The sea reminded Thomas Parks of his father’s neglected tea service. Had sunshine polished the waves and swells, they would have gleamed like lively pewter. But sky met Pacific gray on gray like a sheet of lead. Had there been a way to settle dust on the swells, the match with the pewter service would have been perfect. Thomas grasped the handrail along the slippery deck until his knuckles were white. Mist soaked his face, plastered his dark hair to his forehead, and found openings in his slicker, running under his woolen shirt to puddle behind his broad leather belt. It wasn’t the gentle roll of the steam schooner that made him nervous—it was knowing that the coastline might be no more than a pistol shot off to starboard. He turned and glanced back toward the quarterdeck. The captain stood with another sailor, his pipe belching rhythmic plumes of smoke. A tousle-headed youngster tended the wheel with a serenity best reserved for sunshine, gentle breezes, and unlimited visibility.
At any moment, a great black rock dripping with foam and kelp and seals would rise out of the sea, and they would never turn away in time. Thomas concentrated on the gray depth ahead, waiting for the first shadow, ready to vault free as the ship splintered and crashed under his feet.
The Alice churned on without concern, without interruption of the captain’s enjoyment of his pipe, without crashing into the rocks. At one point, Thomas heard the lethargic bell of a buoy come and go, but never saw it.
“We’ll be docking within the hour,” a voice behind him said, and he turned without releasing his grip on the handrail to see Newell Bassier’s pleasant, lined face, water running down the creases and dripping from his gray whiskers. “Thought you might want to fetch your gear,” Bassier added. “We’re headed on up the coast, and won’t be stopping in Port McKinney long.” Able seaman, mate, bosun—Thomas had never understood the hierarchy of the ship’s crew—Bassier appeared to spend most of his time carving spare belaying pins into elegant figurines.
“I have but the two bags,” Thomas replied. “And they’re ready and waiting.”
“Ah. You travel light, then.”
“More is on the way,” Thomas conceded. “Shipped overland.
A mountain of things, believe me.”
“Ah,” Bassier said again. “Well, then. About an hour. The fog is lifting quickly enough.”
“Quickly?” Thomas said skeptically, and Bassier laughed. “This is near a sunny day for these parts,” he said. “You’ll get used to it. Look to the east, there,” and he thrust his chin toward the bow. To the east was gray like everywhere else, but now Thomas could see a slender line, a color breaking above the waves.
“Enjoy the hour, Doctor.” Bassier turned. “Shortly you’ll be slogging through mud, soaked to the bone, and wishing for a warm bottle.” He seemed to be the only one on board who concerned himself even in passing with the needs of the passengers—not that the three paying fares were high maintenance. One passenger, a priest whose name Thomas had never learned, kept to himself. But the third passenger, a short, florid man named Efrim Carlisle, had bunked with Thomas, and his bulkhead-rending snores had been a wonder. On several occasions the young physician had rested in the darkness, imagining each of the structures in the man’s throat as they vibrated and roared to produce such an odd symphony…one that never awoke the composer, of course.
An accountant by profession, Carlisle impressed Thomas as an odd duck. To hear him talk, Carlisle dealt with the intricacies of paperwork, but his hands were those of a bricklayer. Stubby fingers, cracked and broken nails, calluses that made his palms dry and hard, he looked no more the part of an office-bound cipher than did the salt-preserved captain of the Alice, Robert Kinsman. As his destination approached, Thomas forced himself to relax. If the crew was not worried, why should he be? He contented himself with watching the constantly changing colors of the water as it broke around the bow. He could not pinpoint the time when they had turned eastward from their northerly route up the Pacific coast. The water told no secrets. From the time they rounded Cape Flattery, leaving the Pacific for the Strait of Juan de Fuca, until the Alice docked at Port McKinney, more than a hundred miles would have passed under their hull…and he had seen not a single landmark for reference.
When he awakened before dawn that day, long before Carlisle stirred, he dressed quickly and hurried on deck, hoping for the first sight of the new country under a morning sun. Instead, he had been greeted by the soggy wet wool of the coastal air.
The ship’s steam horn vented a note so impossibly long and exquisitely loud that Thomas shut his eyes until the blast died. That symphony was repeated with regularity as they drew closer, although closer to what, Thomas could only guess.
A blink, a glance away, and then his pulse leaped with excitement. The rich line of emerald green, caught by the sun as it finally burned through the fog, outlined the coast perhaps five miles ahead. Thomas could draw no closer to the rail without tumbling overboard, and his eyes ached with the strain. Bit by bit, the coast gained definition. The sun touched his right cheek, and he realized with a disoriented start that the Alice was now actually making headway south. The ghosts of other watercraft appeared moored here and there, and a great, curving spit of land hooked out into Admiralty Inlet ahead of them.
Once, the strong aroma of burning wood tinged his nostrils, an odd sensation in the middle of the wet gray strait. The gulls wheeled noisily overhead, sometimes hidden in the fog, sometimes diving down to hang on the air currents just above the waves, tiny bright eyes regarding the ship with interest.
