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Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter One)

1900, Limonero, California

John Wolcott lounged in the doorway of the California Republic Saloon with a cold beer in his hand. Sticky black petroleum gummed the bottom of his boots and the denim of his Levi's. A cotton shirt with the armholes frayed stuck to his sweaty back. Caught by wind, the light hem at his lean hips rippled.

Gazing at Main Street, he watched the goings-on. The temperature on the wall thermometer behind him registered near one hundred. It sure as hell didn't feel like Christmas was just over a week off.

With the beer bottle poised at his mouth, John's attention landed on a woman walking down Sespe Avenue. She'd come from the tall stands of dried-up mustard and wild grass, and carried a bucket in each hand. With every step, water sloshed over the rims, spattering the thirsty earth and spotting her sage green skirt. To keep the scalding sun from beating on her face, she'd tied the ribbons of a straw hat beneath her chin; the crown was adorned with a clump of matilija poppies.

Crazy Isabel Burche.

He knew who she was, but he'd never talked with her. She was as nutty as a walnut orchard. She'd actually forked over twenty-five bucks for the five acres of land she lived on–which wasn't worth a plug nickel to anyone who had a lick of common sense–to grow lemon trees. The parcel boasted more rocks than a river bed, making it useful only for grazing, if that. And Isabel didn't have a horse or a cow.

Taking a sip of beer, he watched as she turned onto a barely visible lane. She momentarily disappeared from his view. Then that hat stuck out from the wavy sea of field as she gained higher ground and headed toward the broken-down cabin that had been abandoned back in ninety-one. Isabel had surrounded the decrepit place with a variety of plants she'd dug up from the hills. Damned if the poppies hadn't taken root and grown taller than the sagging veranda porch; dusky greenery waited for early summer to bloom.

He could see her set the buckets down, wipe the sweat from her brow with a back-swipe of her wrist, then proceed to water two lemon trees. It was a hell of a thing. Because as soon as she finished–one bucketful for each tree, she retraced her steps to Sespe Avenue once more. Since she had six trees, she did this a dozen or more times a day. Her land had no tap access to the town pipeline, so she had to bring water in from Santa Paula Creek. The hike was a mile each way.

John drank his beer as she faded from his line of vision. Isabel Burche had been in Limonero nearly a year. She'd held and left more jobs than him–which in itself was no small feat.

For a day, she'd taken up residence at the Blossom as one of the girls. He'd been over in Ventura at the time, but Newt Slocum said she'd been a real merry bit in bed. The following morning, she'd strode out the doors without a backward glance and had gotten work at the mill stitching flour sacks.

From there, she'd packed lemons, then clerked for the mercantile, served as a waitress at the Calco Oil Cafe, and a score of other things he'd lost track of– not that he was keeping track of Isabel. In a town this size, a man noticed a person's business just by turning around.

A gust of hot air breathed beneath the saloon's awning, sending a multitude of green paper flyers across the boardwalk. They tumbled and somersaulted down the street, seemingly coming from nowhere. Bending down, John snagged one as it stuck to his tacky boot heel. He didn't take the time to read it just yet.

As he stepped away from the railing, a clattering noise struck overhead on the awning, then came a ping as something rolled down the roof. A tiny white ball ricocheted off the hitching post and sailed straight for him. The damn thing belted him on the shoulder, then dribbled to his feet. He stared at it

Perfect Flight golf ball.

Looking up and down the street and seeing no one searching out a ball, John shrugged and left it there. Shank shot. Some idiot.

His thirst sated from the beer, he went back into the Republic to order a tequila. The cash from today's pay burned a hole in his wallet, and he doubted he'd have a cent left over by tomorrow.

Never having the patience to settle into one trade and stick with it until the effort paid off, John Wolcott lived each moment as it came. Part-time oil driller, part-time dowser; part-time big talker, part-time drunk. Put them all together and one could say he was a professional good-for-nothing.

