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Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Two)

"Pour me a tequila, Saul." John propped his elbows on the Republic's bar and turned to acknowledge Duster Hobson, the only other patron in the saloon. The old-timer sat in one of the chairs at a table, too bowlegged to keep his foot on the brass rail. "Hey, Duster. Haven't seen you in a while."

"Went over to Ojai to visit with my sister." His chin glistened with snow white stubble, his hair the exact same color. A weathered hand lifted a beer bottle to his mouth.

John turned, his eyes following the drink as Saul put the shot glass in front of him. Sliding the coin beneath his fingertip, John paid the barkeep. Except Saul didn't remove his grasp from around the crystal rim. "Money's no good today. Twenty-five berries for the liquor."

"What was that?"

Saul motioned to the sign hanging above the cash register.

On account of the Contest, the

California Republic Saloon ain't taking money for

the next seven days. All drinks are to be paid for with

berries, at a predetermined price set by the barkeep.

Yours truly, Saul

John leveled his gaze back on Saul, who shrugged. "I've got a bar to run. I can't go out and scour the countryside for berries. I want to win as much as the next guy. This is how I'm going to do it. Some men just won't give up their liquor and they'l pay top berry to get a shot."

Irritability churned inside John. "Well, this is a hell of a way to run a bar." The drink sat not but three inches from him. He could smell the liquor. He could almost taste it.

John could let days pass without a drink. He wasn't dependent. Only today he didn't want to go without the fire burning sweetly across his tongue. Right now, he wanted that tequila. "Saul, I've got some berries at home. Float me for an hour and I'll bring them by."

Saul's hand didn't flinch. "Sorry, John. No berry credit."

The glass began to slide back, away from John's reach. He swore up a storm inside his head. He yanked his hat off, creased the crown, then smashed it back on. Thumping his boot off the rail, he turned around.

Duster's face lit up as he enjoyed his cold one. John scrutinized the bottle.

"Duster, can you loan me twenty-five berries?"

Setting the beer down, Duster leaned back in his chair. "I'm a man of few needs. Never carry extra money or berries on me. Goes against the simplicity of my nature." "Well dammit all."

John strode through the saloon, shoved at the batwing doors, and slumped a shoulder against the boardwalk post.

The irony of it was–he had cash! The morning after a payday he was almost always flat busted. But since he'd left the Republic early last night, he'd left with money in his pocket.

And he had berries, too. What was left of the big cleanup he made.

John shot Isabel Burche's rundown cabin a frown.

Crazy Isabel had stolen the berries he'd picked. John figured that out when he got back into town early that morning, dropped his pillowcase on the bed, and stepped on a few berries at his feet. The sack had a hole in the bottom. Not so big he lost everything he'd gathered–but a good part of it. All that fumbling behind him had been Isabel picking up what had dropped.

Then when she'd slammed into him… for a moment he'd thought she might be a tad attracted to him and flaunting it. Not that he wanted to attract a walnut.

John's eyes hardened as he remembered her words. Rabbit his butt. Damn … but he had to give her credit for ingenuity.

Rubbing his jaw and the bristly growth of day-old beard at his chin, John pondered his next move.

He'd slept half the morning away, right into the afternoon. He missed going out to Ferndale No. 8 and working on the rig. But he wasn't worried Calco would give him the boot. John knew so much about drilling, he had a job whenever he wanted one. He could man every hand position: tool pusher, floor, lead tong, chain, and derrick.

Seeing as he had the berries at his place–a small bungalow off Grove–he could walk home, get them, and sit in the Republic for a while and think up a plan for going after more berries.

He spied Isabel leaving her house, a hamper hooked in the crook of her arm. She had a sneaky air about her as she walked swiftly out of town on the main road, then veered off on Junipero Avenue–a long and dusty country lane that led up to Chumash Mountain. And Chumash Mountain, on the eastern side, was chock-full of holly bushes.

