Familiar Stranger in Clear Springs

By: Kathryn Albright

Chapter One

  Southern California, 1876

  Elizabeth looked up from marking the last sale in her ledger and frowned at the youngster standing by the large wooden crate of fruit from the backcountry. “Timothy Daugherty! I saw that! That apple does not have your name on it. Put it back right now. Gent­ly please!”

  Ten-year-old Timothy looked sufficiently chastised; however, Elizabeth knew better. Under that contrite expression he was plotting how he would talk his way out of this. It wasn’t that he was starving. With his father managing the building of the new nail factory up the road, his family had the funds for whatever they desired here in the mercantile. It was the challenge that drove Timothy. He wanted to boast to his friends that he’d given “old Miss Morley” the slip and had gotten away without her realizing she had one less piece of fruit to sell.

  His best friend and cohort, Lucas Slater, stood shoulder to shoulder with him and, by the looks of him, was also hiding an apple behind his back. He, however, concerned her. His mother, Martha, struggled to put food on the table for him and his sister ever since her husband passed on suddenly a year ago.

  Timothy scowled and tossed the apple back in the crate.

  Elizabeth winced. That would be a bruised—and therefore unsellable—piece of fruit. She mentally counted to ten. Deep breath in, deep breath out, letting the briny scent of the harbor fill her lungs. Better that than saying something she would regret. It would be so easy to retort with a sharp word. Too easy. And then wouldn’t she be one step closer to being the sour old spinster she vowed never to become?

  “Don’t you have schoolwork or something you need to be doing?”

  “Naw. It’s Saturday.”

  “I am well aware of the day, young man.” It was the day before Sunday—when after church she would sequester herself inside to be proper. A day she was coming to hate for all that it forced her to be alone when everyone else had families to enjoy. Usually she would work on her quilting, although even that pastime had dulled of late. She had made several quilts and given them away, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a reason to make a special one to keep?

  She pressed her lips together. Wasn’t she sounding bitter all of a sudden? Better to be grateful for what she had—a roof over her head, sustenance, her health. She put a smile in her voice. “Perhaps you’d like to earn that apple...and a few more...by doing some chores for me.”

  Timothy wrinkled his freckled nose. “Ugh... I got enough chores at home. Don’t need no more.”

  “Don’t need any more,” she corrected gently.

  “That’s what I said!”

  “Well, then...” She turned toward the other boy. “Lucas? How about you?”

  Startled just as he was returning his own stolen apple, Lucas jumped and scraped his fingers across the edge of the barrel. He winced and examined his thumb.

  “Here. Let me see,” Elizabeth said, reaching for his hand. Two splinters pierced the skin and had settled below the reddened surface. “I’ll get my drawing salve...and needle.”

  She found the items behind the counter and returned to Lucas. His eyes grew large when he saw the needle. “I remember my mother doing this for me when I had a splinter.” Her throat tightened at the image of Mother tending to her minor hurts over the years. Oh, how she missed her.

  At Lucas’s anxious expression, she pulled her thoughts back to the present situation. “It will hurt much less to have the piece of wood ease out than it did going in. I promise. Just hold still for me.”

  He braced himself, trying hard to be brave, but still he squirmed under her attention. When the splinters came out, she spread the salve and tied a small cloth bandage around the injured thumb. “There now. Have your mother look at it tonight.”

  “Thank ya, ma’am.” He shuffled a bit with his feet and avoided her gaze, his face a bright red.

  “You’re welcome.” Amused at his obvious embarrassment—was it from being caught red-handed with the apple or because she’d held his hand?—she found herself studying him. His dark tousled hair could use a combing. For that matter, his clothes could stand a cleaning.

  “Isn’t your mother taking in laundry now?” she asked.

  “Yes’m.”

  Like the cobbler who didn’t have shoes for his children, it must be the woman didn’t have time to wash her own family’s clothes...or have the energy once her other work was done. Elizabeth sighed. Her knack for details was a good thing to have in running the mercantile, yet it unfortunately came with a negative side—the tendency to be altogether too critical of others. She would make up something for Lucas to do—perhaps sweeping or dusting—even though the store was as clean as could be. Then he could take home a sack filled with apples for his family.