John liked to think of himself as holding out for the right opportunity to come along. Isabel Burche sat on her porch in a rocker made from peeled willow boughs. A fiery sunset bathed the undulating grasses before her in deep brass and copper shadows. The Santa Ana winds still blew, but not with as much force as they had earlier. She'd opened the windows in the cabin, hoping a distant ocean breeze would be able to wend its way to the valley, but the small interior remained uncomfortable.

Her muscles ached, and her palms hadn't toughened enough to form calluses. Blisters made the skin tender and painful. Even though she wore gloves to carry the buckets, the wire handles were merciless; the constant care her plants and the lemon trees required in this heat was wearing her down.

But she wouldn't give up. Those trees represented the first real hope she had of making her own way. She'd never solely relied on herself. At twenty-eight, the time had come for her to be self-sufficient.

Once her trees began bearing enough fruit to turn a profit, she intended on using the harvest as the foundation for her business. The lemon sauce and syrup she made could be sold. With as slow as the lemons were growing, so far all she'd canned was a case. There was a market for such a thing. In the last six months, she'd had Duster ask the roughnecks if any of them would be interested in buying sweets. Every one of the oil drillers said they most surely would.

Now all she needed was for the lemons to multiply and ripen faster.

Broad shoulders filling a tattered shirt with the sleeves torn out came into her view through snippets of the windblown field. When the wild mustard parted on a gust, she could see the entire figure for a moment.

Tall and built as strong as the rig he worked on, John Wokott strode up Sespe in the twilight. Obscured by the deep cut of dark shadow in her porch, Isabel could freely stare at him.

He's early, she thought. He never left the Republic until after ten o'clock–if at all. There were times when she took her first morning walk to get water, and she'd catch him stumbling out of the saloon with a liquor bottle in his hand. On hot evenings when sleeping in the stifling house was unbearable she'd stay outside waiting for exhaustion to overcome her and she couldn't keep her eyes open any longer. She'd sometimes doze in her rocker, then awaken with a jolt to a drunken voice as John sang in Spanish to a midnight moon. He was as crazy as a loco coyote.

Isabel's eyes narrowed, following him through the opening of her lane. He was too handsome for his own good. She'd never seen him up close, but a woman didn't have to. Just by the manner in which he walked, held his head, and wore his masculinity so effortlessly, she knew he would be trouble.

In the waning light, she saw a slip of green in John's hand. The slow chirp of crickets and the Santa Anas whispering through her poppies disguised the crinkle of papers as they suddenly tumbled and careened into the yard. Sheets fluttered up the porch steps with the breeze. One landed smack in her lap.

Isabel lifted the flyer and tried to make out what it said. It was too dark. So she rose from the rocker and went inside to turn up the lamp. Kerosene hissed and gave off a soft orb of light by which she read the green paper.

JOLLY HOLLY CONTEST

Will award the person who collects and delivers the most holly berries for stringing on a Christmas tree to be erected in the yard at Ninth and Mill Street this Friday. Deadline is December 24,1900, at the stroke of midnight. The prize will be unlike anything you've ever known. Riches beyond your wildest dreams. The key to eternal happiness. Prosper in a way you never thought possible. You will be forever grateful. Tis the season for the holiday spirit so join in and reap the rewards.

–Bellamy Nicklaus

Isabel didn't know any Bellamy Nicklaus. And the last time she was by the house on Ninth and Mill– which was just yesterday, it had been vacant and in horrible neglect. This could be a prank.

While mulling over the possibilities, a dull rattle sounded in the pipe to her pot-bellied stove. Squirrels. She absently tapped the black cylinder with a spoon. The noise stopped. But then oddly, the grated door drifted open and a sooty white ball rolled to her feet. She dismissed it as a child's errant toy. The plum-sized ball must have gotten wedged in the flue. It was amazing that she hadn't filled the house with smoke when her stove was lit.

Isabel turned her thoughts back to the contest… she could really use the winnings. How much money was the prize? The paper didn't say. Even if it was minimal, she could afford small improvements. A well on the place was financially out of her reach right now. She'd sunk most of her savings into the land and repairs on the old cabin–which still wasn't completed, but more livable than it had been. The money could tide her over so she didn't have to get another job. She'd had just about every position in Limonero. There weren't many options left open to her.

