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The Girl in the Canoe

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In 1849 Oregon Territory, a gripping tale unfolds as the five spirited daughters of the British Moure family find themselves on the wrong side of the new American border. The British suitors they had been groomed to wed are leaving and the undesirable Americans arriving. With only one remaining beacon of hope, the young and wealthy Charles Winston, the sisters are compelled to vie for his affections, knowing all too well that only one of them can claim him as her prize. Shawnee, the Moure family's proud yet obstinate daughter, soon finds herself out of contention and she must use every means at her disposal to claw her and her other sisters’ way out of the poverty, racism, and sexism they face or risk a life of drudgery and even slavery. Enter Captain Thomas Bodeen, a daring, roguish mercenary, navigating the treacherous Columbia River blockades, haunted by the past of a murdered girl. Their paths converge in a clash of personalities, shattered conventions and redefined desires ruled by only one commodity—gold.

Action / Drama
Age Rating:

Oregon Territory 1849

“I’ll take all the shovels you’ve got.”

The words reverberated through the air, spoken with a mix of confidence and shrewdness. Tom Bodeen, the man behind the proclamation, had just stepped foot into Oregon City’s general store. He was drenched in rain, wearing an oilskin slicker and a black Twill sailor hat, showing off a rugged air.

Behind the store counter, an elderly gentleman spotted him, engaged in casual banter with a customer. Judging by the shock of white hair that adorned his head, the renowned proprietor, Dr. John McLoughlin, revealed himself. His establishment bore the reputation of being the ‘last stop on the Oregon Trail,’ and Tom had journeyed here all the way up from California, seeking to negotiate a deal with this venerable figure.

With purposeful strides, Tom traversed the plank pine floor, creaking in echo to his footsteps, his mud-caked boots marking his passage. The store carried the scent of freshly cut lumber mixed with the aroma of roasted coffee grounds creating a rustic atmosphere. As he passed by the lantern oil and dry goods, Tom's attention remained fixated on the prize; a picket line of shovels propped against the store’s exterior log wall.

John noticed Tom’s gaze, pausing in his conversation with his customer. Referred to by the Indians as ‘John Pee-kin—the White-Headed Eagle of the Whites’ and hailed by others as ‘the most honest man in the territory,’ the store owner assessed Tom with discerning eyes.

‘And what have you brought to trade, sir?’ John’s gaze scrutinized Tom’s unfamiliar presence.

The customer, bearded with unkempt hair and a stained deerskin jacket, scratched at his nose and watched the interaction unfold with the curious desire to learn why Tom needed all those shovels. His unclean appearance and unmistakable body odor rendered him a quintessential settler—a familiar sight in these parts. Even with the six-foot distance between them, Tom found his company about as welcome as an outhouse breeze. Yet, within these confines, all were comrades.

“I have British trade goods fresh from Fort Victoria on Vancouver’s Island,” Tom replied, resting both hands on the roughly hewn counter, ready to do business.

“Did they provide you with your cargo list?” John’s eyes dropped down to his inventory ledgers while thumbing through them.

“They most certainly did. They were well-acquainted with your needs.”

“And does it include Hudson Bay flour?” John matter-of-factly stopped on the desired ledger page to peruse it.

“It most certainly does.”

“Then we have a deal,” John said, now looking up at him. “But I am curious, how much duty did you pay on that flour?”

“None,” Tom responded with a shrug.

“None? Pray tell, how did you accomplish that feat?”

“Oh, I simply raised the stars and stripes and, like any American, sailed right on past the U.S. Customs at Astoria. I am not obliged to stop.”

“Except when carrying Hudson Bay flour,” John admonished him in reminder.

Tom smiled with a hint of amusement, and leaned in slightly, his voice taking on a more confidential tone. “People keep telling me that,” he quipped. “But somehow, I always manage to forget.”

“You’re a smuggler, aren't you?” John’s gaze returned to his ledger, searching for yet another page.

“Some may call it that. I prefer to think of myself as undecided regarding the flag under which I sail.”

“Do you have any notion of the sum you’ve saved in duties?”

“I’m afraid not. Why do you ask?”

“Each time the Hudson Bay Company’s supply ship docks at Astoria, it pays $24,000 in U.S. taxes. I should know—I ran their trading post for over two decades before establishing this store.”

