The shack had no door. Nothing. Not even a cloth covering. Steps away from the hotel's threshold and built with the roughest of planks, the structure listed a bit to the left.
Rachel missed Lissa's abrupt halt, bumped into her back, then had her own heels trodden by Michael.
With a flourish of his hand, Mr. Parker indicated entrance into "the best place in town."
None of them moved.
Glancing from one to the other, he cleared his throat. "Perhaps I should light a lantern first."
He disappeared through the doorframe, and light spilled forth almost immediately. She heard the unmistakable sound of objects being shuffled to and fro before their host reappeared. Again, he indicated entrance. "Please."
She nudged Lissa, and the three of them filed in. Scarcely registering the crackle of the straw-covered floor beneath her feet, she gave the ten-by-twelve room a quick perusal.
A giant bedstead took up most of the room, so solid and heavy it must surely have been pieced together at that very spot. A hodgepodge of materials and old clothing stitched in haphazard fashion formed its tick. No pillows. One small blanket. And a deep indention from where its owner had last slept.
Her gaze shied away and moved to a fireplace built of stones and mud. She'd never seen a chimney finished off inside a room, yet layers of stones, rough sticks, and rude mortar reached clear to the ceiling. The mantel, considered the crowning glory of a parlor back home, was no more than a beam of raw wood covered with strips of ready-made tin cans--cut open and laid flat, labels of their former contents still intact.
Mr. Parker had set their valises beneath a window, or rather, a two-foot hole in the wall. He now grabbed some flint and began to light the pre-laid kindling situated in the fireplace. "The washstand is there in the corner. I'll show Michael where to fetch some fresh water."
Rachel turned to the corner, noting an empty vegetable bowl sitting atop a trunk with a common dining pitcher in place of a ewer. "I see," she murmured.
A warped piece of wood nailed to the wall held an assortment of books. Fashion plates from magazines hung about the room, offering a bit of decoration. Women with impossible waists and miraculous bosoms dominated the collection.
Michael drifted to a little round table flanked by a pair of spindly chairs, a chessboard decorating its top. Picking up a chess piece, he examined it, turned fiery red, then quickly set the piece down.
Mr. Parker chose that moment to finish his task. "Do you play chess, Michael?"
"Um, yes, sir. Um, some. I'm, um, I'm not very good at it, actually."
"Well, we'll have to play us a game."
Michael nodded, looking as if he'd swallowed his tongue.
"If there is nothing else, then, Miss Van Buren, I really need to get back to the hotel."
The fire popped, though its warmth had not yet permeated the shack. Rachel summoned the energy for a polite smile. "Of course. You've been far too generous already. I don't know what to say nor what we would have done."
He nodded. "Not at all."
"Michael? Why don't you go ahead and have Mr. Parker show you where to fill the ewer." She lifted her brows. "If that is acceptable, that is?"
Michael grabbed the pitcher and followed Mr. Parker out the doorway, the contrast between brawny man and skinny boy striking Rachel anew and reminding her again her young brother was quite without a father to guide him in his ways.
The unique blend of their voices, one deep, one all over the scale, drifted into oblivion before the sisters turned to each other.
"There's no door and no window covering," Lissa exclaimed. "Whatever are we to do?"
"I guess we'll be safe enough. At least that seemed to be the consensus." Rachel eyed the open doorway and window. "It might be prudent to look for a spare cloth to drape over them, though."
"Was the shack leaning or was it my imagination?"
"Shadows, I think."
"Um." Lissa scrunched up her nose. "The chimney's inside the house."
Rachel looked at the mess of mud and stones. "Well, not entirely. The flue still goes up through the roof, and it looks to be working properly."
"But have you ever?" Lissa moved to the fireplace, examining the tin-covered mantel. "Seems your Mr. Parker is partial to peas."
"He's not my Mr. Parker and it was extremely kind of him to offer up his room."
"Is his family back east?"
She began to unbutton her coat. "He's unmarried."
Lissa blinked. "But look at that bed. Why, all three of us will easily fit on it. Whatever would he need with such a large bed if he hasn't a family?"
Frowning, Rachel studied the mammoth structure. "I'm not really sure, but I'm too tired to think."
She considered the window without panes or drapes, the entry without door or lock. She bit the inside of her cheek. The safety and security of her family now rested on her shoulders. And the best she could do was rely on a total stranger.
