The Wildflowers at the Edge of the World
The moment the Chinese girl stepped off the boat, Irene knew she’d found a worthy recruit.
At first glance, everything about the girl screamed fragile, from her elfin stature to the features so fine they seemed wrought by an artist’s hand. Scarcely taller than a child, the girl was stunning, her face a delicate oval of wide-set black eyes and sculpted cheekbones. But on second glance, Irene found stubborn strength, too. The girl shoved through the teeming crowd the way a man might, and in lieu of a corset and petticoats, she sported a coat and trousers—unheard of for a girl fresh from the Outside. No bonnet, either. Cascades of unbound hair fell to her waist, so black they glinted blue in the sunlight.
Irene spurred Lucas into a trot, scattering pedestrians along the bustling waterfront.
“Watch it!” a man shouted.
She paid no heed. Ahead, shining obsidian hair vanished behind a squalid saloon.
Irene plowed through the crowd, emerged into a back street, and reined up short. The throughway dripped crisp and cold beneath the fresh May sun. Men milled in throngs—not a woman in sight.
Yet the girl had come this way, surely. Irene urged Lucas along, searching each mud-splattered shadow.
Four streets down, she halted at the mouth of a narrow lane. In the alley, backed against a filthy wall, the girl stared up at a heavy-browed miner twice her size.
Irene dismounted, sighing. “Well, that didn’t take long.”
Hitching up her skirts, she plucked a revolver from the holster at her thigh. A passing gentleman stopped to ogle the indecency of her exposed leg.
“Up here, pal.” She brandished the revolver. “And keep it moving.”
Eyes wide, he hurried off. Irene leaned into the alley’s mouth, then slunk into a dense shadow.
Ahead, the miner pressed rough palms against dingy wood, hemming in his quarry. “What’s a pretty thing like you doing in a place like Skagway?”
The girl’s mouth sloped downward. “Piss off, before I break your arm.”
Such confidence. Deep in the shadows, Irene smiled.
The miner laughed and reached out, but the girl slipped away like smoke. She whirled a neat pirouette, then aimed a swift kick between his legs.
The miner howled. Eyes moist, cheeks red, he lunged.
Irene’s blood quickened. Time to move.
By the time she caught up, the miner crushed the girl against the clapboard, his fingers clamped around her neck.
Irene raised the revolver’s cold steel barrel to his temple. “Hands off.”
He froze. One by one, fingers opened—thick sausages uncurling from the slim white column of the girl’s throat.
The moment she was free, the girl wrenched an enormous revolver from the depths of her coat. The business end found the sweet spot between the miner’s eyes.
His hands crept skyward. “What’s this? You two in cahoots?”
“If you aren’t gone in three seconds,” the girl said, “I shoot.”
He didn’t stay to hear the rest. By the count of three, the alley echoed with nothing but the soft drip of melting icicles.
Irene allowed herself a single breath, then reholstered her gun. At a whistle, Lucas rounded the corner to snuffle at her shoulder. His warm breath heated her skin, even through her thick gown.
The girl narrowed black eyes. “Who’re you?”
“Irene Blumen. You?”
The girl stepped away from the wall, eyeing Lucas. “I didn’t need your help, you know.” Tucking her revolver away, she headed up the alley.
Irene swung into the saddle and eased into a lope. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Maybe because I didn’t offer it.”
Irene swallowed a smile—so it’d be a hard sell. Just as well. “I saw you come off the steamer from San Francisco. Alone. Which means you’re here for money.”
The girl slowed. “What would you know about it?”
“This is the North. Girls don’t come alone for any other reason. And if it’s gold you’re after, I can help.”
“Is that so? And who’re you, with that fancy bonnet and all those jewels? Some rich miner’s wife?”
Irene lifted an eyebrow.
“Look, lady. Maybe I am here to make some cash. But not by cooking and cleaning. Find someone else for that.” The girl turned and marched away.
This time, Irene made no effort to follow. “I’m no one’s wife,” she called. “Actually, I’m a whore.”