“Well, perhaps the company’s vessel ought to consider not stopping there then?”

“Not my decision anymore,” John replied, stepping away from the counter now to count his inventory of flour sacks. “Don’t worry; I’ll still give you a good price for that flour.”

“Put me down for some of that flour,” the other man quickly chimed in.

“Already did,” John told him, coming back to check his ledger page against his inventory. “So, how’d you manage to navigate the river's current?”

“I have a bateau,” Tom responded of his shallow bottomed sailboat.

“She must be mighty swift to sail against the current.”

“She’s the fastest there is,” Tom boasted.

“If you don't mind my asking, how much cargo does she carry?” John’s curiosity evidently piqued.

Tom answered, sensing the underlying interest. “Four tons. That’s her current load. I’m headed to Fort Vancouver from here to sell the rest.”

“I see. And you plan on purchasing their shovels as well?”

Tom nodded.

“To sell them in California?”

“Yes, indeed. There are a lot of gold miners eagerly awaiting them down there.”

“Figure you’ll sell them for quite a profit, do you?” John asked.

“That is my intention,” Tom affirmed.

“You’re Tom Bodeen, aren’t you?”

“You know me?”

“Heard of you. They say you’re a brave man who never lies.” He checked off another entry on his ledger. “A handsome devil, too. Tell me, sir, what compels you to venture here?”

“Like everyone else, I imagine,” Tom answered. “Money.”

“Oh, but you’re not like everyone else. They’re buying the shovels. You’re selling them,” John dryly observed while calculating his offer.

“I suppose,” Tom conceded.

Like the majority who ventured to this untamed land, Tom desired wealth. However, he had no intention of relying solely on prospecting in the right spot for gold, considering the countless wrong spots one could dig.

“No supposing’s about it. You are,” John affirmed, stepping around past Tom to count the shovels displayed on the wall. “You didn’t come out here to search for gold.”

“No, sir. I make my fortune carrying freight,” Tom disclosed.

Rather than taking his chances with the masses, he intended to profit from them—a path that seemed easier and less risky.

“What other cargo do you plan on transporting back? We don’t have four tons of shovels.”

“I notice you have an abundance of lumber,” Tom pointed out.

“You have a keen eye, sir. Indeed, we do. But suppose I told you how you could make tenfold the profit you would on those shovels. Would you be interested?”

The offer, coming from the most respected man in Oregon Territory, captivated Tom’s attention. “I'd be a fool not to be.”

“There’s more money to be made hauling freight here than in California. Your boat is too small to carry lumber in large quantities anyway. Captain Emery is already en route with his brig to fetch a substantial load of lumber. He’ll put you out of the lumber business in a single trip.”

“Well, I had sort hoped to beat him to the punch,” Tom responded. “But supposing I didn’t. What do you propose?”

John returned to the counter, running his finger down the ledger. “Take your boat up the Columbia River,” he suggested.

“Upstream?” Tom scoffed, shaking his head at the mere suggestion. “Oh, no! Have you forgotten there’s an Indian war going on up there? I had planned on keeping my scalp. I’ve grown rather attached to it. Besides, there’s no Indian war in California.”

“Heard about the war, have you?” John acknowledged.

“Everyone has. It's the talk of California.” Tom began, quickly showing his understanding. “They say some wagon train headed here on the Oregon Trail came down with measles. So they turned north for Marcus Whitman’s Mission knowing he was a doctor.” His eyes met the other customer's for confirmation and whose head bobbed in ready agreement with his facts.

“That’s when the Cayuse women from Frenchtown arrived to trade with the settlers,” Tom continued, now fully engaged in the narrative. “They were offering potatoes and peas in exchange for white linen and cotton shirts. Only they got more than just shirts—they got measles.”

“You’ve heard correctly,” the bearded customer spoke up. “Half the women died, along with nearly all the children. The biggest industry in Frenchtown went from growing Concord grapes for winemaking to building coffins.” His missing front tooth showed. “In retaliation, the Cayuse brutally murdered Marcus Whitman, his wife, all the wagon train men, and ransomed their women and children.”

Frenchtown, Tom knew, was a French community of around four hundred persons. The fur trappers there took Cayuse wives, so as not to be murdered by their tribe, just as the British had built their nearby Fort Walla Walla with twelve-foot walls and two brass cannons not to be murdered by them. The wagon train settlers though lacked any such protection and so fell victim to the Cayuse’s wrath. They called it the “Whitman Massacre.”

