed lost with all hands.”
* * *
A mile south of Humboldt Bay and the wreckage of Pride of Eire, the beach of a small cove embraced a large log that, on closer examination, proved to part of a ship’s mast, entangled in shroud lines. It had washed up in the shallows during the night.
Two early morning hikers descending the cliff trail at the back of the cove were surprised to see the mast, then stopped in amazement at sight of a still figure of a young man nearby, half-buried in the sand. “Molly, look!” cried one, a girl wearing sturdy hiking boots underneath a long dress. She pointed with the long walking staff in her hand. “Someone is there, in the sand!”
Her similarly dressed companion, a girl with long light brown hair tied back in a ponytail, stopped short, mouth agape. “Ellie, he looks dead!” She shuddered. “I don’t want to get closer.”
“Nonsense,” Ellie replied. “We must. It is our duty; he may be alive. Come, I’ll go first.” She advanced slowly across the coarse sand toward the still figure, Molly walking behind and hanging on to her waist in fear. When she was a few feet away, Ellie tentatively reached out with her staff and gently poked the figure in the back.
They heard a faint moan. Ellie looked at Molly in shock. “He is alive!” she said. Still fearful, they bent down close. Ellie reached out a trembling hand and put it on the figure’s shoulder. He slowly turned over and they jumped back a few feet. They could see he was a young boy. His eyes opened faintly and he tried to say something, but could not.
“The poor dear!” Molly said. “He must be a shipwreck victim. I suppose he washed up here during the night.”
“Well,” Ellie said firmly, “there‘s nothing for it but that we must help him. One of us has to go get help. But first, give me your water flask.”
Molly handed a deerhide-covered flask to her, and Ellie gently raised the boy’s head and poured a bit of water on his lips. He felt the welcome fresh water, opened his mouth, and took a swallow.
“Not too much at first,” Ellie said, moving the flask away. “We’ll get help for you. Can you tell us your name? Can you tell us what happened?”
The boy struggled to focus his eyes, then managed to croak out a reply before passing out again. “Chinese. They were Chinese.”
* * *
Deep in the hills of the Coast Range along the northern California coast, a Chinese man approached a large house hidden in the trees. Recognized by the guards at the fortified entrance to the walled compound around it, he was admitted through massive gates which swung shut behind him. With no small amount of trepidation, he walked along the gravel path toward the imposing structure before him, the crunch of his footsteps in the gravel the only sound, other than the ever-present sigh of wind through the tall trees.
The structure itself looked strangely out of place in the remote forest. It was built of logs and milled lumber, but the roofline showed distinct Oriental touches. Plants and trees native to China dotted the grounds. As he approached the staircase leading to the lacquered, ornately carved front doors, the doors swung open and a small Chinese man in a white silk jacket beckoned him inside.
“Madame awaits your report,” he said.
“Yes,” the visitor said. “Show me to her at once.”
“This way, please,” the servant said, turning away. “She is in her study.”
The visitor followed silently, aware of a mist of perspiration breaking out on his forehead and the thumping of his heart in his chest. An audience with his employer was never something he looked forward to, even when he brought good news, as he did now.
The white-jacketed servant reached tall doors that glowed with the sheen of lacquer applied over the natural wood color. He grasped a brass handle and swung the doors open.
The visitor entered. He heard the doors click shut behind him with silent precision.
A slender, older woman with Asian features sat at the far end of the room, lounging sideways in a large chair of maroon polished leather. Before her was an antique desk of oriental design. Her hair was gray and cropped closely about her head. She was dressed in an elegant red silk cheongsam from neck to ankles. It was embroidered lavishly in gold thread, and peacocks with ruby eyes foraged down its length. In her hand she held a cigarette in a long silver holder, smoke curling upward from it into the still air of the study. The face was wrinkled but the eyes glittered with dark purpose. Her gaze was on him the instant he entered.
He suppressed a shudder at sight of her.
