On the Canal: This is the story of Chance Fraser, who was orphaned early in life and cast adrift in England at the time of the Industrial Revolution. He ends up working on a narrow boat on the canals, just one of the water rats so looked down upon by the rest of society. Inadvertently, he overhears a gang making plans to kidnap the young daughter of a rich family and hold her for ransom. He goes to the police, but they don't want to hear from the likes of him. Same with the girl's family. In fact no one wants to listen to him. In desperation, he preempts the gang's plans by kidnapping her himself. He holds Emily captive for days, careful not to reveal his identity. When he feels it safe, he returns her to her family. The encounter leaves him wanting more out of life than just the hard work on the canal.
The Passage: Years later, Emily is on a passage to Egypt to meet her husband. She encounters Chance who is the chief engineer on the steam ship, not recognizing him, but growing more aware of him as time goes on. After a storm, the ship makes an emergency stop in Tunis. By some misadventure Emily gets arrested for allegedly spying for the French who were, at the time, desirous of annexing Tunis to their growing African empire. She is left alone to face a hostile court, set on condemning her. Chance turns up unexpectedly to defend her and blackmails the Court to let them go free. They arrive safely in Egypt and Emily finally learns his identity.
The Camp: Chance settles in Mississippi, loses his wife, joins the Confederate Army and fights in the siege of Vicksburg where he is wounded and taken prisoner. He is sent to a notorious prison and struggles to survive the horrors of the camp known as Hellmira, where 1 in 4 die due to exposure, starvation and disease. He gets sick and is taken to the hospital where he is cared for by Emily, but neither recognize the other. He nearly dies but she saves him. In the end, she recognizes him but is suddenly posted elsewhere, and Chance can't find her after the war.
On the Rails: After the war, Chance tries to restart his life. Every direction seems closed to him and he drifts around the country, to finally end up working on the eastern end of the construction of the Transcontinental railroad. As the work inches across the West, Chance is haunted by memories of Emily; only the job keeps him focussed. He makes enemies in the rolling camp, known as Hell on Wheels, is forced to leave and resumes his wanderings.
The Sluice: In Vancouver, Chance runs into a miner who convinces him to join in a partnership to try the gold fields of interior British Columbia. They work a claim but find little. In the loneliness of the wilderness, Chance thinks often of Emily. Trouble breaks out between rival miners over water rights and Chance ends up negotiating a compromise. He meets a young couple who are part owners of a larger mining outfit and saves their lives from a bear attack. Then Chance and his partner strike it rich and Chance is free to buy a new life.
Home: Chance travels to Toronto for a fateful reunion.
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