With a tired hand, she smoothed her brow and straightened her shoulders to relieve the ache. She gazed at the flyer once more. John Wolcott had one of these. Maybe everybody in town did.

Deadline–December twenty-fourth at midnight.

She had eight days.

Thoughts about going to bed vanished. The image of holly bushes loaded with big scarlet berries pulled at her. She knew just the spot. Down by the first barranca across from Santa Paula Creek where willow patches grew.

Going quickly to the kitchen counter, she snatched her gardening basket; it was an old lunch hamper, but sound and sturdy with a lid. The inside could hold a lot of berries.

Isabel was going to win that contest.

Calco Oil had started a spur out to Dutch Flat No. 3, but abandoned it when the well went dry after six months.

With a slice of moon beaming light down, John followed the length of iron railroad track. He'd slung his pillow slip over his shoulder and walked with hands shoved deep into his pockets. The wind flared up every now and then, but without any kind of cool bite.

He would rather have been drinking tequila, but the contest's lure had been too much for him to forget about. His third drink had come before he'd finally read the paper. Riches beyond your wildest dreams. The key to eternal happiness. Prosper in a way you never thought possible. No wonder the Republic had been deserted.

This was just the kind of opportunity he'd been looking for–easy money, a way to cash in at the bank and sit back and spend it. He could win this contest. It wasn't hard to find berries. He knew where a cache of them grew: in various spots around the valley; some in the foothills; more patches over the ridge toward the beach. He would pick the bushes clean. Then after he got his reward, he'd draw up to the bar in the Republic, drink a beer, and ponder what to do with all that cash.

John wasn't opposed to hard work. He'd done it most of his life, first on his father's dirt farm in Texarkana, then across the western countryside. He never put down roots. No place interested him enough. But he liked California's climate. Every chanee he got, he rode to the ocean to watch the sunset fall in a sizzling ball over the waves. Limonero he could call home.

That money could buy lumber, a band wheel, manila rope, a boiler, and a twelve horsepower engine. Building his own derrick and drilling for his own oil instead of sweating for Calco–now that would be something.

John let the idea gel as he walked across Santa Paula Creek.

As he wove up the path and stared hard for signs of holly bushes, a beacon of light flashed across his face for an instant. He froze. Whoever had shot him with the reflecting lamp hadn't realized he was there or they would have kept the beam on him. The person was moving. He could see the sway of the lamp's bright shaft as the sound of footsteps rose upward toward the slope.

John fell in behind the moving light, eyes widening as he recognized who held the handle.

Isabel.

Being in a state of semi-drunkeness, his attempt to quiet his footsteps didn't succeed. Isabel turned sharply, the lantern in her hand swaying outward with her movement The brilliant white flame blinded him, and he swore beneath his breath. She lowered the beam. The manzanita-bordered path on which they stood was bathed in enough light for them to view one another.

They stared for a long moment

He noticed she held a hamper and wore an apron but no hat. Her black hair had been plaited in a thick braid that rested against the pale curve of her neck and fell across her breast like a caress. He couldn't decipher the color of her eyes. But her face was prettier than he would have thought for a crazy woman, its shape a perfect oval, her lips with a kissable bow. The arch in her brows lifted in a way he thought sensual.

She spoke first, eyeing his pillowcase. "What are you doing here?"

"Same thing as you, I expect," he drawled, a leftover remnant of his native Texas slipping into his words.

"Well, do what you're going to do over there." She pointed beyond him. "I've already got a stake on this spot."

"Says who?"

"Says me. I'm ahead of you."

Waving the lantern between them, she showed him their positions–which was like writing up a thimble shot on a bar tab: There was no reason to. She didn't own the ground. He could go wherever he damn well pleased.

"Just by one step," he said, then cut the space with a long stride. "Now we're even. What are you going to do about it?"