No one knew how old she was. She refused to say. Nor did anyone know her real name. It was doubted that it was the one she had given them. Her past was for the most part a mystery to those in her employ. She revealed only what she chose. She paid well for services rendered, but had little use for failure, and none at all for disloyalty.
It was known that she was not always in good health. She was occasionally beset by mysterious fevers and abdominal pains, sometimes so severe she couldn’t stand. On those days she was carried to her study, and saw to her affairs in tormented silence. Some said she kept herself alive purely on hate, others said it was by secret potions she concocted late at night in a private room. It was no secret she made powerful poisons in that room. Everyone around her feared she might use them if something displeased her. It was rumored that the long, sharp fingernails of her right hand were coated with one of the poisons, and that one rake of those nails across the cheek of an offender would produce instant death. But that was just a rumor.
She seemed to have no interests other than a relentless vengeance she doggedly pursued, the origin of which she shared with very few. For all her considerable wealth, she rarely ventured outside the big house. Most of the time, she sat in her study in the great chair, like a spider at the center of her web, and invited a select few in, looking at them as if deciding whether to devour them.
Now, as her visitor entered, he saw she was not alone. Standing inconspicuously in the corner, hands clasped behind him, her silent and deadly-looking bodyguard stood impassively watching. He was dressed in a black jacket and pants, and dark cloth shoes.
The visitor approached her chair and bowed. Despite his efforts to control himself, he licked dry lips. “Madame, I bring good news,” he said in Chinese, still bowed.
“Rise up,” the woman replied in Chinese, voice dry as the rustling of autumn leaves on the forest floor. “Make your report.”
“The mission was accomplished as planned,” the visitor said. “Pride of Eire went down off the coast at Humboldt Bay. Destruction was complete.”
The woman at last moved from the position she had held since his entrance. Turning to face him directly and leaning forward over the desk in front of her, her gaze burned into him. “There were no survivors?”
“None,” the man answered. “The new weapons worked well.”
“And our ship? Was it damaged?”
“Only superficially, Madame. It has returned to its hidden location for refueling and reloading.”
“Hmm.” The woman inhaled slowly from the cigarette holder, blew out a cloud of smoke, and rose from her chair. She walked casually around the desk and stood gazing out the large windows that looked over the forest. “This would seem to be good news,” she said, “and yet—” she paused and turned to look at him again—“I sense a discomfort in your voice. Is there something else you wish to report?”
The man’s insides twisted. He had failed in his effort to hide his torment. There was nothing to do now but confess. “Madame, I—I,” he stuttered, “it is just that—”
She looked down the length of her cigarette holder, drawing in another breath and blowing it out in his direction. “Tell me.”
“Madame, the loss of life. Forty-five sailors killed!” He hung his head. “Some of them as they begged for mercy. It was most distressing. I will never forget the sounds of their cries. Why did we do this?”
The woman walked along in front of the windows with the disarming grace of a stalking tigress. “I do not find it necessary to explain myself to underlings. But you are new, so I will tell you. This mission was the consummation of a vow I took many years ago—a vow of eternal vengeance against a family of barbarian women. They are known as the Connellys—a mother and two daughters. There is another woman, a Chinese traitor known as Li Fanfan. They wronged me grievously.” She raised a hand to her abdomen as if in sudden pain. “My birthright as a woman of noble lineage was destroyed. My life as Second Mistress to a man of wealth and power was taken from me. Instead, I find myself here among barbarians, far from the shrines of my ancestors, bereft of respect, ignored, unappreciated.” Mei Li Kang turned to face him, eyes burning with ferocity. “I will not rest until the Connelly women and Li Fanfan are dead!” She was trembling with rage. “And until all that they have built is destroyed—or belongs to me.”
She walked slowly up to him, stopping less than an arm’s length away, then raised her right hand to his face. “I have another task for you. You will be well paid, as you were for this one. But your emotion concerns me.” She caressed his cheek with the back of her hand and looked at him with cold black eyes. “Must I find a replacement?” she cooed softly.