John pushed away from the awning post and made a run for the livery, striding over the golf ball rolling down the powdery street.

Isabel stopped her climb to take a drink of lemonade and dab her forehead with a handkerchief. She'd almost made it to the little bluff on Chumash Mountain. Gazing at the valley below her, she saw most of Limonero's rooftops and a few of the streets –and the Sun-Blessed Growers Association's endless lemon tree groves.

She had a job there once that lasted nearly four months. She'd been let go for excessive peel polishing before packing. But the lemons had looked so much better with the pretty yellow sheen to them.

As she proceeded, Isabel kept a close watch for contest competitors. She'd encountered parties of berry pickers on the town side of Junipero Avenue. This area of the mountainside was remote so she felt fairly confident she wouldn't be discovered. A person would have to walk over three hours to reach it or ride on horseback.

Isabel didn't have a horse.

A corner of shale jutted from the mountain, and just around its bend: holly bushes. Ignoring the perspiration gathered on her upper Up, Isabel continued. At the turning point, she stopped in her tracks. There on the bluff, sitting on his duff, lazed John Wolcott.

He had the audacity to wave at her.

Trudging forward, Isabel drew up to him and east John in her body shade. If she allowed herself a small consolation, his face appeared sun-browned to crispness beneath the brim of his hat; his wide hands sported numerous fresh scratches from holly leaf spines. His legs were casually spread, and the boulder he sat on also had a pair of saddlebags as large as the long defunct Pony Express's mail pouches. One had its flap open, exposing the hoard of berries inside.

"You've been busy, I see," she managed in a tone tight with agitation. How had he known about Chumash Mountain?

He injected his reply with accusation. "I had to make up for all the berries that fell out of my sack and somehow got lost."

Isabel feigned an air of innocence. "How did you get up here ahead of me? I saw you at the Republic three hours ago."

The lopsided grin he gave her would have been bone-melting if it had come from anyone but him. "I have a horse. He's tethered up there." He tilted his head toward his left.

"I didn't think you owned anything."

His mouth fell in a grim line. "What the hell's that supposed to mean?"

Scanning the bushes to see if he'd left her any berries, Isabel vaguely commented, "You aren't ambitious. You spend more time in that bar than any other place." Her eyes landed back on him. "And you dress like a tramp."

John gave himself a cursory inspection.

He wore denim pants so thin in the knees the indigo had faded to pale blue. His shirt had been rolled up at the sleeves, the thread for the hem missing.

"I like comfort."

"You like liquor and loafing," she muttered beneath her breath, the breeze snatching her words.

"What was that?"

"I'm not going to stand here loafing." ;

Isabel went past him and inspected the bushes. Very few berries were left. Either others had been here earlier, or John had shucked them naked. Since she'd come all this way, she began to pick what little there was.

Every once in a while, she checked to see if John still reclined on the boulder. He did. And she felt he dissected her every move. It was unsettling. Why didn't he just leave?

When she'd finished, she quenched her thirst with a long drink of lemonade. As she lowered the canteen, she noted John's gaze lowering as well. It was affixed to the canteen. She walked toward him. "Did you forget to bring provisions again?"

"I left in a hurry."

Inhaling and straightening the kink from her spine, she bit her lower lip in contemplation. Then she slowly extended her arm. "Here."

"Obliged."

John took the canteen and drank. When he lifted his chin, she noticed for the first time that his eyes were gray-blue, like campfire smoke in twilight. Eyelashes the same tawny brown as his hair framed his eyes.

Just as she was admiring his handsome face and admonishing herself for doing so, his mouth soured. "What is :this?" He grimaced so visibly, she grew offended.

"Lemonade."

"I was expecting water." He handed the canteen back.

"Next time, don't expect anything."

He rose to his feet, towering over her with his inordinate height He looked down into her face, and she was helpless to turn away. There was something about him that just naturally pulled her toward him, an invisible magnetism that exuded more masculinity than a traveling rodeo's paste-up poster. "I apologize, Miss Isabel."