Another buoy appeared dead ahead, and the ship swung hard to starboard, its horn bellowing. The hull kissed the bobbing marker. The gentle throb of the steam engine changed pitch, and Thomas felt the deck shudder as the Alice slowed, its bow turning away from the open water. They headed toward a dull, dark little community at the base of the curved spit, passing through a fleet of moored ships of varying tonnage and rigging. The hodgepodge of wharf pilings thrust black and slimy out of the water, and dockside, Thomas could see half a dozen people, some fishing, some no doubt waiting for the Alice. A hundred yards down the shore, a trio of children and two mutts played near the water. One of the boys appeared to be flailing at the others with a strand of kelp. Looking again to the wharf, Thomas tried to make out the imposing figure of Dr. John Haines, who had promised a royal welcome.
The Alice shuddered again. Black coal smoke belched from the single stack, lifting and mixing with the gray fog. Whoever pulled the steam whistle cord was diligent, and Thomas flinched each time.
The crew galvanized into action at the last moment as the Alice sidled her 102 feet of keel and 260 tons up to the wharf as gently as if she were a tiny skiff. Out of habit, Thomas hauled out his watch and snapped it open: 3:17 p.m. on this Saturday, the twelfth day of September, 1891. He had shaken his father’s hand in the doorway of his Leister, Connecticut, home at ten minutes after seven on the morning of August 26.
“Absolutely remarkable,” he said aloud. The enormous size of the continent, studied and annotated on a score of maps in his father’s den, had shrunk to this—eighteen short days, including visiting for two full days with a cousin in St. Louis.
With a final salute from its steam whistle, the Alice’s gunwale thudded against the bumpers of Jones’ Wharf at Port McKinney, Washington. The schooner rode easy in the dark, greasy water, and Thomas Parks strode back along the deck toward his stateroom, pulse pounding with excitement.
Efrim Carlisle greeted him at the door with a hearty handshake. “So we’ve made it this far, and we haven’t drowned off some terrible reef after all,” he announced. He patted his considerable girth. “And the crew tells me we won’t be here even long enough for a decent meal.”
“I’m the only one to disembark, I think.” Thomas extended his hand, surprised once again at the power and hardness of Carlisle’s grip. “I hope the remainder of your trip is more pleas- ant, sir. Drier, perhaps.”
“It appears that way,” Carlisle said. They made their way back on deck, and Thomas saw that the Alice’s bowsprit practically nudged the bay side of a gray-black building, the side facing the wharf open to the weather.
“Charming place, don’t you think?” Carlisle asked. “You say your father’s to meet you?”
“A friend of my father’s,” Thomas corrected.
“Ah. Well, then, good luck to you, Dr. Parks. I manage to visit Port McKinney now and then. Perhaps our paths will cross again.”
Another shattering bellow of the Alice’s horn brought a grimace. “I’d best be off,” Thomas said. The gangplank was steep and wet, and he waited while two men climbed aboard, neither with baggage. They both nodded at the seaman, Newell Bassier, and one of them shook hands with Efrim Carlisle. The three disappeared toward what passed for staterooms on the Alice.
Hefting his black medical bag and the bulky duffel, Dr. Thomas Parks stepped off the Alice and set foot on the rough planks of Jones’ Wharf. Nothing here matched the genteel, manicured landscape of Leister, Connecticut. No elegant white fences, no smoothly worn cobblestone streets, no houses of cobble or clapboard that had been built before the war of the Revolution, no stately barns. Not a lawn, not a flower bed.
What he could see was brown and gray, dismally wet, wretchedly muddy, and ramshackle, with temporary buildings thrown up in the haste of commerce, many of them no more than canvas tents with slabwood siding. Turning in place, he looked down the coast, his gaze following the curving spit of land. A forest of stumpage studded the hills down to the rocky shoreline. In one sheltered cove, the water itself was brown and corduroy with an enormous floating island of logs that covered a dozen acres. Crowning the tip of the spit itself was another large welter of buildings, perhaps a fishing village.
Port McKinney crowded the harborage, but a scattering of rude shacks stretched farther up the hillside. Dr. John Haines lived somewhere in this settlement of two thousand people, and in his vest pocket, Thomas carried the small card with the address—101 Lincoln Street.
The Alice shrieked again and Thomas felt the wharf shudder as the schooner’s hull butted it, pulling backward to begin the next leg of the voyage up the coast.
Two fishermen sitting on the opposite side of the wharf watched Thomas with interest. “Could you tell me where I might find Lincoln Street?” he said to the nearest man.
“Lincoln,” the man repeated. “This be Lincoln.” The fisherman jerked his head to the foot of the wharf. “From the warehouse up through town to the good doctor’s house on the hill. That’s all Lincoln Street.” He grinned, showing only one tooth. “Step off the wharf, and there you are.”
“Dr. John Haines?”
“That be the one.” The man’s eyes inventoried Thomas from head to foot, taking in the black medical bag with interest. “You kin, are you?”