He could feel the hardness of her nails against his skin. It took every ounce of self-control he could muster to keep from fleeing in terror. He knew what being replaced in her organization meant. Once taken in, there was no out. He trembled slightly, eyes wide. “No, Madame. You may trust me to do as you ask.”
She smiled ever so slightly and lowered her hand. “Good. Now,” she said, taking a folded paper from a pocket near her waist, “here is your next target. Pursue it as soon as our ship is ready. Do not come back until you report to me that it has been destroyed.”
“Yes, Madame,” he said, taking the paper, bowing, and backing away from her, nearly dizzy with relief. In seconds he was out the doors, which closed behind him at the hand of the servant.
Mei Li Kang stared at the doors for a few seconds, then turned to speak over her shoulder to her bodyguard. “He is weak. Have him watched.”
* * *
Bridget was frozen in shock as she looked at the telegram. Danielle could see that she was pale, even for someone who studiously avoided the sun. She looked around the conference table in mute helplessness, then turned wide eyes to her aunt.
Danielle knew it was time to take over. She turned to Levi Helms. “Send an investigative team to Humboldt Bay immediately. If it is Pride of Eire, have them collect and secure whatever items from the wreck can be salvaged.” She paused and took a deep breath. “If any bodies are found, have them prepared as best as can be done up there, and shipped back to San Francisco. We’ll see to it they receive proper burial here with appropriate ceremony. The families of the victims are to be fully compensated, according to company policy. My husband will see to any other obligations arising from this tragedy, legal and otherwise. And Levi,” she said, walking over to him, “telegraph your initial findings as to cause, at the earliest opportunity. I want to know what happened. I will know what happened.”
“You can count on it, Mrs. Bradshaw,” Helms said.
She turned to the rest of the assembled men. “Gentlemen, this meeting is over. If there are any of you that did not get to present your report, my apologies. Leave it with me and I will look it over. In light of present circumstances, the next meeting may be scheduled early on short notice. Expect a telegram.”
The men got up slowly and filed out. When the last had gone and the door shut softly behind him, Danielle turned to Bridget. She was still seated, head down and silent. The tracks of tears were on her cheeks. Danielle walked over and put an arm around her. “I’m sorry, “ she said. “This isn’t what I wanted to have happen at your first meeting. You knew Captain MacLeod, didn’t you?”
Bridget nodded. “He was an old friend of Mother’s. He took me sailing out on San Francisco Bay once. I was ten.” She suddenly looked up, face twisting in anguish. “Oh Danielle, I didn’t know what to say to those men!”
Danielle lovingly brushed the hair back from Bridget’s face. “You will, in time. Never forget you’re a Connelly. The blood of the Angel runs in your veins. Not to mention your mother’s blood, also one of the toughest women I know, when she has to be. As for me, now I have to figure out what to say to your grandmother.”
Three days later, the Connelly-Wilson cargo ship El Dorado sailed north off the California coast not far south of Oregon Territory. Bound for Portland, her holds carried supplies for the Alaska trade. As the sun set over the Pacific near Crescent City, the captain tacked to port to distance himself from the coast for the night. The ship had barely lost sight of land when, in the gathering dusk, a dark ship appeared off to starboard. It moved toward El Dorado with surprising speed.
* * *
A small, slender woman stood on a bluff above Pacific breakers in the afternoon sunlight. Her long hair was mostly gray, but still showed some traces of the ebony it had once been. Her skin was pale and smooth, spread over fine, aristocratic features. A strong jaw line jutted below a sharply-defined mouth. Lips that were a bit too thin were the only imperfection in the beauty that had not been lost to time. And underneath arched eyebrows the feature that stopped strangers in their tracks was as bright as ever: eyes of incredible sky-blue. Her expression radiated a serenity and air of command that would not be denied. Sooner or later, all had bent to her will, or to her generosity.