She hadn't expected that from him. To her dismay, the heat of a blush stole onto her cheeks. Anxious to escape from his arresting presence, she snatched her hamper and began walking down the hill but dreaded every step of the walk in this unrelenting heat

She'd barely gotten past the bend when the methodic clop of hooves sounded behind her. John and his horse fell in sync with her steps.

"Damn hot afternoon," he commented, pushing his hat back with his thumb. "One wouldn't think Christmas was coming."

Isabel held her tongue and kept on walking.

"Saw a lot of folks in town with baskets and the like going after the berries."

She kept silent.

"They're wasting their time. I'm going to win."

Minding her footing, her eyes remained on the trail.

"Probably buy me a plot of land and drill for oil. Calco isn't the only outfit in town who can get rich off petroleum."

The horse nickered.

"You aim to walk all the way back or are you going to let me give you a ride?" "I didn't know you were offering."

"I was hoping you'd take the hint when I was talking."

"I didn't know talking meant offering."

"It does." He steered around a manzanita, then back next to her once more. "So are you?"

Isabel thought of the time it would take her to return to her cabin–precious too much of it. The sun would be going down in another two hours. If she got home ahead of it, she could water her trees. However much she didn't want to be beholden to John, she had to think of her future business.

Slowing to a stop, she nodded.

John reined the horse to a halt, then held out his palm. Grasping it, she gave a slight hop as he propelled her upward in front of him into the saddle. She landed with a small cry as he tucked her in tight, both her legs dangling off to one side.

His thighs were hard as steel against her bottom. She clutched her basket to her breasts as an unconscious defense against the tension winding through her. As much as she wanted to deny it, he was all man.

As he nudged the horse forward, she tensed with the swaying jolt and would have grabbed the horn had she a free hand. Instead, John's arm came around her midriff to steady her. The mere touch of his hand sent warm shivers through her.

They rode the way back without speaking, Isabel sitting rigid and making her joints ache. Once they came to her porch, she slipped out of the saddle so fast he didn't have the chance to give her aid.

"Well… thanks," she said climbing her rickety steps to put as much distance in between them as she could. She still clutched her wicker hamper as if it were a shield against him.

"I'll say it was my pleasure and that I hope our paths never cross again."

Isabel lowered her chin so her hat brim could keep the sun from her eyes. "I hope likewise."

Then he turned around and loped down her lane, kicking up clouds of dust.

Only after he disappeared, did she lower the basket to the porch and let her muscles go slack. Needing something to take the dryness out of her throat, she unscrewed the cap to the canteen and drank. Once her mouth touched the opening, she remembered John Wolcott's lips had been on it.

Bringing the canteen in front of her to look at, she thought about wiping off the rim. Rather than do that, she slowly brought it back to her lips, closed her eyes, and drank… swearing she could taste his mouth…

All the while she ignored the heat that coiled in her stomach.

John had thought to get one up on Isabel by beating her to the top of Chumash Mountain, but now he wasn't so sure he'd outfoxed her. She'd turned the tables on him with that heavy-lashed gaze of hers that could make a man forget he'd ever looked at another woman.

Her eyes were the shade of coastal lupines… a blue yet violet. He'd never seen such an eye color in a person. Each time she gazed in his direction he felt as if he ought to give up liquor, buy a new set of clothes, and swear undying love for her.

Now if that wasn't stupid.

She'd worked at the Blossom, of all places–the town whorehouse. Newt had had a good ol' time with her. Unbidden, the image of Newt and Isabel in a room up at the Blossom came to him. The picture put a twist in his belly and made his teeth ache where he clenched them. John wondered how many times Newt had kissed her full mouth… how many times he'd…

John made himself shrug out of the thought. He had more important matters on his mind, namely winning the contest.