Her frown made her lips go pouty. He lowered his eyes and stared. She had a tempting mouth. They stood close enough that he could feel the slow fire from the lamp heating his thigh. At least he figured it was the kerosene flame. He'd never burned up over a woman before.

She breathed lightly between parted lips. "I'm going to ignore you."

Lost in the fullness of her mouth, he'd forgotten what he'd asked her and was slow to figure out what she meant. Her words hit him when she walked away and took the light with her. Like an idiot, he stood in the darkness.

A breeze knocked the pillowcase off his shoulder. He still didn't move. Then he muttered an oath, bent to pick up his sack and followed her.

Isabel could hear him coming closer. She did her best not to let him know she knew he was there. But it was very difficult. His presence took up the night and filled it with a commanding air of virility.

He was taller than she'd thought. He stood a full head higher than her. She hadn't been prepared for the tingling in the pit of her stomach when she'd looked into his face. The reaction disturbed her. Handsome didn't begin to describe his features. Even in the muted light, she could see the power in his face–the square jaw that had thrust forward, straight forehead, and mouth firm and sensual.

Her husband had been a good-looking man. They'd been married less than a year when he disappeared one day. He hadn't snuck off. In fact, he'd been seen in a variety of places before he'd gone to San Diego. She gave him two years to come back. He didn't, so she filed for divorce on the grounds of abandonment. It was a hard cross to bear, and now she was wary of men.

She didn't hate them. But after her disastrous experience with marriage, she was cautious and protected her heart. She'd never be hurt in such a manner again.

From the corner of her eyes, she could see John climbing the embankment to the bushes. He appeared granitelike, unyielding. The set of his shoulders told her he didn't like being told what do to. Still–she'd been here first.

The lower hillside and opposite bank of the Santa Paula had been thick with people going after the berries, but she'd gone farther up to the willows because she knew more berries grew there. Obviously John knew it, too.

Isabel raised her light and shone it on the glossy shrubbery. The California holly had leathery leaves with bristle-pointed teeth. She'd brought her gloves with her so she wouldn't get pricked. She'd also packed a canteen of water, a biscuit and jam, and hard lemon candy to keep her throat from parching.

Lowering the lamp, she did her best to forget that John was thrashing around in the bushes. She chose the left side of the patch while he chose the right.

She had a crisp view of her work area, while her competitor foraged in near dark. Unbidden, a smile snagged the corner of Isabel's mouth. She tried to bite it back, but couldn't. His arrogance over deeming the ground fair game nettled her, and she liked having pulled a small something over on him: intelligence.

He was a nitwit for not bringing light and food. He must not have expected to be out here long. She, on the other hand, was equipped to stay up the entire night.

Isabel went to work, keeping her mind occupied by thoughts of the prize and what she would do with the money. Later on, she made a check of the time on the watch pinned to her bodice. She noted the three o'clock hour and forced herself to endure. There were a lot more berries to collect.

Her back ached from bending over. Her knees felt bruised, even though she'd thought to bring a small braided rug on which to kneel.

As the night wore on, she and John sidled closer and closer toward the center. Not a word passed between them. Fine with her.

He swore a lot, and yanked the berries off rather than plucking. She bet he squashed quite a few.

Seeing her creep up to his position, John gave her what appeared to be a scowl. It was hard to tell. She was tempted to beam the light on him to check for certain and call him out on his audacity. Then he did something that caused her to gasp.

He jolted sideways toward the bush she was going to pick from and blocked it from her with his well- muscled legs.

Staking his claim, he announced, "This one's on my side."

Isabel set her hamper down. "There are no sides."

"There are now."

She folded her arms beneath her breasts. Making an ownership argument out of a public berry bush was beneath her, so she merely bent, opened her rug, and sat down. She took out the biscuit thick with jam and drank some water.

She did gain a small amount of satisfaction while watching John sweat and wipe his forehead, then lick his lips as if he were dying of thirst. Once, he eyed her canteen, and she took a long, exaggerated drink. Then she brushed the crumbs from her lap and rose.