Kathleen Connelly-Wilson, the legendary Angel of the Gold Rush, had defied her doctor’s predictions following her stroke in 1867, that she was living on borrowed time. She had endured for another seventeen years, though at her husband Ben’s insistence she had retired from public life. As always, Ben was the only one she would obey when she was doing too much. And no one doubted that Ben’s ability to keep her volcanic temper in check had added years to her life. He would place his hands on her arms, put his square, handsome face close to hers, and tell her firmly to back off. As always, she would comply. And, as always, others would marvel, for no one else had the slightest influence on reigning her in.
Her legend still lingered among the remnants of the Northern Paiute tribes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. She was ghost, devil-woman, spirit who could not be killed. Tales were still told of the times they had tried, and failed. Of the time she confronted an entire village of armed warriors with such powerful medicine that she had defied them all. Of the time an arrow was shot into her chest, and still she refused to die, wreaking bloody vengeance on a great Paiute warrior amid the winter snows. Of the powerful devil-children she had brought into the world. A new generation of Paiutes had been born and grown to adulthood since she first appeared in their lands, and still she endured. But they had not seen her in decades, had not seen her grow visibly older, and so the notion that she was immortal lived on.
Her legend lingered, too, in the gold rush country east of Sacramento. Taggart Memorial Hospital, which she had founded, still existed, though the portrait of her that had once graced its walls had long since disappeared. And the legend of Wesley Taggart himself, and his encounter with the Angel, had been passed on to new generations of gold-seekers. Around campfires late at night, on the banks of the American River, it was told how Kathleen Connelly, comforting the dying Wesley Taggart, had transformed herself into something so angelic that Taggart, in his last moments, was sure his dying wish to make it to heaven had come true.
She had long ago turned over the day to day operations of the Connelly-Wilson empire to her adopted daughter Danielle. Danielle—brilliant, calm, and rock-steady—was more suited to the task than Kathleen would ever have been.
All this meant little to Kathleen now, as she spent most of her time enjoying her children and grandchildren, and reflecting on the beauty of each new day. The Sacramento Valley summer heat had become too much for her. So early each spring, she came to San Francisco and stayed in the bluff top homes of daughters Megan or Danielle, taking long walks on the beach with Ben, or occasionally alone. Sometimes she merely sat near the edge of the bluff looking out to sea, exhibiting a serenity that her family had never expected.
This was how Danielle found her now, calling out to her with forced cheerfulness as she strode through the long grass toward her.
“Hello, daughter,” Kathleen said, rising to meet her. She embraced the Frenchwoman warmly. “What news?” She drew back, and cocked her head slightly to the side.
Danielle seemed reluctant to end the embrace. “You know, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Kathleen replied. “Let’s walk.”
They turned north along the edge of the bluff, sea breeze teasing at their hair in the afternoon light. “Angus MacLeod was an old friend of mine,” Kathleen said after a few moments. “He was one of my original captains when we founded Connelly-Wilson Shipping. He captained Emerald Isle for a few years after Theophilus Rowan retired. He was nearly like a grandfather to Megan. It’s hard to believe he’s gone.”
“Oui,” Danielle replied, slipping into French as she still did at times, usually when she was tired or feeling great emotion. “I was so busy with the companies I never got to know him like she did. But I know he was a good man.” She paused, then continued. “Like the other forty-four souls on Pride of Eire. A great tragedy.”
“Yes. It breaks my heart. Do you have any thoughts as to the cause?”
“No,” Danielle replied. “The telegram from Humboldt Bay mentioned only many pieces of a large ship washed up on the beach. One small piece had the words Pride of Eire emblazoned on it. There were a lot of burn marks on other pieces. Something very powerful broke that ship up. What didn’t sink washed ashore.”
“How very sad,” Kathleen murmured, looking out over the sea. She turned back to Danielle. “How did Bridget react?”
Danielle looked grim. “Not well. She couldn’t continue the meeting; I had to step in and take over. She was at a loss for what to say.”
Kathleen frowned. “That doesn’t sound like a Connelly woman. I know this was her first meeting, but she’s going to have to be tougher than that.”
