Sample Chapter: Saga of Sourdough Red
Chapter 1 ~
Where was David? Had the ocean swept in over the ship deck and washed him
overboard? Jenny’s heart raced as she peered out the porthole. The last time she’d seen
her brother, he was racing across the deck of the ship, helping the crew. What did he know
about walking on water-soaked decks with the ship half-tilting on its side?
The steamer tossed like a chip of wood in the ocean. The sea sprayed high
over the bow, turning the lines on the deck to shards of ice. To Jennifer Kileen, the loud
booming noises and sharp cracks sounded like the death throes of some giant sea monster.
She shivered and tried to rub away the goose bumps creeping along the top of her arms.
Nothing made of mere boards and iron could hope to withstand a storm like this.
She was too close to the end of their long journey to die in the cold
water, without the comforting feel of Ohio earth beneath her feet. Jeremy would never know
what happened to them, or that they had come to the Northland looking for him. She wiped a
clear spot to look out the fogged window.
A handful of women huddled, whispering together in a corner of the salon.
They had come up from the dining area below the deck at the first sign of the storm. Many
of the passengers were men, headed for the gold fields of Alaska this day in August of
1901. Indifferent or unaware of the sudden movements of the ship and the raging storm,
they sat engrossed in a poker game, losing their precious stakes at the very moment they
“So! An able-bodied man, skulking inside with the women?”
Saga of Sourdough Red
Before she’d had time to notice the swift cold of the open door, the
captain moved up behind her, grasping her shoulder with an iron grip. The scuttling of the
men at the poker table should have warned her. They had seen him coming and hastily pulled
on their coats to rush out the side door.
“I’m talking to you, feller!”
She opened her mouth, ready to protest. What did she know about a ship?
“No! Ah...no sir. I can’t. Pick on one of those men.” She used her deepest voice and
pointed after the swiftly departing card players.
“I don’t have time to argue. Come on.”
Jenny squirmed, fearful her disguise might be brought to light with his
closeness. David and she had decided that venturing into the wilderness would be foolhardy
for a young, unmarried woman. She’d practiced acting like a boy and looking like a boy for
weeks, with her younger brother David’s help, before they chanced the passage. It was
difficult, especially when, from the first day, Captain Mitch looked at her with such
penetrating black eyes.
She stood straight to her full 5’8”, for once glad of her height instead of
ashamed of not being petite. “I paid my passage. I don’t have to work on your stupid
Captain Mitch looked ready to explode. She decided that going with him was
better than standing toe-to-toe arguing — or relinquishing her masquerade. He handed her a
yellow slicker and a wool stocking cap he snatched off the hanger next to the door.
“David will worry if he sees me out there.” She tried reason.
“Your little brother is out there fighting the storm. You should be
ashamed.” He looked toward the huddled women.
“That goes for that sorry lot playing poker. If they come back, tell ’em to
come out and help or I’ll throw their carcasses overboard myself.”
Saga of Sourdough Red
Not daring to remove her hat in front of him and the watching women, she
said, “I’ll come right along. Go do — whatever you do.” He watched her, but didn’t move.
Jenny shrugged into the slicker and held onto her hat, fighting the urge to cling to the
captain’s arm once he opened the door. Outside the wind swept across the deck, in surly
blasts that abated suddenly and then blew again. Her clothes were instantly soaked through
beneath the too large slicker, sending a chill through her body, holding her breathless.
She leaned against the ship’s side, bent over, unable to move.
Noticing that she wasn’t following him, the captain turned on his heel and
returned to her side. “Are you so scared?”
“I’m cold, damn it! Don’t you have a ship to run?” she managed between
A trace of a smile swept across his lips. In that instant she caught a
glimpse of the debonair captain they had been used to seeing since this trip began.
No one scurrying by on the tilting deck noticed when Jenny crumpled her
father’s old hat and shoved it into her pocket. She pulled the tight stocking cap over her
thick auburn braid, pushing all the hair up under.
Usually she enjoyed storms, the wilder the better, but not storms at sea.
Ever since boarding in Seattle she had felt claustrophobic. Once despising their farm, now
she longed for the familiar tranquility, and the feeling of level earth beneath her feet.
The pitching and swaying of the vessel transmitted through her trembling
legs and threatened to dump her on deck. Sailors tore around, battening down cargo,
leaning into the wind. Thick foam leaped above the sides of the vessel with every huge
wave that crested. Swallowing her absolute terror of a crashing wave carrying her
overboard, she straightened and called out to the first mate.
“How can I help?” She shouted in the face of the wind.
He pointed toward some crates see-sawing back and forth close to the
bridge. “Over there, for starters. Make them fast.”
Saga of Sourdough Red
Jenny crept forward, nausea crowding out fear. Struggling with the heavy
crates and keeping her footing on the slick deck claimed all her attention. She pretended
the heavy crates were nothing more troubling than irksome bails of hay. She’d had plenty
of experience shoving those around for the past year. Her fingers were numb with cold and
scraped raw by the time she straightened from her task.
Suddenly Jenny’s throat dried with fear, her sound of warning barely
croaking out loud, when a small form hurtled from the darkness of the corridor across the
deck and crawled toward the middle. A child! Moving toward the lighted salon, the little
boy had lost footing and was sliding toward the railing. The sailors, too far away,
watched helplessly, their mouths open with soundless shouts that the wind tore away.
Then David sprinted out from nowhere, in pursuit. The waves would wash them
both overboard! Without considering the consequences, Jenny crawled, slipped and slid
toward the child and David, trying not to see the edge of the ship and the leaping water
that dashed madly over onto the deck when the ship listed.
