The Wildflowers at the Edge of the World

APRIL, 1898.

 

When Sophia Bellerose’s heart broke for the second time, she decided to sail away and leave it behind. After all, what use did she have for something that could never be put back together?

In her cramped tent behind the big top, she tossed her meager belongings into a sack and shuddered. Just as some dark and secret part of her had always feared, Adrian had left her. And the way Adrian had left her, for the very same reason her mother had...

Jaw clenched, Sophia tried to forget the morning’s awfulness. She yearned to unhear the ugly words, to unsee the cold cruelty on Adrian’s face. To unfeel her heart tearing in two yet again. But the memories clung to her, despite the way she longed to bury them in the dingy shadows of her tent and leave them behind forever.

Scraping together an anemic roll of dollars, she shoved her twin long-barreled Colt revolvers into her bag, then stepped out into the watery sunlight. Without a single goodbye, she walked away from her home of ten years.

The big top shrank behind her as she stole down the flaxen hillside. Her feet guided her toward the ocean, where a boat would carry her away. That was all she wanted—to escape her own fractured dreams. To leave San Francisco behind, where memories lurked around every corner.

In town, Sophia ignored the besotted couples and the affectionate mothers pressing kisses to their daughter’s cheeks.

Those things are not for me. They will never be for me.

She hurried onward, passing through the sparkling, uncaring world like a ghost.

***

 

At the harbor, the docks thrummed with activity. Fresh-faced young boys hurried along the waterfront, shouting of riches in the Far North.

Sophia stopped, letting the crowd stream around her. She’d heard the endless rumors of gold, but the reality of the teeming mob—of slick-haired merchants hawking mining outfits and steamboat captains ushering scores of would-be miners onto ships—pulsed with a chaotic vibrancy the newspapers hadn’t captured. Jostled amid the madness, she wondered how many of these bright-eyed hopefuls would find wealth. Whatever the answer, their excitement prickled along her skin, distracting her from the sorrow beneath.

“You setting out for the Yukon, Miss?” A long-jawed merchant stood beside her, a hodge-podge of gadgetry arranged at his feet. His smile stretched as wide as a predator’s.

“I’m setting out for somewhere,” she said, wary. “I just don’t know where.”

“Well, everyone’s off to Canada. There’s gold up in Caribou Crossing, just lying there for the taking.” The salesman indicated his wares. “The journey’s long, but I’ve got everything you’ll need.”

She took in his dark, oiled hair and worn striped trousers. With that lanky build and swarthy coloring, he looked like Horace, the lion tamer. The two men could very well be brothers...

She throttled the thought midstream. Horace was part of her old life now, and just as well. The way he’d waggled his caterpillar eyebrows and called her “sweet little doll” had made her want to reach for her guns, every single time.

“Take this.” The salesman indicated a beaten-up leather traveling case.

“I don’t need a trunk.” She lifted the rucksack slung over her shoulder. “I’m not taking much.”

He leaned close. The scent of his hair tonic curled around her like greasy, clutching fingers. “The Mounties won’t let you into the Yukon without a year’s supply of nutrition. Luckily, this case has got twelve months’ worth of powdered food. Weighs less than thirty pounds, too. You’ll be thanking me for that when you’re hauling it up over Chilkoot Pass.”

He flipped the trunk open, revealing rows of labeled paper bags. “This here’s scrambled eggs, this one’s bacon, this one’s beef stroganoff. Just add a spoonful of powder to a cup of water, heat it all up, and presto! Instant meal.”

Sophia surveyed the bags. Pork shoulder. Seven-layer lasagna. Bananas foster.

“Powdered lasagna?” she wondered aloud.

His oily grin never faltered. “Normally this runs fifty dollars, but for a pretty little flower like you, I’ll let it go for forty.”

Her shoulders tightened. It wasn’t the flattery—after all, she was little, and most people would call her pretty. No, it was the way the salesman stared at her, expectant, as if she owed him something for the compliment. As if his words deserved to reach into her pocket and coax out every last dollar she owned.

She should’ve walked away, but she was desperate—to move on, to leave Adrian behind, to trade the stark ruin beneath her breastbone for something beside the dream of being enough for someone, someday. Rooted to the dusty street, she deliberated. All around, fresh hope wafted on the salted breeze, breathing against the nape of her neck. Gold, the wind promised. Money for the taking.

She let the siren call take hold, let the song of riches echo through her blood.

After all, why not? Money would never betray her the way people had. She could forge a new life, one filled with wealth, out beyond some far-flung new horizon where she could also forget the first twenty-four years of her existence.

As if sensing his chance, the salesman stalked closer. “It only weighs thirty pounds, but it’s holding five hundred pounds of food. What do you think?”

Sophia sniffed at the case. A faint wooden scent emanated from within. “I think,” she said, “that I’m not as stupid as I look, and that adding water to sawdust probably won’t give me lasagna. But if you’ll answer something for me, I’ll take a look at what else you’ve got.”

His grin collapsed to a scowl. “Eh? What’s that, then?”

“Where can I book passage to the Yukon?”

***

In the end, Sophia did buy something from the confidence man, after all.

Huddled deep within her new sealskin parka, she braced against the deck railing as the steamer she’d boarded chugged past Alcatraz Island. Frigid waves slapped the ship’s hull.

She glanced back at San Francisco once, and only so she could gather the broken shards of her old life and hurl them into the water. Satisfied, she raised her gaze to the icy wind, letting the salt spray rime her eyelashes. She would look only ahead now, toward the riches that would fill her life. 

As the coastline receded, Sophia’s castoff heart sank beneath the cold, dark waves.

Good riddance. She would never need it again.

Not unless something truly extraordinary happened.

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