Danielle appeared pensive. “Perhaps we were mistaken in our belief that she is ready to take the helm.”
They had come to a gnarled cherry tree that clung stubbornly to the edge of the bluff top. Alone on the grassy expanse of bluff, it had taken root many years before and defied the salt air and ocean breezes to grow and mature, if in twisted fashion.
Kathleen walked under the overhanging branches bright with pink blossoms and tenderly touched its trunk, then reached overhead. She gently touched one of the blossoms, then brought a couple of petals down into the palm of her hand. “This tree is so special to me,” she said, as if to no one in particular. “I call it my Beacon Tree. It’s like a bright light shining forth, telling me that spring is here. It’s one of the reasons I come over from Sacramento when I do. When I see these blossoms, I know it is truly spring.” She leaned against the trunk and looked out over the foaming breakers below. “Bridget will be all right,” she said softly. “I have faith in her. She is my blood.”
Two days later, Kathleen and her family were gathered on the front porch of Megan and Alex’s large Victorian house on the bluff top above the Pacific. Danielle’s house was nearby. Ben had designed and built both of them as wedding presents when Megan and Danielle were married in a double wedding ceremony. Kathleen and Ben usually split their time between the two houses when on the coast. San Francisco’s downtown was visible off in the distance.
Kathleen tenderly regarded the sources of the noisy chaos around her. There were Megan’s two sons, Hal, sixteen, and Patrick, twelve; and Danielle’s younger children, Renee, thirteen, and Robert Jr., eleven. Her oldest grandchildren, Robert and Danielle’s first child, Andre, sat on the porch with the rest of the adults, as the other children frolicked in the grass around the porch.
“I am so blessed to live to see all of this,” Kathleen said to no one in particular. She reached up to take tea and a sweetcake from a tray offered by Danielle’s house servant, a young Chinese woman named Jie Ying. “Thank you, Jie,” she said, smiling. “Make sure the children get one cake apiece.”
Megan smiled and leaned forward from her recliner to squeeze her mother’s arm. “You are no more blessed than we are to still have you here, Mother.”
“Ben has seen to that,” she said, looking up lovingly at her husband standing behind her chair. “He’s the reason I’m still here.”
“Nonsense,” Ben chided. “The truth is, you’re too stubborn to give up.”
“I don’t like this line of talk,” Danielle put in. “Let’s speak of something else.”
“As you wish, daughter,” Kathleen said. “What news from Humboldt Bay?”
Danielle frowned. “Mother, can’t we stay off business for a while? The family is all here.”
“This is much more than business, daughter. Forty-five good men and true perished. I have already had four of their widows come to visit me, pleading for relief. The memorial services are wearing on me. I want to know what happened. It must not happen again.”
Danielle sighed. “I’ve had no messages from Levi Helms since two days ago. At that time he was still baffled—”
That was as far as she got as they were interrupted by the sound of hoof beats coming up the path to the front side of the house. A young boy spurred his horse around the house and up to the porch. He quickly dismounted and walked up to the bottom of the porch steps.
“Telegrams for Mrs. Bradshaw,” he said, holding out two small squares of yellow paper.
“I’m Mrs. Bradshaw,” Danielle said, stepping forward. The boy thrust the telegrams into her hand. “Thank you,” she said, reaching into her pocket and fishing out a coin, which she pressed into his hand. He tipped his cap, strode to his horse and mounted up, and was quickly gone around the house, his horse’s hoof beats fading into the distance.
“Open it, Danielle,” Kathleen prodded, as Danielle stood staring at the paper in her hand as if afraid to do so.
“Very well,” she murmured. She took the telegram on top out of its envelope and scanned it. Kathleen saw her mouth fall open in dismay and her eyes grow wet with tears as her hands trembled and slowly fell to her side.
Kathleen strode to her in two big steps and snatched the telegram from her hand. She raised it close to her face, then thrust it back, attempting to bring it into focus without her reading glasses. She read it, brow furrowed.