She grasped David’s rain-slicked jacket but lost him twice. He was
clutching the tiny body close and couldn’t use his hands to help himself crawl across the
slippery, tilting deck. Just as they reached the edge, Jenny grabbed her brother by the
coattail and held on for dear life. She tried to scrabble backwards toward the center of
the walkway, but the ship gave a lurch in the opposite direction. They landed in a heap
near the cargo and several men rushed to drag them inside before the next yaw of the ship.
For a brief moment, Jenny and the sailors stood looking out the deck
windows. The ship suddenly lurched and righted itself in a trough of an incoming wave. A
monstrous wall of water washed over the side and struck against the glass from where they
watched. Instinctively they all jumped back and when they could look out again, the waves
had swept the deck clear. She felt her legs trembling and managed to thank the men between
For once in his fifteen years, David let his sister hug him close for a
long moment without protest.
“Stay inside, lads, you done enough. We gotta go.” One sailor pummeled her
on the back and they slipped out of the wide door to continue their work.
Saga of Sourdough Red
David, still holding the terrified child close to his chest, set the little
A woman rushed forward, screaming. “Bobby!” She threw herself to her knees
and clutched the child to her bosom. If the little boy had been too cold and frightened to
cry before, he made up for it now. When he saw his mother, he screwed up his face and let
out a terrific yowl.
Jenny thought David was glad to hand him over.
Two women hurried over to comfort her. “Oh, praise the Lord, and thank you,
boys.” The mother got slowly to her feet, but didn’t relax her hold on her son.
Jenny looked over to where the woman had sat. Five wide-eyed little
children like stair steps, watched. As if in answer to her questioning look, the woman
“Bobby was sleeping when we were ready to eat, so I left him in the bunk.
God watches over my children. We’re missionaries, doin’ the Lord’s work. We come up North
to join my husband.” She handed the boy to another woman long enough to embrace Jenny, wet
clothes and all. “You will be blessed, for saving one of God’s children. Thank you so very
Jenny shivered, wanting to get out of her wet clothes but not for anything
would she go below to the cabins, even if she could make it to the stairway without
sliding through the railing overboard. When the ship finally gave up and sank, she wanted
to be able to see the sky one last time.
“Are you all right, David?” She peered into her brother’s face. He hadn’t
fared too well so far on the journey and had been sick much of the time. Now his face
looked a dismal yellow, as if he had a case of jaundice. It could have been a reflection
of his yellow slicker against a sheet-white face, at least she hoped that was it.
The sun began to poke tentatively through the dark clouds, its rays
searching out remnants of ice clinging to coiled ropes on the deck.
Saga of Sourdough Red
“Look! The storm is over!” Women looked out of the window, pointing at the
“You sneaked back in here!” Captain Mitch pushed through the door to glare
Bully! Jenny tried to speak but her lips drew tight against her teeth, her
face frozen in a mask. She still shivered, wrapped in the icy clothes, but her body warmed
slowly as outrage replaced the surprise of his rude handling.
Before he could explode, a woman hurried up to them. “Captain, these young
men saved Bobby’s life. The little tyke was about to go over the side and they nearly lost
their own lives saving him.”
The captain looked uncertain for a brief moment before he turned back to
Jenny. “Fine. That’s fine work, but doesn’t excuse an able-bodied hand from helping out in
an emergency, passage paid or not. You coming?” He headed toward the door.
Against her better judgment, she followed with David close behind.
“Look at the sun trying to come out.” The captain’s hand caught the nape of
her neck and spun her around, but as his fingers tangled in her hair and caught her
stocking cap, the cap pulled loose and fell to her shoulder.
“What the.... !” He dropped his hand and backed away, the expression on his
face one of comical astonishment, his thick dark mustache quivering. The rain had turned
to soft sleet, pelting against them. The ship barely tossed, and the wind had died almost
to a sigh in the rigging.
“Go on to your cabin, miss. I’ll see to the mopping up of this mess and be
down to talk to you.” He stabbed a big finger into David’s chest. “You too,” he commanded
in a voice that no one in his right mind would think of disobeying.
When they bent to enter the little cabin, David said, “You first, Jenny. I
can wait until you get changed. You’re wetter than I am.”
The tiny room held an upper and lower bunk, a big porcelain wash basin with
a mirror over it, and a jug of water. Everything was fixed in place so the roughest sea
wouldn’t toss it.
Saga of Sourdough Red
David turned his back while Jenny shucked out of her clothing and crawled
into her flannel nightgown, teeth chattering. She leaped into bed. “Your turn, David.”
Time enough for talking to that bossy captain later. What was he so angry
about? It surely was no business of his that she’d decided to pose as a boy to travel
alone to the frozen northland.
“My advice to you is to get in bed. Otherwise you’ll never get warmed,” she
told her brother and didn’t remember finishing the sentence.
Jenny woke hours later, famished and still chilled. She dressed underneath
her voluminous nightgown, pulling on long underwear and the familiar clothing that her
twin brother had left behind. Someone knocked.
David opened the door to the cabin boy.
“Captain wants to see both of you. Double time.”
Sighing, Jenny crammed on the once-smart wide brimmed felt hat that had
been her father’s pride and joy. “We might as well get it over with. Maybe then we can
find something to eat. Damn Jeremy anyway, for getting us into this mess.”
She looked away from David’s shocked expression. He could be so blindingly
loyal sometimes that it made her temper flare.
Could the ship’s captain put them in irons or make them walk a plank or
something equally ominous? Jenny wondered. Captain Mitch looked most capable of any of
those actions. Her steps slowed as they neared the captain’s cabin.