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Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Four)

John bellied up to the polished bar at the California Republic Saloon and spilled twenty-five berries on the counter.

"Pour me a tequila, Saul."

As Saul went for the liquor, John avoided his reflection in the back bar's long mirror. It wasn't as if he couldn't face himself. He had every right to these berries. He'd gone on a late-night scout and had only picked the twenty-five needed for a midnight drink. He shouldn't be feeling guilty. There was no reason to share with Isabel. He'd thrown in everything else he picked. His intentions were still on the up and up.

But for right now, he needed the tequila to smooth over his rocky emotions.

He'd never been so… heroic… around a woman– first, getting her a horse by promising to shovel its apples, then making a half-dozen trips for water at dawn when he could have been catching a few extra winks in bed.

What had gotten into him?

No liquor is what. His brain had dried up. As soon as he had a drink, he'd be back to his old self. John licked his lips in anticipation.

Saul turned around, set the drink down, and slid it toward John.

"You can take your hands off the glass, Saul," John said confidently. "It's all there. Twenty-five berries. Count 'em if you don't trust me."

The barkeep's fingers remained on the shot glass's circumference. "I trust you, John. But tequila's gone up to fifty berries. Berry inflation."

John's spirits plummeted. "What was that?"

Motioning to the sign, Saul read, "All drinks are to be paid for with berries, at a predetermined price set by the barkeep."

"Well, hell!" John erupted, removing his hat and then smashing it back on. "Pour me a damn beer then."

With quiet emphasis, Saul explained, "Beer's thirty berries."

"But I only have twenty-five berries!" Taking off his Stetson once more, he was vaguely aware of creasing the crown and resettling the brim over his forehead again. "Pour me a damn half a beer!"

"Sorry, John. No discounts."

Muttering a string of oaths, John stood.

Newt Slocum had the misfortune of entering the Republic with a grin on his mug. "Hey, John. Haven't seen you around."

Without a word, John coiled his arm back and hit Newt square on the jaw with a punch that sent him reeling backward into a limp heap. "That's for lying about Isabel."

Then John stormed out of the saloon and left thoughts of Newt behind.

Somebody was out to get him. He didn't know exactly who, but somewhere, somebody, was thinking this was a hell of a funny one to pull over on John Wolcott–shut off the tap to his liquor by decreasing the value of berries.

He shoved the swinging doors and stood on the darkened boardwalk. A thin moon spilled down on Main Street. In its pale milky cast, a golf ball flew past like a shooting star, diving into the horse trough in front of John. The force of its impact splashed him with murky water.

John took a sharp look to the right where the ball had come from.

Nothing stirred. He couldn't see anybody.

To the night shadows, he shouted, "I've got news for you, whoever you are! I'm not laughing!"

The speculative buzz in the growing crowd escalated the closer the hour got to noon. Isabel had heard Bellamy Nicklaus would be stepping onto his porch to announce the arrival of his Christmas tree– the very one the berries were going to decorate. Supposedly a big Douglas fir had been cut near Santa Barbara and was being shipped down on the Pacific Coastal Railroad.

Gazing at the freshly painted house with its old gold half-timbered gables, Indian red trim, straw body color, and medium brownstone roof, Isabel couldn't believe it was the same decrepit place it had been less than a week ago. Box elder that had been overgrown and gangly was neatly clipped. Monkey flowers thick with sticky foliage and trumpet-shaped flowers in a colorful profusion bookended the house's sides leading to the front path. How had Bellamy managed to do so much overnight? It was as if he were… magic.

Through the gathering, a gray felt Stetson stood out above the rest catching Isabel's attention. John. Although a short distance separated them, she could see he hadn't slept well. His long hair had been combed behind his ears and he hadn't shaved. Their eyes briefly held, then she looked away, feeling inexplicably self-conscious. Yesterday, she'd known he'd wanted to kiss her. But she'd pretended not to notice, too afraid to let herself melt beneath his sensual gaze. Doing so would be easy. Effortless. But she'd have to live with the repercussions.

