Utah Territory, Fall, 1850
CASSIDY O’RYAN GAZED with tear-filled eyes across the dry, empty desert. A lone tumbleweed drew her attention as it rolled across the flat and parched landscape. The few folks
left in their small wagon caravan had unceremoniously moved on to California without them, and now Mr. Dingle was dead.
She had no partiality for this United States territory called Utah. After miles of yellow and green prairie grass guarded by breathtaking snowcapped peaks, nothing pleased the eye in this new, desolate land. Stepping away from the stifling sun and hovering in the few inches of the wagon’s shade, she popped her fan open to cool her face. The early morning air brought little reprieve to her aggravated state. No trees. No water to be had as far as she could see. The sand felt more taxing than the miles and miles of prairie she’d walked. The small hot pebbles brought no kindly distractions to her feet, legs, or being. And what kind of self-respecting mountain would have flat tops like that rising up from the sand?
Sighing, she laid her hand on the empty water barrel hanging from the side of the wagon. Months and months of planning had brought her here to this place. A new life awaited her. Her old identity tying her to Boston died on this journey. The only two men who knew her secret didn’t matter any longer. Mr. Dingle, the dear man, was to be buried in a grave with her past, and for that, she should be truly grateful, aside from losing the poor man. Joy was now truly nowhere to be found, besides the older man’s death, to think they all might die of thirst anyway. Poor Mr. Dingle, to come this far and die in such a dreadful place.
Ethel Finnegan, Finny as Cassidy always called her, could now trade places with her as planned. She’d not been responsible for the old man’s death, yet because of it, Cassidy could finally get what she wanted. More despondency overcame her, and she blinked slowly with exhaustion. Her salty tears flowed over her dusty cheeks.
Cassidy jumped at the sound of the wagon driver’s voice.
“Yes, Mr. Coffey.” She quickly drew her sleeve over her wet face.
“I find it pure toil, ma’am, to dig in this sand.” The short man pulled his hat off and slapped it on his filthy pants. “My oxen be needin’ a drink soon.” He shook his head and plopped on his hat. “I can’t dig worth nothin’. As soon as I pull a shovel of sand out, the sides just fill back up.”
Cassidy inhaled a sturdy breath. “I can feel the poor fortune of one dying in the desert.” She stilled, frowning. Being alive, how could she feel his misfortune? Tucking her loose hair behind her ear, her shoulders drooped. Unlike Finny, Mr. Coffey never noticed her blunders, so she carried on. “Mr. Dingle had been with my family for over forty years. Certainly, I owe him a proper burial.”
“I felt kindly to the man myself,” Mr. Coffey sighed, looking out across the miles of scorching desert. “We lost a few days for the dyin’, and now everyone’s moved on. I don’t like being so far behind.” He frowned, pulling on his black and gray beard.
Cassidy despised the day she’d vowed she could do this trading identities with Finny and naively leaving Boston on a wagon train west. Planning and scheming for the switch while pretending to all the kindhearted wagon folk they were just two
honorable young women from Boston. Her pernicious selfishness had caught up with her. More tears escaped, she should have stayed and married the first suitor her father pressed on her. Her mind drifted to the older, red, square-faced colleague of her father’s and closed her eyes, suppressing a shudder.
Finny leaned out the back of the covered wagon. “Do the best you can, Walt. God rest his soul.” She disappeared just as fast as she appeared.
Cassidy’s blood and body wilted. Finny carried no consciousness of her blunt speech. Before she could speak, Mr. Coffey had already turned the corner. Sliding down the side of the wagon wheel in a heap, she peeked over her shoulder. Poor Mr. Dingle wrapped like a mummy in canvas, lying underneath the wagon, waiting for his final resting place. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “You were a good man and served my family well. You don’t deserve this.” Her throat constricted and the tears pooled again. She dropped her head onto her knees and covered her head with her arms.
That afternoon, Cassidy, Finny, and Mr. Coffey gathered around the shallow grave. Mr. Dingle’s shoe tips made the tan, burial canvas peek out from the sand.
“Them—Those stiff black shoes were downfall himself,” Finny announced over the silence. “Gave him those blood blisters, aye, they did.” Her curt Irish brogue spilled out. “Them black devil socks leaked their poison right into them, sure and it’s true.” She pursed her thin lips and decisively bobbed her head, eyes flashing the truth of what she said. “And then he died.” A swift, hot wind kicked their skirts around their legs. “Or that he was just old.” She shrugged, holding Cassidy’s parasol tight against the swirling wind. “God rest his soul.”
Finny gestured for Cassidy to steal a glance at Mr. Walter Coffey. The short, burly teamster closed his eyes, showing his reverence. Finny pinched her nose closed and scowled. Cassidy knew well enough the man never bathed, and as much as they appreciated his wagon expertise, his body odor would reroute a stampede. They both stood on the wrong side of the wind for this modest funeral.
“Did you go through his things now?” Finny asked.
Mr. Coffey’s eyes shot open, and Cassidy wished she could grab her parasol back and smack her opinionated companion. “I’ll be sayin’ a prayer,” Cassidy announced, hoping to change the subject.
“Dearest Father in Heaven.” How did the priest at Second Street Parish say it? She took in a deep, convincing breath. A woman could pray aloud. Couldn’t she? “We thank you for the life of Mr. Dingle. Thank you for taking his spirit to heaven yesterday.” Did he go straight to heaven or—oh, lolly, she should have paid more attention. “May you receive him and give him a—a nice chair, and home, and everything—that you do for—for—for thine is the glory forever and ever. And your kingdom come forever. Amen.” She thought she heard Finny snicker at the rushed ending.
“God rest his soul.” Finny lifted her fingers to her forehead, down to her chest and touched each shoulder in the sign of the cross. “Amen.”