Ben saw her put a hand to her mouth and turn deathly pale as she swayed on her feet. He put his arm around her as she leaned into him and turned her face to his, tears coursing down her cheeks.
“It’s the El Dorado,” she murmured. “She’s lost with all hands. Oh dear God.”
All the people on and around the porch fell silent in shock as Kathleen buried her face in Ben’s chest. Then she pulled back, eyes suddenly wide, her expression gone hard. Her mouth tightened. “These sinkings,” she said, trembling with sudden anger, “they’re no accident.”
Everyone remained frozen in speechless grief except Megan, who stooped and picked up the other telegram Danielle had dropped when she read the first.
“There is a second telegram,” she said, opening the envelope with shaking hands. “I’m afraid to read it.” She silently did so. Then she raised her face to the expectant group, eyes wide with amazement. “A survivor has been found from Pride of Eire.”
Bridget looked out the window at the sea as the horse-drawn coach made its way up the rough dirt road toward Humboldt Bay. Beside her Kathleen sat in pensive silence next to Ben, and across from them Megan and Alex made small talk. They had departed San Francisco by train, riding the rails as far north as they went, then switching to the coach to complete the journey.
The survivor they had been telegraphed about had apparently been cared for in an isolated cottage for two days, too ill to move, until news of the shipwreck a mile north had reached his caretakers and they had sent word of his existence. Kathleen and family had thrown traveling clothes together and made a hasty departure northward in hopes of interviewing him.
Bridget had said little on the trip, morose over her inability to face the tragedies with the strength she felt she should have. She couldn’t imagine chairing one of the board meetings now. Megan was obviously simmering with anger and didn’t hide it, but Kathleen was uncharacteristically quiet. Bridget knew her well enough to realize she was churning inside, and that sooner or later the rage would boil over—with deadly consequences for the guilty.
After three hours of tedious lurching along the road, with periodic rest stops for man and horse, they approached the small town of Eureka. The horses pulled the coach down the dirt main street, then up a side street and finally stopped at a modest building with shiplap siding. There was a sign above the entry with the word HOSPITAL. The party descended stiffly from the coach and wearily climbed the steps to the main entrance. Inside the entry, they were greeted by a woman who identified herself as Mrs. Llewellyn, a caretaker of the ill and injured.
“That often doesn’t involve all that much around here,” she said wryly. She was a stout grandmotherly type with gray hair tied up in a neat bun at the back of her head, and rosy cheeks that seemed out of place in the dreary surroundings. She wore a large white apron over a gray dress. “There’s precious little to treat the patients with, I’m afraid,” she continued. “I just make do with what I can come up with, and hope they can hang on until the circuit doc comes up the coast from San Francisco. But enough of that. I should introduce you to one of the women who brought your man in. She’s been waiting for you.”
From the corner of the room, a young woman approached them, hand extended. “I’m Ellie Stanton,” she said, smiling. She was slender, with dark brown hair gathered around her head in a bouffant fashion, and eyes that sparkled. “I’m so sorry word didn’t get to you sooner. My friend Molly and I live up in the woods each summer with Molly’s mother, in a rather isolated cabin a couple of miles south of here. The young man we found on the beach couldn’t tell us anything that made sense. He was so weak we spent all our time caring for him, and didn’t give a thought to coming into town for a couple of days. Then we found out about the shipwreck. We had him transported here, and got the telegram out at the earliest opportunity.”
“We’re profoundly grateful for what you and your friend have done,” Kathleen said. “We’ll see that you’re well compensated for your trouble.”
“It was no trouble,” Ellie said, grinning. “Truth to tell, it’s the most excitement we’ve had all year.” She pursed her lips and looked down. “I’m sorry. Of course, I know it’s a terrible tragedy. But you didn’t journey all this way to talk to me. Come, you need to see him.” She turned to the caretaker. “With your permission, Mrs. Llewellyn.”