A hush fell over the group as soon as the pop-pop and ca-pow of a rarely-ever-seen-in-Limonero motor car sounded, putting in from Main Street. Isabel hadn't even heard the noon train's whistle announcing its arrival And here came a dusty black Olds with a festive wreath mounted on the center headlamp.

Sticking up at least ten feet from the tonneau poked the tallest Christmas tree Isabel had ever seen, a fir with dense and fluffy foliage. The bluish-green needles spread all around the branches. "Olds Motor Vehicle Company–Curved Dash model," the man next to Isabel said.

The fellow beside him added, "Nicklaus must have a bankroll. Only twelve of these have been made so far."

"You don't say."

"Four-point-five horsepower with a single cylinder engine of ninety-five-point-five cubic inches mounted horizontally under the seat."

"Bet it can really open up on the road with all that power."

"Yep. One of these beauties goes for six hundred and fifty simoleons."

In the driver's seat and commandeering the automobile sat an extremely tall and broad- shouldered man in a white touring duster. He was burly enough to be a prizefighter. The chap next to him was just as husky.

Everyone cleared an opening for the Olds to pull up at the house's picket gate. The two men hopped down and swaggered toward the front door. Isabel stood on tiptoe so she wouldn't miss anything.

"What do you make of all this?" John's deep voice tickled the shell of her ear, bringing a cascade of shivers out on her arms. Turning her head toward him, she said, "I don't know what to make of it. I've never seen anything like this. Have you?"

"Reminds me of a Jig Top tent menagerie I went to with my brother. A lot of strange exhibitions."

"The front door's opening!" somebody shouted.

Isabel craned her neck to watch the door swing inward and a portly man fill its opening. A scotch plaid cap covered the snow white hair on his head. His bushy brows, full mustache, and long beard were the same aged hue. His plump cheeks had a ruddiness to them.

He wore argyle knickers and ribbed socks that sagged in spite of the elastic button-clasp garters holding them up to his pudgy knees. On his feet–felt house slippers. He smoked a pipe and dangled a metal, canelike stick in his hand

My… but this Bellamy Nicklaus was an eccentric- looking man.

"Well, hell," John muttered at her side. "He's the guy who's been slicing chip shots at me."

"What?"

John didn't get the opportunity to answer. Bellamy began talking.

"Glad to see you folks came out to watch the arrival of my tree," he said with a chuckle. Then, to the gargantuan men, he announced, as the corners of his eyes creased with glee, "You've done a fine job, Yule and Tide. This one's even better than last year's when we were on Pago Pago. Sure do miss those prickly fruits–what were they! "

"Pineapples," Yule replied.

"Ja, pineapples," Tide seconded.

To the crowd, Bellamy enthusiastically smiled. "I hope you've all been busy gathering berries." He stared directly at John and Isabel. Mostly Isabel.

The bottom dropped from her stomach, as if she'd been on a swing and had gone too high, then plummeted backward. Nordic blue eyes reached inside her and touched her heart. She couldn't explain it. But immediately she felt a kindred spirit, a fondness… and even the overwhelming desire to tell him everything about herself.

But the way Bellamy looked at her, he already knew every detail of her life: that she had never really favored the pink hair ribbons she'd gotten for Christmas when she was seven–she'd wanted cardinal-colored ones like Kate; and that she'd fibbed to her mother about losing one of the bisque china dogs from her pug-dog family… when she'd really broken the puppy and hadn't wanted to get into trouble for taking the set outside when she'd been told not to; or the time she'd "borrowed"–but she'd given it back!–Mabel Ellen Littlefield's dolly with long curly real hair and moving glass eyes because the one she'd gotten Christmas morning had been muslin with yarn hair and button eyes.

A wave of guilt knocked at Isabel. Suddenly, she felt as if she needed to say she was sorry… to Bellamy Nicklaus.

Then Bellamy's gaze turned on John and she felt him tense. The two stared eye-to-eye a long moment, then John swore beneath his breath. He shifted his weight onto the other foot… stuck a hand in his pocket… removed the hand… took off his hat and fiddled with the crown, then fit it back on his head.