“Hostilities ceased over a year ago,” John informed him, completing the order. “I want a sack of flour for each shovel.”

“Agreed!” Tom confirmed before inquiring, interested to hear the fighting had stopped. “What about the measles? Has that epidemic ended as well?”

“Just a month later,” John confirmed.

Tom’s interest was now sparked. “So you’re suggesting it’s safe to venture up there?” he inquired, cautiously optimistic.

“It should be,” John reassured him.

“Suppose I undertake this journey. Will I be transporting the same cargo I have now?”

“Yes, the very same. Except for the flour—that stays here,” John explained, making his ledger entries as he spoke “Think about it,” he said, still writing. “The Hudson Bay Company will purchase the rest of your cargo and pay you to take it past the native tribes to their trading forts further upriver.”

“And you claim I’ll earn ten times what I can make with these shovels? Because I’m pretty sure I can earn quite a lot on them.”

“You can almost name your price. Salem will pay you $6 for a bushel of wheat that you’ll pay 80 cents for. You’ll be paid in gold.”

Tom leaned in closer, his curiosity now fully piqued. The conversation had shifted from shovels to much grander possibilities. He wanted to hear more. “Isn’t the Oregon Trail still impassable due to the warring Indians?”

“It is, but you can bypass them by using the river,” John said. “I’ve got a chart you can use.” He went out back to bring it out and roll it out to show him.

Tom took a close perusal of it, admittedly impressed at how good it was. It not only included soundings but the prevailing wind direction, their speeds, and times. “Someone went to a lot of trouble to make this,” he noted in admiration of it. “It must have cost you a fortune.”

The good doctor eyed him without answering, waiting for his decision as the rain drummed off the roof.

It did look intriguing, but Tom still shook his head. He had his doubts. “No, it’s too risky.” He decided. “The man who sold this did so for a good reason, knowing if he ever tried using it himself, the Indians would catch and kill him for sure on the river. So, he sold it to you, instead.”

“He sold it because his bateau’s too slow to get past the natives. Yours isn’t.”

“Well, it’s a mighty tempting offer and it is a good chart. I’ll grant you that, but it’s not enough,” Tom said. “A person could get killed up there. You’ve had nearly two years to do it yourself and still haven’t done it with, or without, this chart. So why haven’t you?”

“I told you. Our bateau is too slow. But if the natives concern you, we have stopped selling them gunpowder.”

“And you think I can get past them?” Tom asked either man.

“You can if your boat is as fast as you say it is,” said John.

“I don’t know,” Tom mused, noticing the other man hadn’t answered. “Seems to me an entire regiment of militia tried to take on those Indians and got themselves whooped.”

“You’re talking about Colonel Cornelius Gilliam and his outfit,” the other customer spoke up, nodding in agreement. “Yeah! You heard right. They got themselves more than just whooped. Colonel Gilliam got himself killed!” He shook his head in grim remembrance. “The rest all came a running back here with their tails between their legs.”

He paused and went on. “That dang fool colonel wasn’t happy enough to pick a fight with just one tribe but two others, too!” He waggled a finger to make his point. “Some of his men are still trapped up there.”

“That’s true,” John said without argument. “But let me show you something, something they didn’t have then.”

He again went into the back of his store to return with a surprising item and set it down on the counter in front of Tom. “Do you recognize what this is?”

Oh, indeed, Tom did. They had only just come out. His eyebrows rose at what was before him, the greed of dollar signs registering in his eyes already.

“Do you mind if I look it over?” he asked.

“No. Go right ahead! It’s yours if you want. It comes with the chart.”

Tom picked it up if only for the privilege of its inspection, tracing the textured surface of the linseed oil finish and the intricate grain of the wood with a sense of admiration for its fine workmanship and design. This was a tempting offer. When the odds are against you, always put them in your favor, and the good doctor had just done so.

“I get both?”

“You get both.”

“And you’re sure the Indians don’t have gunpowder?” Tom looked him in the eye.

“Not for over a year.”

Then this changed everything. He had only one question.

“How much?”

“I’ll make you a deal,” John offered. “That, and this chart, no charge, for a share of your profits.”

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