  Lucas shot a look at Timothy, who had started backing away.

  Timothy cocked his head, indicating they should go.

  “Can’t stay today,” Lucas said. “We’re goin’ fishin’.” And with that, he bolted out the door with his buddy. They each grabbed a fishing pole that they’d left leaning against the store’s outer wall and jumped off the boardwalk. The motion dislodged the wedge that propped open the door and it swung shut with a loud bang. The shelving display of colored glassware rattled at the disturbance.

  Elizabeth stepped to the entry and propped the mercantile door open again with the wooden wedge and watched the two race across the dirt road to the open area beyond the old jail. Just before scooting out of sight behind the building, Timothy reached into each of his bulging back pockets and pulled out two apples, handing one to his cohort. Amused, Elizabeth blew out a short breath. At least it wouldn’t weigh on her mind about Lucas being hungry.

  Something pressed against her ankles. Patches. She reached down and picked up her cat, scratching him behind the ears as she cuddled him to her and continued to watch the two boys. They headed for the small strip of sandy beach where they rolled up their pant-legs and waded into the water to throw in their lines. September, as a rule, was warm enough for wading, but another month and it would be too cool to fish that way. Still, she envied them their freedom. It had been years since she walked barefoot on the beach and dug her toes deep into the soft sand.

  A cool sea breeze teased a tendril of hair that tickled her neck. She tucked the strand back up in her loose bun. It was a cursory repair that would be down again in another half hour, but by then she would be closing the mercantile and how she looked to her customers would be the last thing on her mind.

  Across the way, in front of her alterations shop, Mrs. Flynn stopped rocking in her porch chair and waved.

  Elizabeth raised her hand in response and then lowered it slowly when she noticed a scruffy-looking rider down the main street of town. Something about him seemed familiar, but with his back to her, she couldn’t place where she’d seen him. The way he sat his horse reminded her of someone. With one last glance toward the boys, she turned and entered the mercantile.

  * * *

  Twilight offered Tom Barrington the anonymity he craved as he rode his horse down La Playa’s main street and silently took in the changes in the town. Twilight, and the fact that his month’s growth of facial hair and well-worn clothes made him look every bit the dusty itinerant. Not far from the truth. He’d lived in the shirt and canvas pants long enough they’d lost their itch and then regained it. How—he didn’t want to contemplate too deeply.

  He reined the Major to a stop before Rose’s Hotel. Through the front windows the warm glow of lamplight beckoned hospitably. His first order of business, once he’d seen to his horse, would be a bath and a shave. After traveling for the past three weeks he could scarcely stand to live with himself. He dismounted, taking care to put his weight on his right leg, and looped the reins around the front post. The Major pranced sideways and then pawed at the ground. “Easy now,” Tom said quietly. When he was sure his horse had settled, Tom climbed the steps and strode through the front door.

  A short, balding man stood behind the high counter, took his information and handed him a room key and a folded note. “Mr. Furst left this for you. Northern California, you say? Seen any Indian action?”

  Tom had, but long ago he had learned to keep things to himself. “Some,” he murmured. Upon reading the message he relaxed slightly. Sam had received his wire and would meet with him later that evening. He had just enough time for a bite to eat after taking care of the Major.

  “May I see to your horse?” the clerk asked.

  The livery was probably in the same place. And in a town this size, if it wasn’t, he would soon find it. “I’ll take care of him.”

  “Suit yourself.”

  He slipped the key and the note into his inside vest pocket and headed back outside. The Major snorted at the weeds at the base of his holding post, sending up a small cloud of dust. He stomped one foreleg, the motion jarring his muscles up to his shoulder. He had seen a lot of action over the years. A new place, a sharp sound, and his horse could easily break into an all-out dash down the road and be three miles to the foothills before anyone noticed. For three weeks, Tom had used his saddle as a pillow and slept close by, sensing calmness in the horse when he was near. Wouldn’t happen tonight. He was done in. The lure of a soft, clean bed was more enticing than camping out on stacked hay bales near a skittish horse. Once settled, Tom hoped a full feed bucket and a warm stall would soothe the Major’s disposition.

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