Bellamy returned his attention to the audience. "We're going to put up the tree today, and Mother has some trimmings she'll be using for decorations to spruce it up. All that will be left to hang on Christmas Eve will be the berry strings." A surge of nods and smiles swam through the crowd.

"The lucky winner of the contest will be chosen that night. Mother has a keen head for numbers and can count them up quickly."

Again, Bellamy's eyes briefly met Isabel's and she didn't think it was an accident. It was as if he was sending her a message… a private one. He said he didn't need her to apologize… He understood.

Yule and Tide took up shovels and began digging in the middle of the yard. Behind them were buckets of sand that would be used to fill in the hole and keep the tree from toppling.

As they worked, they spoke a foreign language that Bellamy chattered just as fluently. Then they came for the tree and hoisted it into their arms. It would have taken at least a half-dozen normal-sized men to lift it, but the two managed fine on their own.

Once the tree was secure, Bellamy clapped. This in turn, excited all the others in attendance to do so, too.

Isabel did.

John didn't. His glare lay hard on Bellamy.

"What's the matter with you?" she asked in a whisper.

Through a frown, he grated, "I don't like this guy."

"Why not? He seems so kindly."

"Kindly my butt. This is a circus. All we need is the fat lady."

At that moment, an ample-waisted woman with ash gray hair wearing spectacles and an apron over her dress appeared behind Bellamy. "Papa, are you ready for the trimmings?" John raised his hands in resignation. "There you go. This is a farce. It's a damn joke."

He began to walk away, and as much as Isabel wanted to stay, she felt she should go after John.

Pushing her way through the crowd, she caught up with him as he stalked down the middle of Main Street.

"Forget it, Isabel. The jig's up. Bellamy's a crackpot With a mashy club."

"With a what?

"Mashy golf club. I've played the game before. This guy's brain is just as mashy as that club he's holding. The old bird has been duffing balls at me."

Isabel had to walk fast to keep up with John. "Him? Really… I don't think he'd hit you on purpose. He looks so… harmless."

"Harmless as a busted pump rod."

"But what if he really does have money he's giving away?" she reasoned. "We can't risk somebody else getting it."

He stopped and faced her. "Isabel. There is no money. The guy's flat busted after the renovations he made on that house. This contest is a fake."

She understood why John was skeptical. Deep down she had her doubts as well. But there was something about Bellamy's eyes: the crinkling blue with tines in the corners; the warm depths; the merry cheeks; the way his tummy sort of shook when he laughed.

"You have to want him to be real," she said with firm conviction. "Bellamy Nicklaus's contest is all we have."

John pointed his forefinger toward the direction of the house on Ninth and Mill. "That guy reminds me of somebody."

"Me, too," she conceded. "But I can't put my finger on it."

"Yeah… like somebody I knew when I was a kid or something."

"Right…"

Rubbing the stubble at his jaw, he pondered aloud, "A lot of land swindlers in Texas when I was growing up. Could be he's one of them and this is his new scam. Holly berry contests."

"I doubt that. I grew up in Los Angeles, and I'm sure I know him. I think my mother and father showed me his picture… but I can't remember why."

"Too bad Limonero doesn't have a telephone. You could call them and ask them who this Bellamy is."

Unexpected tears filled her eyes. "My dad died some ten years ago. And my mother's been with him for three."

John let out his breath and laid a comforting hand on Isabel's shoulder. "Isabel… I'm sorry."

"You didn't know." She blinked her eyes, thinking her mother hadn't lived to see her become divorced. The shock of such a thing would have wounded her –even though Isabel had been deserted by her husband. Her mother had old values and old ideals. To her, marriage was forever no matter what

Isabel was no longer a romantic woman. But that didn't mean she'd given up on love. She was hopeful that maybe one day she'd meet somebody… and he'd be everything her husband hadn't been.

Giving her shoulder a gentle squeeze, John lowered his arm. "Okay. We'll keep collecting the berries."