The day had dawned sunny and bright. Not a single breeze. Air hung low in the sky, warming the rocks and trails through the valley. John sat astride his horse wearing a shirt with the sleeves cut short, a bandanna around his forehead–his beat-up Stetson over that, and a pair of worse-for-wear cotton duck pants.

He was headed for Oak Grove Gulch, an out-of- the-way place known only to those who'd come across it by accident–which was damn few, as the grassy ravine was off the beaten path by many miles. The ride was a good half day, but worth the effort. The hills were covered with holly bushes.

Steering clear of an outcropping of boulders that had slid down the mountain, John reined in and then gave his horse some spur. Just over the other side of this ridge and he would be there.

A whorl of dust caught his eye. From the west, a horse and rider approached at what seemed a fair gait. Slowing, John squinted against the sun; then he swore up a blue streak when he made out who it was bearing down on him.

He damned his luck–or lack of it, and rested his forearms on the pommel of his saddle. There was no sense in proceeding. They were both going in the same direction.

Dust clouds swept over the ridge as Isabel slowed her horse. John gave the animal a cursory inspection, then swallowed a laugh as he stared at the rider.

Isabel wore a split skirt and boots, and a blouse that denned her every curve. If he hadn't been gaping at the slow rise and fall of her breasts, he would have seen the fire in her eyes before her words ignited him.

"You! You're following me."

He took offense and leaned toward his left the better to view her, to see the blush of pink across her cheeks and the column of her throat. "You've got that turned around. You're following me."

"I don't think so. How come you keep ending up in the same place I'm at?"

"How come you keep ending up in the same place I'm at?" he shot back.

Isabel sat straighter, glaring ahead at the terrain– the same terrain they seemed destined both to cover. Now why in the hell was that? There had to be a reason. The only person who knew this country like the back of his hand was…

John faced her. "You know Duster Hobson?"

Quizzically, her eyes widened. "You know Duster Hobson?" "I just asked that. And I'm still waiting for your answer."

"I know him. He was at the Blossom when I was…" The sentence trailed off.

John grew unexplainably angry. Had she acquainted herself with Duster as well as Newt?

"Why do you want to know?" she questioned.

"When Duster's not at the Blossom, he's at the Republic." Were his words as peppered as he thought, or had he imagined jealousy oozed from his tone?

"Well, now that we got that straight–what does knowing Duster have to do with us both being here?"

"I think you know the answer to that"

"Do I?"

"Duster talks a lot."

"Yes, he does. About the landscape."

"Got that right. He used to hold up stages in these parts."

"He did?"

"Hell yes. Why do you think he knows the landscape?"

"I assumed he knew it because he used to drill for oil… and came up dry all the time. That's why they call him Duster." "That reputation came a long time after he gave up his illegal ways."

"Why… I never would have figured Duster for an outlaw. He's just too sweet."

John grew annoyed by the way she stuck up for the old man. "Well, some people can lead a surprising life. And Duster's one of them. He goes on and on about this rock cut and that creek–"

"–this ridge and that ravine…"

"Where white alder grows and where purple sage is thickest."

Isabel nodded. "And where black sage is compact or junipers are the tallest." She gave an audible sigh. "Rigby Glen."

He knew the spot–the next logical place to search for hollies if a man… or a woman… had been listening to Duster go on. After that–John threw up his hands in resignation. "Foster's Hideout."

"And the day after… ?" Isabel baited him, but he remained quiet.

Then after a long pause, they both said: "Moontide Ridge."

"Well, damn," John muttered.

"Damn," Isabel seconded, surprising him. "No wonder we keep stepping over each other. We both think like Duster."

Isabel plucked her gloves off, wet the kerchief at her neck with water from a canteen, and wiped the damp cloth over her cheeks, nose, and mouth. He watched in fascination. Then he fixed his stare on her horse weighted down with ungainly panniers–a much safer target for his preoccupation.

"That's the sorriest horse I've ever seen."

