Gold Rush Groom - By Jenna Kernan

Chapter One

Dyea, Alaska, Fall 1897

Who among them might be willing to accept an unconventional arrangement? From her vantage point on the muddy beach, Lily Shanahan eyed the newly arrived greenhorns, fresh from the steamer just arrived from Seattle. She knew the wrong choice would mean the end for her, for God only knew the journey to Dawson was perilous, especially now that the freeze-up had begun.

The ship had set anchor far out in the Taiya Inlet to avoid the bore tide that now rushed down the narrow passage. Trapped between the mountains, the water surged forward in long curling waves, hurling the overloaded scows toward the mudflats. The men clung to the gunwales, their faces grim and their eyes wide.

She had seen many arrive this way and depart for the goldfields soon afterward, while she had remained anchored like a rock in a stream. Lily had stopped asking the best candidates. They were not stupid or desperate enough to take her. That left only the ones with obvious flaws. So far they had turned her down as well.

Lily heard her mother’s voice as clearly as she had on that final day her mother died. Sell it all, right down to the sheets I’m lying on and have yourself a life worth remembering.

And what could be more memorable than joining the mad pulsing rush of stampeders pouring north on the way to the goldfields? But somehow she didn’t think her mother had intended her to be marooned by circumstance in these stinking mudflats.

How could she have known, when she spent her last dollar for her ticket, that Dawson City was five hundred miles inland, over mountains and down rivers, a place so wild there were no roads or trains, not even a telegraph? How could she have guessed that it was a journey she could not make alone?

So her search for a partner began. But after nearly a month in this swamp, hauling freight from the muddy beach to the tent town with her dog cart, she’d made a tidy bankroll and had been turned down more times than she could count. Lily longed to be in Dawson by the spring break-up. It was October now, and already the winds blew colder than January in San Francisco. Would she even see Dawson by next summer?

The first boat scraped up on the mud, beaching as the wave dissipated. The next one rolled in ten feet behind. She knew what would happen next. The poor men would lose everything to the greedy water, while the rich ones would buy protection, paying whatever the haulers demanded to move their precious goods to high ground.

Lily chose potential customers with care, seeking a possible match. Her huge Newfoundland mix, Nala, and her small cart could not handle the larger loads.

Most of the men climbed over the sides into knee-high surf, sucking in their breaths or swearing as the icy water bit through their clothing. The first had just reached the wet mud when the crew began tossing their belongings out like so much rubbish.

One man clutched a single valise, his eyes wide with terror. A wave caught the boat as he tried to jump and fell into the sea. Lily held her breath as he disappeared beneath the crashing water. The oarsman used the paddle to nudge the submerged man toward shore. He came up sputtering and lost his grip on the bag. The tide cast it far past him and then dragged it back before he could wipe the stinging seawater from his eyes. The next wave knocked him down again, but brought his case close to her. Lily lifted her skirts and plucked the soggy suitcase from the surf, hauling it out of harm’s way. Nala whined, unhappy when her mistress ventured too close to the sea.

“It’s all right, girl.” She righted the case and stooped to pat her dog. “Maybe this one will take me.”

The man crawled up on the mudflats, spitting up seawater. She had to admit he was a scrawny fellow, but beggars could not be choosers. She felt winter’s fast approach like a killing frost. She must get through the pass before the real cold came.

She waited for the man to straighten. He looked even more poorly prepared for Dyea than she had been. He reached for his bag.

“Thanks, missus. You sure saved me.”

“You need a cart?” she asked.

“No, missus. I only got this here.” He clutched the handle, showing her the suitcase she’d rescued.

“How about a partner?”

“You know a man