Gratitude made her smile bright.

John added, "But if Bellamy doesn't put up, I'm having the sheriff lock him behind bars."

"He'll make good on his word. I know it."

"All right. Pack for overnight. We're leaving for Foster's Hideout just as soon as we water those lemon trees of yours."

The hair on the back of John's neck still prickled as they rode through the narrow canyon. Bellamy Nicklaus had gotten to him, had unraveled him right out of his skin and muscles… had stared at him down to his bones.

John knew him.

And Bellamy had sorely disappointed him in the past.

But what exactly that past was… John couldn't be sure. It was too vague. Too cloudy. But he kept seeing a scene play out in his head.

He'd been about five or six. It was Christmas morning. His dad hadn't come home the night before, and he must have promised his mother because she'd kept a vigil at the window. That's where he and Tom had found her when they'd come down to see what was under the tree.

Nothing.

His mother had tried to make up for it by baking them special gingerbread cookies for breakfast. Then his father had finally come through the door and his parents had argued a long while; afterward, Dad had stormed outside and gone into the barn.

It was then John stopped believing that penny whistles and wind-up dancing bears and pull toys came from some magical being. They were from his dad. And his dad had drunk their gift money at the Lucky Spot bar. From then on, John had known Christmas was for dreamers.

As he nudged his horse onward, John reflected on the years after that winter day. He'd changed. Rather than being an optimist like his brother, he'd turned into a bitter young man. From then on, he knew he could never count on anyone but himself. Discovering he had a talent for a divining rod, John would make a little money from time to time.

Mostly he worked the fields with his father, giving his elder no more than a few words when necessary. He hated having the plow strapped on him, so much that one day he'd said he'd had enough and had never gotten behind one again.

He'd left Texarkana and made his own way, doing just enough to stay afloat. Enjoying a game of cards. A glass of liquor. The soft and willing flesh of a woman.

A disturbing musing filled John's head. How did he get to be so much like his father? Why couldn't he be more like his younger brother, Tom?

Tom, who was ambitious enough to open his own sporting goods store. Tom, who saved enough earnings for it to amount to something. Tom… to whom John owed a pocketful of money. Every time John asked his brother for a loan, Tom complied. When would he wise up and realize John would never pay him back?

John lived day to day. It had been the smell of flowing oil that had attracted him to Limonero. But what did he have to show for years of working for Calco? Not a damn thing.

When Bellamy had looked at him, a single word had played over and over in John's head, knotting him up with apprehension:

Change. Change. Change.

What did Nicklaus want him to do? Change his ways? How could he? It had taken him thirty-four years to get this way. He didn't know any other existence but the one that had him Irving by the seat of his pants.

Change. Change. Change.

The branches of valley oaks stretched overhead, framing Isabel as she rode through them. They traversed oil country–all of it owned by Calco. The vast spread of shale glistening with a rainbow of petroleum and water oozing from the slopes made John think. If he could just get enough money together and buy a piece of land… he could drill for himself… be rich… have something to offer a woman.

A woman like Isabel. Where that thought came from John didn't want to go. He didn't even know her very well–other than to know she worked hard, was trustworthy, and was more pleasant to look at than the sunset over Ventura beach. And that was saying a lot, because he surely enjoyed that hour when the sun slipped into the ocean.

"How much farther?" Isabel called over her shoulder.

"Not that much. Across the creek and over that ridge." He pointed and her gaze followed his hand.

Along the hillside stretched an endless length of pipeline. Calco's. They'd finished it some five years back and saved a bundle on transporting fees through the railroad. The oil flowed from the fields all the way to the pier in Santa Barbara, making for one hell of an enterprise.

The distant gallop of horses caught John's ear in the windless canyon. The cliffs and large grove of oaks muffled sound, so the horses had to be well inside the canyon's mouth for John to hear them. They were close. Too close. He didn't want anyone giving them a run for the berries, so he trotted up to Isabel.

"We're crossing here." He steered his horse down the incline, Isabel falling in behind.