"I know who you are." John's resonant voice broke through the night.

Her skepticism couldn't be contained. "Do you?"

"Isabel Burche."

Packing away her things, she returned, "Well I know who you are, too."

"Is that a factf"

"John Wolcott."

He lifted his pillowcase. "Now that we've got each other's names out of the way, that's all we have to know about one another. That–and the fact that I'm going to win this contest."

"I agree about the name part. But it'll be me who wins."

"Don't think so."

"Why's that?"

"Because now I'm ahead of you." On that, he headed down the hillside with an easygoing stride, that pillowcase of his all knobby and filled to plumpness with berries.

Isabel fell in behind him and kept her distance. She hoped he'd trip–the arrogance of the man.

Shining her light on the ground as she walked, Isabel minded her steps. At first, she couldn't be sure, but then, not only one but three… then four… a half dozen, then one-two-five-ten… sixteen! Berries! Bright red berries! The rolling fruits were littering the dirt trail!

She paused and shone the light ahead of her to John Wolcott's back. With each step, the pillow slip bounced against his right shoulder. And with each bounce, a sprinkle of berries fell through a hole on the bottom of his sack.

Isabel wanted to laugh. She quickly crouched down, scooped up the berries, and dumped them into her hamper. She scrambled a few feet ahead and did the same thing, cringing when the wicker hinge on her basket creaked.

Working with nimble fingers, she alternated her gaze between the strewn berries and John's retreating silhouette. Surely he'd feel his sack growing as flat as a pancake. She quickly stood, stepping on a twig and crunching it beneath her heel. The corner of her hamper crashed into a manzani-ta bush, making an awful rustling sound. Before she could rush ahead and collect the next batch of strays, John looked over his shoulder to glare at her.

She acted fast and knocked the light off the evidence-bearing trail. Aiming the beam on him, she saw a wide arc of berries fly out of his pillowcase as he swung around.

"What in the hell are you doing?" He brought a hand up to keep the bright light out of his eyes.

"Nothing," she said flatly.

"You're walking funny. I can hear it."

"I'm walking the way I always walk. You wouldn't know because you don't know me… How I walk, that is."

"Get that damn light out of my face. You're blinding me."

Isabel shot the reflecting lamp's bright shaft toward the hillside, purposefully avoiding the path.

"No wonder you're walking funny, you can't see where you're going." He took a step toward her. Her eyes widened. She couldn't let him come back up the trail. He might find the berries. She ran down to meet him and nearly crashed into his chest. She would have if he hadn't grabbed her wrist–the very hand that held the lantern. The beam swayed back and forth over the sage and mustard weed. Isabel stared into his shadowed face, glad she couldn't see his expression clearly. Her heartbeat tripped against her ribs. She felt utterly foolish. Under any other circumstances, she wouldn't have thrown herself at him.

John's fingers were warm and strong around her. She hoped he couldn't detect the erratic thrum of her pulse. His voice went through her with a husky grate. "What's the matter with you?"

She couldn't tell him. She needed a diversion. Turning her head toward the hillside, she exclaimed, "Oh–look! There's a rabbit."

"So what?"

Slowly she faced him once more. "I thought you might want to shoot it."

He released her, suspicion in his tone. "I'm not wearing a gun. Besides, why would I want to shoot a rabbit?"

"For your dinner."

"I eat dinner at the caf�."

"Oh…"

"I always knew you were…" The thought trailed off.

Isabel frowned. He always knew she was… what? He couldn't possibly know a thing about her. "Stay the hell away from me," he barked, then swung around once more.

With his motion, Isabel was peppered with berries. They hit her bodice, shoulder, and one on her cheek. He disappeared, and she had a good mind to holler out good riddance. But she kept quiet. She had one up on him.

As soon as she felt it safe to move, she foraged the hillside for the berries that had scattered; then she resumed her clean sweep of the path.

All the way down the hill, Isabel picked up John's fallen berries and claimed them for her own. Yes, there was a great deal to say about being the wiser sex.

Women kept their pillowcases mended.

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