* * *
Something was different. Rachel opened her eyes to sunshine and a room that didn't sway like a ship. All came rushing back. The muddy city, the appalling excuse for a hotel, the rough patrons, the decadent statue, the young boy who lost his fortune, the hotel owner who held it.
A bit confounding, that. A man who would fleece a young boy of gold, yet would give up the use of his home to a pitiful group of orphans.
She noted Michael at some point had moved to sleep by the fireplace, leaving the bed to Lissa and her.
The articles of clothing they'd tied together and draped over the doorway lay in a heap on the floor, as did the ones by the window.
She tucked the covers up about her neck. The cabin looked even more pathetic in the light of day, though the fire chased the chill from the air. Michael must have stoked it then fallen asleep at its hearth.
After putting off the inevitable, she finally edged her feet to the ground, scurried to the washstand, and splashed water onto her face. Its frigid temperature stole her very breath but removed the last vestiges of sleep.
Retrieving her hanky, she patted the water from her cheeks, lips, eyes, and forehead. She still couldn't quite fathom a washstand with no towel, but such was the case.
She glanced at the open entry. Covering it up again would require help, and she hated to wake Michael just yet. Moving to a corner of the room, she managed to put her garments on without exposing anything of importance, all the while cringing at having to once again wear yesterday's mud-caked dress. Slipping out the doorway, she tied her bonnet strings and made her way back to the hotel.
Mr. Parker sat in the small kitchen that separated the hotel proper from the back door. He looked different this morning. A blue flannel shirt, dark cotton trousers, and high boots replaced the fancy attire of last evening. So absorbed was he in his newspaper he didn't appear to have heard her approach.
She allowed herself a precious moment to study the cozy little alcove. It wasn't a conventional kitchen, of course, though cast-iron pots, frying pans, and Dutch ovens lay strewn across the stove. The room--hardly big enough to turn around in--held cheek-by-jowl preserved meats, a bag of beans, a pork barrel, and a heap of clean clothing. The overwhelming odor of what must be coffee assaulted her nose. A far cry from the soothing smell of Papa's brew.
Shoved against the wall, the dining table was nothing more than a semicircular board laid on top of a sea chest, surrounded by three chairs, none of which matched. The top of the table had cleats to hold the dishes so they wouldn't slide off--not because it was a seafaring table, but, she assumed, because the slope of the floor was so terribly uneven.
Mr. Parker, sitting in one of the chairs with a tin mug in one hand and a newspaper in the other, must have sensed her presence. He looked up, stood, and bowed. "Good morning."
"Forgive me. I didn't mean to disturb you."
"Not at all." He folded his paper and snagged another tin cup out of a candle box. Before she could protest, he filled the cup from the coffeepot at his elbow and offered her a seat.
She really needed to secure passage back home, but the man had been more than generous--with her, anyway. So she settled herself down as best she could. "Thank you."
Reaching for a jacket from the heap of clothing on the floor, he shrugged it on and sat down beside her. The wrinkled jacket did little to disguise the breadth of his shoulders and the strength in his arms.
She disliked taking refreshment with a man minus the protection of a chaperone but had been forced to do so since her father's death. And Mr. Parker, with his dark, curly hair and square, angular jaw, exuded a kind of raw masculinity that enthralled and intimidated all at the same time.
She warmed her hands around the perimeter of her cup, her mother's admonitions repeating themselves within her mind.
The man of "perfect manners" is calmly courteous in all circumstances, reliable as a rock, judicious in every action, dependable in trifles as well as large affairs, full of mercy and kindness, affectionate and loving. His brain must be as fine as his heart.
There had been no such man on the ship ... after Father died.
Mr. Parker lifted his cup to his lips, swallowing some of its contents without ever taking his eyes from hers. "You slept well, I trust?"
"Yes. Thank you. And you?"
Silence. She braved a sip of the black brew. Never had she tasted anything so ghastly. Eyes watering, she swept the room with a glance, looking in vain for evidence of sugar or cream.
She set her cup down. Both started to speak, both stopped, both started again. Mr. Parker indicated her with a nod of his head. "Please."
"I was just saying my family and I will be purchasing tickets for our passage home this morning. So rest assured, you won't be inconvenienced any longer."
"There aren't any ships going out."
"Once the vessels arrive, the crews abandon ship in favor of searching for gold."
She pursed her lips. "And how long does that take? A couple of days?"
He harrumphed. "No, miss. The easy gold is gone. All that's left will require months and months of back-breaking work and, even then, there are no guarantees."