The liver-spotted nag with a swayback deeper than a gully, and knock-kneed to boot, looked ready to keel over.

"It's a rental," Isabel replied.

"It's a standing corpse."

"Well, she was free for the day." Her lips pursed. "Or almost free."

"How many berries did she cost you?" John had seen the livery tacking up a big sign out front saying deals would now be made berries on the barrel or no deal at all.

Isabel's face lit up, as if she felt real proud of herself. He liked the spirit and merriment in her eyes; they made her look lively. "She didn't cost me any berries. Just a case of my lemon syrup. I wanted a pretty piebald mare, but the livery said she was two hundred and forty-eight berries for a day's use. Highway robbery."

"Yep, it was highway robbery to give you this one."

"Well, I didn't have to give up a single berry for her, so she's good enough for me."

He wondered about her lemon syrup, but not enough to ask her about it right now. The problem at hand took precedence.

"Seems we're bound to keep tripping over one another."

"Seems like it."

The reins in his fingers tugged as his horse shook his head. John looked down, thought a minute, then looked up into Isabel's expectant face. Even though his plan made sense, his words surprised him. "We could work together."

Wariness crept into her features. "How so?"

"Collect the berries together, then split the prize money down the middle. Fifty-fifty."

She pondered this with a gnawing of her lush lower lip, then a gaze at the sky where a condor soared overhead. After a moment, she stared at him. "How do we know this Bellamy Nicklaus is for real? Has anybody seen him?"

"Somebody's had to. Lights go on and off in that house at night. That I've seen for myself." "Well, what if this contest is a hoax?"

"Can't be a hoax. I've heard it said Nicklaus is the main man for Calco Oil"

"I heard he owns the Pacific Coastal Railroad."

"Whatever the case, he took that rundown house on Ninth and turned it into a show palace overnight. That takes money and power. He's some big man from someplace, and for reasons I'm not going to question, he's willing to part with a bundle of his cash." John adjusted his hat against the afternoon glare. "You may think a lot of low-down things about me, but I've never battled a woman. The best thing would be for us to pair up."

"As much as I hate to admit it… you may be right." She tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear, then slapped the dust off her gloves against her thigh. "But there's a problem with your plan."

"Which is?"

"We don't trust each other." She laid the gloves next to the fork of her saddle. "Where do we keep the berries?"

John mulled this over. She had a point. They didn't trust each other. She'd no sooner have him hold the berries than he would her. So where to put them as they built up their store?

The idea of hiding them out in the countryside didn't thrill him. Animals might come across the cache and have a real feast. The possibility of discovery was even stronger out in the open without being guarded–not to mention that berries shouldn't be in the heat A dark cool place was best–like beneath the floorboards of his bungalow___or the inside of a cabin–where they would be behind a locked door.

It was a choice between the two. But before he made up his mind, he had to know if she was playing with a full deck.

"Why are you growing trees in dirt that's no more than rocks? And with no water on your property?" He refrained from adding: Only a crazy person would do such a thing.

She bristled, her posture going erect. "My trees aren't planted in rocks. I cleared every last one from that bed. And I'll get a well just as soon as I can afford to have one dug–which will be when I get the contest money. I know there's water. Then I'll have a lot of lemons and I'm going to sell lemon syrup."

He gave her a sidelong stare, thinking over her explanation. She seemed to know what she was doing and her efforts weren't misguided. He liked lemon syrup on his pancakes. Knowing what she was up to greatly relieved him and gave him the reassurance he needed for what he had to say next. Amid the buzz of grasshoppers, John asked, "What's your word worth to you?"

Isabel's violet eyes unflinchingly measured him. "Everything. My word is everything."

John eased back in the saddle. "Then we'll keep them at your place if you give me your word you won't take off with them."

"I give you my word."

"So, then, are you in?" Slowly she replied, "I'm in." "Partners," he said.

"Partners," she agreed, extending her hand. John took the offering and they sealed the deal with a handshake.

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