“Family friend,” Thomas replied. “Are you having luck today?” The man shrugged and glanced at his stubby cane fishing pole. “Nothing for lunch yet, if that’s what you mean. Starfish eat the bait more often than not.” He waved a hand toward the heavens as if the answer could be found in the fog. “Good day to you, then,” he said, and turned back to his contemplation of the black water a dozen feet below.
The wharf served as a walkway along the flank of the shed complex, and Thomas strolled the length of the building, duffel over one shoulder, able to savor steady footing for the first time since the Alice departed San Francisco. That pleasure ended between two enormous pilings marking the entry to Lincoln Street.
His leather boots squelched down into the muck, and he hesitated, both arms spread wide for balance. Half of the Lincoln Street businesses had boardwalks, half did not, and when the street began its steep ascent up the bluff, it was more rock than mud.
Except for the fishermen on the wharf and the children playing near the water down the shore, the village appeared deserted. Thomas trudged across to a length of boardwalk fronting a building marked McKinney Rural Telegraph. He stamped mud off his boots and pushed open the door. Sunshine blasted through one dirty window, and Thomas could see a visored head working behind a large desk.
“Sir,” he said politely.
“Yeeeessss,” the voice replied, drawn out like leaking steam. The man stood up, tall and gangling, still squinting at a sheet of paper. He approached the counter. “And what might I do for you, young man?”
“I just arrived on the Alice,” Thomas said, and thrust out his hand.
“Well, I’m sorry,” the man replied before Thomas could introduce himself, and then chuckled at his own joke. He extended his hand. “She arrived in one piece—that’s the important thing.” His grip was both bony and limp. “Carter Birch, and I hope to be pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“I would hope so. I’m Thomas Parks,” the young man said. “Dr. Thomas Parks. I’ve come from Connecticut to work with Dr. John Haines.”
“Is that a fact?” The tall man looked sideways at Thomas and tossed the paper he had been reading on his desk. “Does the good doctor know you’re here?”
“Not yet. I just stepped off the ship. I’m on my way up there now. What I’d really like to do is send a telegram to my father in Connecticut. He’ll want to know that I’m on dry land, I’m sure.” “He’ll be relieved, certainly.” Birch slid a lined form across the counter and handed Thomas a pencil. “Pleasant trip, on the whole?”
“On the whole, yes. Quite an education.”
Writing in neat script, Thomas kept the message brief. “I’m surprised that I don’t see more people in town,” he said as he signed his name. “I was led to believe that as many as several thousand make their home here.”
“Comes and goes,” Birch said. “Go down to the Clarissa around nine o’clock tonight, and there’ll be crowd enough for you. That’s the most popular watering hole, around the point to the south.”
Thomas handed the message to Birch, who took it without a glance.
“When do you suppose he might receive that?” Thomas asked, and Birch grinned a show of strong, yellowing teeth.
“A hell of a lot faster than what it took you to travel out here.” “I would hope so.”
“You’re headed up to one-oh-one now?” Birch asked, and Thomas blinked in surprise. “That’s what folks around here call the good doctor’s house. Finest one on the hill, beyond a doubt. One-oh-one belonged to one of the mill owners, you know. Had it built board by board, just the way he wanted it. And then one day out in the timber, the butt end of a spruce squashed him like an insect, and that was that. The good doctor purchased it from the widow.” Birch grinned again. “Haven’t seen her since.”
Thomas Parks felt a surge of excitement. “Is Dr. Haines the only doctor in McKinney?”
“Was, until last year. Riggs is the other gentleman’s name, I believe. Zachary Riggs. He works with Haines from time to time. I don’t know him well, and to tell the truth, I don’t know what he does other than squiring John’s daughter about.”
“The fair Alvina,” Thomas said. “Father has told me about her.”
“Most fair, yes, indeed.” He held up his left hand, pointing with his right to a long, thin scar that ran around the base of his left thumb, ending low on the fleshy pad of his palm. “She stitched this up, so fine that it looked like an old lady’s needlework.” He glanced over at the pendulum clock on the far wall. “I could keep you here all day with tall tales, but I suspect you’re eager to be on. Stop by from time to time. The telegraph will be off within the hour.”
Thomas extended his hand again, and this time Birch’s grip was more enthusiastic. “I’ll do that, sir. Thanks again.”
“Walk up toward Lindeman’s place…that’s the Mercantile at the top of the hill. That’s the corner of Lincoln and Gambel. Just across the way, you’ll see one-oh-one. It’s a three-story that looks like it’d be at home in Connecticut as much as here, all fancy and frilly. That’s the place. Oh,” and he held up a caution- ing finger, “right at the Mercantile, there’s a dog that everyone wishes would someday drop dead of lead poisoning. Beware of him. Big brindly looking thing with a bad back leg. Even with it, he’s fast enough to catch people. Most of the time, he’s locked up in the back of the Merc, but he finds a way out now and then.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
He turned to go, but Birch held up a hand. “And the telegram is a dollar,” he said. “You want to start an account? I do that for folks.”
“No,” Thomas said, and dug out several coins. “Thanks again.”
By the time he stepped back out on the street, most of the fog had lifted, and the strait fairly sparkled as the afternoon sun chased away the last strands of gray.