Frowning, she tilted her head. "But the papers back home said one simply needed to go up to the hills, pick the gold out of the streams, and within a few days, a fortune could be accumulated."
"Elizabeth, New Jersey."
"And do all the good people of Elizabeth, New Jersey, believe everything they read?"
She stiffened. "President Polk verified the rumors."
"He may have verified the rumors that gold had been discovered. And, I will admit, that just after the discovery up at Sutter's Mill, the gold lay like pebbles in the stream. But that was the exception, not the rule."
She twirled her hand in the air dismissively. "Well, the availability of gold is neither here nor there. It is the ships that I am interested in, and never have I heard of a port where ships travel in only one direction. Why, it's simply too preposterous to even consider."
He said nothing. Just took a sip of coffee, his light blue eyes, with a knowing look, studying hers.
She recalled the captain urging her to go to shore last night instead of waiting until morning. Because he wasn't sure his crew would return once they reached land.
She swallowed. "Isn't it against the law to abandon ship?"
She sat back. "Well, then. The sailors must be arrested and forced back into duty."
"We don't have any officers of the law."
"What? Why not?"
"We're a brand new territory. There are no police, no laws, no jail. Once those men reach the shore, there is no way to get them back."
She fingered the three hundred dollars in the false pocket of her skirt. It was all they had in the world. Father had assumed that money would not be an issue once they arrived. Never had it occurred to them the newspaper reports were false. Nor had they considered the possibility of losing Papa.
She took a deep breath. "But if no ships leave and more arrive--which they most certainly will--the harbor will fill up with ships, one stacked on top of the other."
He nodded. "A rather daunting thought, isn't it?"
She rubbed her forehead. "Well, I will still go down to the docks and see if I can secure passage home. If I cannot, then I will have to find a place to live temporarily until I can figure out what to do."
He said nothing.
"Do you have any idea where I might find a suitable place to lodge?"
"I've been giving it quite a bit of thought, actually." He rested his forearms on the table. "The boardinghouses that come to mind are nothing but a mess of square berths with about six bunks per berth. The area's so confined, they leave just enough room between bunks for a man to stand."
"Perhaps I could rent out an entire berth."
He shook his head. "You would have to pay for all six bunks, which go for about twenty-two dollars each, not to mention the person who sleeps on the floor."
"The bunks are twenty-two dollars a month?"
She frowned. "That much?"
"I'm afraid so. You'd have no privacy at all."
"Are there any shacks for rent?"
"Not like mine. Most rag houses are no more than four sides of light lumber topped with a canvas roof. Every time it rains, the whole place gets wet."
"How often does it rain?"
"The entire winter. That's why the streets are so muddy. We're just on the other side of the rainy season, though, so the streets will turn back to dirt in no time."
"Do you know how much these rag houses run?"
He shrugged. "Anywhere from two to three hundred dollars per month would be my guess."
She moistened her lips. "What about real estate?"
He reached for his paper. "I was just looking over that very thing." Folding the paper in half, then in half again, he slid it toward her. "Lots are running about fifteen hundred."
She leaned over the paper, not to look at the prices, but to try and corral her desperation.
"How much money do you have?"
She gasped. "Mr. Parker."
"This is no time to be standing on ceremony, Miss Van Buren. You are what, about twenty years of age?"
She neither confirmed nor denied his estimate, though he was dead on.
"There are upwards of three thousand men in this town," he continued. "With your father gone, you'll need some guidance."
She stiffened. If there was one thing Mama had instilled in her at an early age, it was a distaste for men who automatically assumed a woman had no power within her brain. Though an unpopular view in the East, it was one that had begun to gather momentum amongst the women in Mama's circle.
"And what, sir, makes you my self-appointed guardian?"
He stilled. "Your pardon. I didn't mean to presume." He stood. "If you will excuse me?"
She blanched at his rebuke. Clearly, he'd offered out of kindness, misplaced or not, and she'd responded without thinking. Before she could recover, much less apologize, he had left the room.
* * *
Leaving instructions for Michael to look for employment and for Lissa to stay in the shack to receive their trunks as soon as someone could be found to transport them, Rachel headed straight to the wharf. The ship they had arrived on, along with dozens of others, sat silent and empty in the bay.