“How ‘bout ya play one of those nice church hymns with your fiddle, Miss O’Ryan,” said Mr. Coffey slapping his hat back on.
Finny waved the parasol in the air. “Sweet Mary, Mother, and Joseph, why don’t we start a fire and make skillet bread while we’re at it. I’m thinkin’ we had little water, and you were in a hurry to get to California, Walt.” Finny spun on her heel. “I know I am. I have a rich fiancé waitin’ for me.” She snapped the sun-beaten parasol closed and spun back to Cassidy, pulling her from the gravesite. “We need to get a move on. Those oxen get one whiff of Mr. Coffey, and beast and man will all be dead and buried in this cursed sand.”
The next day Finny slept as Mr. Coffey led their wagon across the punishing desert. Cassidy sat crossed-legged on the bench looking down at her assigned lady’s maid asleep on the padded pallet in the middle of the wagon. Wanting to find her usual dislike for the young woman who’d agreed to travel west and marry the man her father picked for her, she shook her head.
Cousin Arnold Snider, to be specific, a cousin by marriage who had been groomed by her father these last years to start a new branch of cargo and shipping from the bay of San Francisco.
Her father would have nothing less for her than a profitable business match. She hadn’t seen Cousin Arnold face to face since she was eleven and he was twenty. Little mind did they pay to each other back then.
Heaven above, the closer they got to California, the more she wondered if she’d lost her good sense on the long trail west. Maybe it was losing Mr. Dingle, the only one who knew for certain she was the oldest daughter of one of the most successful shipping tycoons in the east. And by all social standings, he alone understood Finny was her lady’s maid.
Mouth dry as cotton, she licked her cracked lips and pulled her fingers through her thick coppery red hair. Propriety was long gone from her daily toilet. Finny stopped helping her dress a month after they left Missouri. Like a feral cat set free from a cage, Finny came alive with the thought of being unbarred in this new land. The unmarried cowboys and ranchers certainly had no problem being Finny’s persistent source of entertainment and revelry on the trail. She pulled the dirty pieces of hair apart and weaved the thick strands into a braid. Many times she knew Finny teetered on leaving their planned caper for the strong shoulder of a dandy promising her anything she wanted. But the annoying housemaid had sat tight, and Cassidy had to give her credit. For a young woman who’d never had any family, of course, the prospect of wealth and security pressed Finny forward. And she herself would never take for granted the comforts of life again. Little did she know she could survive broken axels, deep river crossings, and steep ascents. What obstacle did she and this wagon not have to contend with? A few sips of water a day would surely be her last test.
The newspapers were calling the people rushing to find gold in California Argonauts. Cassidy believed they were a brave breed of people, worthy of the name. Picking at the threads from a hole in her skirt, she thought about what they were doing. Taking everything they owned, leaving their predictable lives behind, and bearing their children along the way — all for the promise of gold, silver, or land and timber. And many just like her, trying to find independence from life’s restraints. She rubbed her hand over her violin case. This was her gold — the love of song, dance, and entertainment. She’d read in the newspaper that the west was open for the arts and performance, even for women.
Mr. Dingle’s bedroll swung from a peg. The cost for a hapless-romantic girl’s dream west had been so high. Forgive me, kind sir. Her mind drifted to his smile and progressive disposition. Just two days ago, she’d tried to give him her sips of water as Finny chastised her for the waste. She’d prayed her drops would keep him going. She held back a groan. The only day she’d seen him melancholy was when the Raymond family split with the wagon train to take the Oregon Trail. He’d had a special friendship with the old widow, Mae Raymond. Knowing this trip was about her blessed freedom, why didn’t she offer him his freedom to follow his heart?
Weary in body and conscience, Cassidy contemplated laying back down, but she knew that would just free her mind in favor for more fretting. Searching their tiny, rustic, moving home, Cassidy wondered if any last drops remained in Mr. Dingle’s canteen. In these desperate times, womanly preparations halted for the greater need of thirst. Peering down at Finny once more, she wondered how she could begrudge Finny her exhaustion. They were all tired and reduced in spirit. How could she think months of explaining manners and decorum could transform a housemaid into a lady? Though the cowboys, miners, and families along the trail made no such class distinctions, many of them offered friendship to both of them equally.
Folks commented weekly on how they should have been born sisters. Finny’s red hair shone in a lighter, not quite as curly style. Cassidy started adding the olive dye to produce a richer, polished copper color. Thinner and longer in the nose, Finny had narrower cheeks than herself. Cassidy ran her fingers along her face, ignoring the small compact in her reticule. She’d no desire to see how thin and weather-beaten she appeared now.
They would get to the end of this desert and rest at the border of California. From there on, she would need to remember to call Finny Kathleen, or rather, Miss Kathleen O’Ryan, or better yet, Miss O’Ryan. And she would have to claim the name, Miss Cassidy Finnegan for herself. It wasn’t a bad name, Cassidy. Coming from her days with her grandmother when she asked they call her Cassidy rather than Kathleen. She nodded her head.
Finnegan was a strong name in the Irish community of Boston.
Some of her starch leeched away as she thought perhaps the California people would treat her in a lowly servanthood state. But Finny had agreed to address Cassidy as her lady’s companion, not as a maid knowing full well that Finny had been a domestic her entire life. They agreed to help each other in their new roles, and now that she’d found Mr. Dingle’s pouch and had hidden her family’s money with her things, the new Kathleen would have to follow through with that promise. Two hundred dollars for a dowry, her father’s money handed to Mr. Arnold Snider upon his day of marriage to Miss Kathleen O’Ryan in the form of Finny Finnegan, the young, eager, overconfident woman standing in her place. Could it get any more confusing?