Excerpt from The Shipwreck Secret by Vanessa Lind (copyright 2023)
from Chapter Three
Clatsop Sands, 1888
Beneath a tarp, Jo braced herself as best she could against the bumps as the wagon jolted along the rutted dirt road. She and Amity had scrambled beneath the tarp just as the men were emerging through the Sheltons’ front door.
She was glad for the cover from the rain, glad for the darkness that kept her from having to witness Amity’s discomfort in addition to her own. At least they’d found extra rubber boots and rain slickers under the tarp.
The wagon slowed, then came to a stop. From the scrambling of boots, it sounded as if the men were getting out.
“Now?” Amity whispered.
From outside the wagon, Will lifted the tarp. “What’s this?”
Pelted by wind and rain, Jo bolted up. “We’re here on behalf of the Evening Register.”
“To get a firsthand account.” On the pile of boots, Amity stood unsteadily.
“You’ll have to wait in the wagon,” said the surfman who’d come for Will.
Olin peered over the side of the wagon. “That’s right. You’d only get in the way.”
“No more than you will.” Jo grabbed a slicker and a pair of boots. She put them on. Then, hiking her skirt as far as she dared, she jumped down from the wagon. Amity did the same.
Will and the other surfman exchanged glances. “Got spunk,” said the surfman. “I’ll give ‘em that.”
“We’ll be of help,” Amity said. “Tending to the survivors.”
“If there are any survivors,” the fourth man said grimly.
Shielding her eyes from the driving rain, Jo looked into the darkness. “Where’s the ship?”
“Ran into the jetty,” the surfman said. “That’s the message we got at the station before the lines went down.”
“I thought the jetty was supposed to make things safer,” Jo said.
“It will,” Olin said. “When it’s finished.”
“The rest of the Point Adams men are attempting to reach the wreck by boat,” the surfman said. “But in this storm, they may not get past the bar.”
"You have to go out, but you don't have to come back," Will said, repeating the lifesavers’ motto.
“Our instructions are to take the locomotive,” the surfman said. “In case they can’t get there by water.”
“I don’t see a locomotive,” Amity said.
Will pointed into the wind. “It’s up ahead, a mile or so. Let’s get going.”
Bracing against the wind, Jo and Amity tromped after Will. Behind them trudged the other three men. In her borrowed boots, Jo struggled to keep her footing. Pummeled by sideways rain, she could barely see. But even as she struggled against the elements, a story was taking shape in her head. Even the venerable Nellie Bly had written nothing so dramatic.
Near the mouth of the Columbia—the treacherous Columbia bar - thousands had died when their ships foundered. She hoped this vessel’s occupants had survived. But she knew that even the most experienced crew could be lost in conditions like this. Passengers were at even greater risk when what should have been a pleasant ocean voyage turned into a full-blown disaster.
These were the conditions that had prompted the recent opening of the Point Adams lighthouse and lifesaving station, the second such effort in Oregon. After weeks of practice with signal flags, cannons, breeches buoys, and boat drills, Will and his fellow surfmen would now put their skills to the test.
Grateful as Jo was for the rain slicker, it left her skirt half-exposed to the elements. As she tromped over the grassy dunes, the weight of her soaked frock grew heavier and heavier. Shivering from the cold, she clenched her teeth to keep them from chattering.
Finally, she looked up and saw the hulking locomotive.
“Get in the cab,” Will said, gesturing at the engine. “I’ll wake the engineer and the fireman.”
Olin pulled a step stool up to the locomotive’s door. “Ladies first.” He offered Amity his hand. Ignoring it, she grabbed the rail and climbed into the cab on her own.
Jo followed. Inside, she let down the slicker’s hood, flinging raindrops to the floor.
Amity plopped onto a stool. “Remind me to let you go by yourself next time you come up with a stellar idea like this.”
Olin swung himself up and into the cab. “Afraid I’d scoop you, were you?”
“It’s a big story,” Jo said. “The town deserves multiple perspectives.”
“Big enough to make the wires, I hope.” Olin tapped the toe of his boot on the floor, a nervous habit.
The surfman climbed up into the cab, followed by Will and the two bleary-eyed men he’d roused from the station house. Jo and the others stepped aside, making room for them.
“Brought a party along, did you?” said the older of the men Will had fetched. He turned his glare on Jo and Amity.
Jo straightened. “We’re reporters with the Evening Register, sir.”
Stone-faced, the man seemed not to hear. He sat down in front of the controls, a complex assortment of pipes, valves, and levers. “Such a night to be out.”
The younger man—the fireman, Jo assumed—began shoveling coal into the tender. As he started up the boiler, the cab began to warm. Jo was tempted to shed her coat. But they’d no doubt be going out again soon.
Studying the gauges, the engineer reached for the throttle. The locomotive chugged slowly forward. “Can’t take her too fast. Weather like this, the trestle could be out.”
On top of that, fog was rolling in. Huddled together, the group leaned forward as one, peering out the locomotive’s front window through the wisps of gray that curled against the night. Soon the fog turned so thick it obscured all but the tracks right in front of them.
Squinting into the night, the engineer squeezed the brake handle, slowing the train to a crawl. All eyes strained ahead. Jo’s breath caught in her throat. She wasn’t prone to fear, but neither was she keen on the plunging with the locomotive off a damaged trestle and into the depths.
As they rounded a corner, Amity pressed toward the window. Ahead, a dim outline took shape, like an apparition forming out of the fog. Crouching close to the tracks, the figure crawled toward them, a bundle of some sort clasped to its chest.
The fireman yanked the whistle cord. Shrill and loud, the warning filled the night.
from The Shipwreck Secret: A Gilded Age Mystery