There would be no vessels leaving San Francisco anytime soon. Former farmers, professionals, and ruffians poured through the streets buying picks, shovels, and pans before heading upriver. Abandoned, their trunks sat on the beach beside a hodgepodge of dilapidated chairs, soiled provisions, and empty liquor bottles. The two partially finished wharves jutted out into the water, pointing to the deserted ships.
Muddy ochre hills dotted the southern and western borders of the village, bare but for low scrub and chaparral, yet protecting the community from the wind whipping off the bay.
Rachel climbed back up the hill. Unpainted shacks and vast numbers of tents dotted the landscape. And at every footfall was a gaming hall. That these saloons were not only open for business at this early hour but bulging with customers produced a great deal of consternation within her.
Their canvas walls shook and swayed as if the tents themselves were intoxicated. One such structure with grimy muslin stretched between its wooden posts sported a sign that read "Boardinghouse, $24 a week".
Approaching the open doorway, she slipped in for a closer look. The smell of cigars, liquor, and unwashed men filled her nostrils. Cards slapped, bottles clinked, men guffawed.
In the corner a fiddler ground out "Old Dan Tucker." Beside him a Spanish-looking woman with unbound curly hair danced to the music, her skirt hiked well above her ankles, displaying bare feet and the absence of pantalets.
Rachel's mouth went dry. Twirling around, she bumped square into a pot-bellied man with shaggy brown hair and an overgrown beard. He grasped her upper arms to keep her from tumbling over, she supposed, then let go as if he'd been singed.
"A sunbonnet woman." It sounded more like a prayer than an observation. He whipped off his hat. "You lost, missus?"
"Miss. And, no, I was looking for room and board but have clearly come to the wrong place."
He grasped her elbow and escorted her out the door. No sooner had they crossed the threshold than he proposed marriage. With her shocked silence came a repeat of his entreaty.
The man topped her by about a half inch, smelled of unspeakable odors, and looked as if his strained suspenders would snap in two at any moment. She couldn't guess at his age, what with his bushy beard and sunburned skin, but his hazel eyes were clear and very serious. In spite of herself, she felt an unexpected softening to such obvious admiration. "Thank you, sir, but no. Right now all I require is a place to board."
"I got that, miss. Say the word and it'll belong to the both of us."
"I'm not in the market for marriage at the moment."
His face filled with alarm. "Every 'spectable woman's in the market for marriage." Leaning over, he spit out a stream of tobacco.
Good heavens. "I'm sorry, truly I am. Now, if you will excuse me?"
He shifted over, then followed her down the walkway, across the street and around the corner. One by one, other miners joined him, and within a block's span, she had an entire entourage trailing her.
The men spoke to each other as if she were not present.
"Look at them slippered footprints. You ever seen such dainty-like prints, Mitch?"
"Cain't say as I have. Where's her pa, you think?"
A third voice chimed in. "Probably up the river and lookin' for the elephant already."
"Naw. I seen this sunbonnet at the City Hotel last night. Her Pa died 'fore he ever hit the shore."
"She's alone? But there ain't no place for sunbonnets to stay. Not that I knows of, anyway."
"Me neither. She'll have to marry one of us."
"I'm the best lookin'. Oughta be me."
A dull pounding began at her temple. A whiff of spirits grazed her nose.
"Cain't be you. You're poor as a church mouse. No, Chauncey's a sight better on the eyes and has a sack full of dust at the tent."
"Not no mores. Spent it on a couple o' them Frenchies in the Plaza last night."
She spun to face them, her skirt flinging out mud like kernels in a corn sheller. "Gentlemen. If you please?"
The gathering was even larger than she had supposed. All skidded to a halt, all removed their hats, all presented her with ridiculous smiles.
One brave soul stepped forward. "Marry me, miss?"
"No ... thank you."
Another knelt, plopping a knee into the mud. "Would you do me the honors?"
She reined in her exasperation. "No. I'm sorry."
His expression fell.
Pulling her gaze from his, she ran it across the assembly. All had the unspoken question on their lips. She wilted a bit before taking a deep breath and squaring her shoulders. "No."
"But without your pa, there just ain't no place for unmarried ladies to stay." This from the young man still kneeling at her feet. "You'll be needin' to double up, miss, and I'm as good a feller as the next."
She closed her eyes, prayed for patience, tried to suppress a spurt of anger toward her late father, and very sweetly but firmly refused once again. Then she resumed her search.
But rather than discouraging the men, her polite refusal seemed to have emboldened them, and they stuck with her, adding steadily to their numbers throughout the afternoon. She decided the proper thing, the only thing, was to pretend they weren't there.