As he cantered toward the water, he flushed a flock of buzzards looking for a little wind to ride up over the ridge. But nothing moved down here except dust and heat. Not even the gunmetal layer of clouds that hung low in the sky could give any respite from the simmering air. Rain would be a salvation. And while he thought it, several fat drops hit him on the face and arms. John didn't want to be near the creek when the downpour hit. Flash floods could strike swiftly.

He urged his horse fast up the incline, making sure Isabel could keep up. He didn't see the riders behind them, but a swirl of dirt rose from an area in the canyon about a mile back. Whoever else was on the berry chase wasn't that far away.

Isabel caught up to him and they rode side-by-side in the peppering rain. "Do you think we're being followed?"

"Not followed. It's just that there aren't any bushes left around Limonero that have berries. People have to spread out. And after that speech Bellamy gave, I reckon the frenzy is only going to get worse."

Although he hadn't heard all of what Bellamy had to say, whatever it was had put the angst of a stirred beehive into town. When he and Isabel rode out the main street, shop windows had been painted with signs offering a penny for every berry brought into the store. The mercantile had upped their payment to two cents for every berry. And the Republic had done one even better–three cents.

While exiting Limonero, voices had been raised with excitement. Some said Bellamy was giving away five hundred dollars in gold. Others claimed it was one thousand in cash. Another assured the prize was the key to Bellamy's house. As the speculation increased, so did the fervor.

That was why John had buckled on a gun belt with a loaded Remington in the holster. He wasn't about to get shot over berries. Nor was he about to let anything happen to Isabel.

The need to protect her welled inside him and he rather liked the feeling. It made him think he had a worthwhile purpose, something important and more of a cause than sitting in the Republic drinking beer.

After a few miles, the climb grew steep and the oaks gave way to evergreens. A meadow loomed ahead, and with the rain coming down as hard as it was, John decided to make camp here on the sleek grass.

He reined in and dismounted. Keeping hold of his leathers, he dipped under his horse's neck and went to help Isabel. She was light in his arms as she sprung to the ground. He would have lingered a moment if it hadn't been for the need to put up the tent.

"Hobble the horses," he directed, his gaze on the raindrops clinging to her full mouth.

She set out to do so.

John began cutting poles for the tent and worked fast to stake it down. When he was finished, both he and Isabel were soaked through.

Sitting beneath the canvas and listening to the pulse of rain, John tucked a striped Mexican blanket around Isabel's shoulders.

"Cold?" he asked.

"No. The rain's warm."

Her hair had come loose from its twist. She lifted the length from beneath the blanket and the glossy black hair fell in a wet river down her back. He wished he had a brush on him… he would have liked to run it through her hair to get the tangles out.

She gazed through the part in the tent flaps, sitting Indian style and with a pensive set to her profile.

With a leisurely sweep of his eyes, John admired the beautiful view. Then he asked something he'd never asked a woman before–because he'd never cared… until now. "What are you thinking, Isabel?"

A soft smile overtook her mouth. "I was thinking about how I got here."

He grew puzzled a moment, then realized she meant the grander picture. Not here on the meadow… but here as in her life.

"Why's that?"

"Well…" She licked her lips, and as she blinked, dewy sweet rain fringed her lashes. "I'd planned to be a modern woman. A teacher, to be exact." She gave him a quick glance to look for his reaction.

He had none that was ill-willed. He thought being a teacher was an admirable thing. But he just couldn't imagine Isabel hiding her womanly figure in a shapeless crow-black dress and with a severe bun in her hair for the rest of her youthful years. "And once I was a teacher," she continued, "I was going to save all my money and every summer I'd travel and go on a grand tour of Europe. While in Rome, I'd sit in the piazza and write poetry. Then I'd pen a novel while staying in an English cottage." Her expression fell somber, the luster left her eyes. "And I'd never have to do the will of a man… because I'd be independent and happy."

At that, any hope John had of them together dimmed. In a voice brittle with disappointment, he asked, "What happened?"

She slowly turned toward him. "I got married."

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