“Yes, go ahead, I think the company would strengthen him. I told him they were coming last time he was awake.” She turned to the visitors as they walked. “He may be asleep now. He’s got cracked ribs and was badly dehydrated and suffering when found. He’s still pretty weak”
They all went down a short hallway and turned into a sparsely furnished room. There was a small table, two chairs, an oil lamp, and a bed near a single window. On the bed was a young man, eyes closed.
“He’s just a boy!” Megan said.
“An apprentice seaman, perhaps,” Kathleen said. “Let’s see if he’s able to talk.” She went to one side of his bed and leaned over slightly. Bridget went to the other side.
Stirring at the sound of strangers’ voices, Andrew Yarrow slowly opened his eyes. He sensed someone close to him and turned his head to one side. A face surrounded by long wavy hair looked down at him. The face had fine aristocratic features, smooth pale skin, a beautifully formed jaw line—and stunning eyes such as he had never seen, of extraordinary sky blue. Momentarily taken aback by the intensity of their gaze, he turned his head to the other side—and saw the same face staring at him. The woman was on the other side of the bed as well.
“I’m still sick,” he moaned. “I’m seeing double again.”
Mrs. Llewellyn came forward and put a hand to his forehead. “No, dear, you’re not feverish. There really are two of them. Take another look.”
Andrew turned his head slowly from side to side, gradually realizing that one of the women had gray hair, and one, hair of deepest black. Then it hit him like a thunderbolt, and he flinched, eyes wide. He was in the company of the legend—the Angel, and her clan. “Missus Wilson!” he gasped. “Oh mum, I’m so sorry.” He turned his head to the other side. “And—and this must be your granddaughter Bridget.”
“Yes, I’m Bridget,” the younger version said soberly.
“Missus Wilson,” he said, face twisting into a tearful grimace, “I’m so sorry. All those men. Captain MacLeod. I—I—”
Kathleen leaned forward and put a comforting hand on his arm. “It’s all right. We don’t blame you. I’m sure there was nothing you could have done. Now, young man, what is your name?“
“Andy Yarrow, mum.“
“Can you tell us what happened? Something blew Pride of Eire apart.”
Mrs. Llewellyn brought in three more chairs, which still left them one short. Ben offered one to Kathleen as Megan and Ellie Stanton took seats, but she declined.
“I’ll stand,” she said. “I’m too tense to sit.” She nodded at Andy to begin.
He told them, in halting fashion, of the approach of the dark ship, and the following nightmare on the water. “We thought they might be pirates at first, mum, but these aren’t pirate waters.” He paused, tears forming in his eyes. “Pretty quick we knew they wasn’t pirates. They meant to kill us.” He went on to describe the merciless passes of the dark ship as it pounded Pride of Eire into scrap, then the enormous explosion that blew him into the water.
“They came about and shot all the survivors. Not one was left alive. Men begged for mercy, and they shot ‘em anyway,” he sobbed, crying now. “Oh, Missus Wilson, I wish I’d been done away with too.”
Kathleen leaned down and stroked his wet cheeks. “Nonsense. We’re glad you survived. But you said you saw no one on board the ship. Did you ever get a look at any of them?”
Andy gathered himself and raised up on his elbows, wiping away tears with his right hand. “That’s the strangest thing of all, mum. When they came around killing all the survivors, I hid under some floating wreckage. I got a good look at their faces when they went right past me. I couldn’t hardly believe what I saw.”
“What did you see?” Kathleen said.
“They were Chinese, mum.”
Kathleen’s expression froze. Then her eyes widened ever so slightly, and she slowly straightened up and turned away to the window. For long silent moments she looked out toward the sea while everyone else in the room glanced at each other apprehensively. Finally they saw her head drop for a moment. Then she raised her chin up and turned to the others with excruciating slowness. Her face had gone ashen, her expression stricken with pain. She stared at them in silence, seemed about to say something, then put a hand to her head, swayed, and started to topple forward. Ben, who had sensed something profoundly wrong, caught her and lowered her into a chair. Dazed, she looked up at him, then at the rest. “It’s Mei Li Kang,” she said. “She’s back.”