She did find places to stay--for men. But she had seen dog kennels at home that were nicer than the conglomeration of hovels that made up the city of San Francisco, and they certainly were no place for two women and a boy to lodge. Why hadn't the papers warned of these deplorable conditions? What in the world were they to do?
The legitimate boardinghouses overflowed with men on floors, tables, benches, shelves, cots, and bunks, all covered with filth. She found the restaurants much the same but with bad fare worked into the equation. She didn't even bother to ask for prices; she wouldn't have stayed had they been free.
Crammed betwixt and between these coops were more barrooms, saloons, and public houses than a body should ever see. Much to her disgust, gambling clearly dominated the life and soul of the town. Why, at this very moment her devotees were betting on how long she'd last before "marrying up."
And the marriage proposals had continued relentlessly. Surely even Penelope did not have to endure such as this. What she would give for a glimpse of just one other respectable female.
Boards, bushes, and tobacco boxes lay in the street as a makeshift walkway. The sun began to set and the saloons became livelier, causing the size and makeup of her "following" to finally dissipate as the call to gamble lured the men away.
She had only intended to leave Michael and Lissa by themselves for a couple of hours. Concern for how they had managed without her for an entire day quickened her pace.
Barely lifting her skirts, she picked, jumped, strode, and tottered back down Washington Street to the Plaza. The closer she came to the Plaza, the larger and noisier the saloons, until finally she stood across from the hotel. Her stomach growled, her legs ached, her bonnet drooped, and her disposition flagged.
She'd had nothing to eat other than that sip of coffee from this morning. All she wanted was to freshen up in the shanty out back and have a bit of soup, but the crowd of men outside the door covered the huge verandah and spilled over into the muddy street.
She frowned, for though she had discovered the gambling houses stayed busy during the day, she also knew that no one stood idle for very long. Men passed each other, jostled the next one's shoulder, and threw out insults by the minute, but never did they stand still, much less silent.
But still and silent they were until someone shouted, "Here she comes."
Anticipation rippled through the crowd. She tensed. Surely they weren't waiting for her. But no, they didn't turn around--were not, in fact, even aware she stood there. She watched the mass step back as one, as solemn as if someone had died.
It wasn't until Lissa appeared from around the corner of the verandah that all the day's aggravations surged to the fore and grabbed hold of Rachel's very being. How dare they subject a girl of her age to such treatment?
With outrage pumping through her blood, Rachel flounced across the street, shoved her way through the throng, and whirled to face them, effectively blocking Lissa from view. "Just what do you think you are doing?"
A sea of men with flannel shirts, topcoats, pea jackets, and even a Mexican blanket stood tongue-tied before her. The sound of a fiddle from one of the neighboring saloons wove through the air.
"Is something amiss?"
She jerked her attention to Mr. Parker as he leaned a shoulder against the doorframe, crossed one ankle over the other, then took a long puff on his cigar. Not even for an instant would she appreciate his cleanliness and freshly shaved face, not so long as he was one of them.
"Cannot a lady walk on the street without constantly being accosted by unwelcome attention?"
He blew a steady stream of smoke into the air. "The attention might be unwelcome, but I feel sure it would be respectful."
She narrowed her eyes, fumes from his cigar curling around her.
"Rachel," her sister implored.
She ignored Lissa's plea. The girl was too sympathetic by half.
"I will not have Lissa ogled. She's but a girl."
"I'm fifteen. Sixteen in two months."
"Rachel?" This from Michael, holding his hat in his hand. Not out of courtesy but out of necessity, for it was filled to brimming with gold.
"Michael! What are you doing with all that?"
"It's ours, Rachel." His eyes shone with pride. "The men paid an ounce of gold just to hear Lissa sing for five minutes time."
Blood drained from Rachel's face then surged back into it. "Give it back. Every last bit of it."
Michael balked. "I can't do that." He frowned, then straightened his shoulders. "I won't do that."
"Oh, yes you will."
Rumbling began amongst the miners.
Mr. Parker stepped forward. "Miss Van Buren, the men become a bit agitated when they don't get what they pay for."
She centered her focus onto him. "I cannot believe you would be party to this."
He raised his brows. "I've nothing to do with it. In fact, this clever scheme of your lovely sister's is keeping patrons from my establishment." He gently grasped her elbow. "Now, if you please."
She resisted his tug, but he i