"Rendezvous with Destiny"


Logline: A discovery in Tom Barkley's wallet leads to a surprising revelation

  “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” – Mark Twain

“Are you all right, Mother?”

She didn’t turn to look at him. A slight nod of the head was her only reply. Jarrod backed away, sensing that it was not him she wished to be included in this moment, a moment too sad and heartfelt to share.

Victoria knelt by the grave. A lone tear trickled down her cheek and fell to the ground like a solitary raindrop. Why she felt drawn to be by his graveside she could not readily explain. Victoria stared at the etched tombstone with its paltry biographical facts – just his name and two dates.

Thomas Barkley 1813 - 1870

He was an imperfect man, her husband, and Victoria was more acutely aware of his failings than anyone. No one was ever closer to the strong-willed, taciturn rancher than she. They had shared so much life and love that Victoria would have sworn she knew Tom almost as well as she knew herself. She let doubts creep in and questioned his love for her for a brief time three years ago. Those questions had been answered. Tom’s letter to Leah Thomson confirmed that his love for her had been deep and abiding. She had never doubted his love again, but for the second time in her life, Victoria could feel the thread of whom she believed her husband to have been unraveling.

There were always those who were willing to question his honesty and integrity as their wealth grew. Tom had taken the envious whispers and accusations in stride. A man wearing a silk top hat makes himself a target for any jaybird that can throw a rock, he’d say. Even now, years after Tom’s death, the occasional opportunist would arise and attempt to smear his good name. She never feared investigation into Tom’s business dealings, as Victoria was certain of the outcome. After all, she had been by his side as their fortune was made. Victoria relished exposing his accusers as liars and charlatans.

Victoria readily admitted that her husband’s life was consumed with ranching, with profits and investments, and with advancing the family’s diverse business interests. Though it appeared Tom spent his days in pursuit of wealth, and the power that comes from wealth, she knew material riches were never his passion. They were merely by-products of his innate business savvy and his work ethic.

He had coveted one thing only. As long as she’d known him, Tom Barkley had wanted to be known as a man of honor – to be respected by friend and foe alike as a man who would do what was right at all times and in all places.

Honor. There was something in that single, short word that quickened her pulse. Victoria took a deep, shuddering breath. She squeezed her eyes shut and more tears slid silently down her cheeks as the morning’s events played out raw and vivid once again in her mind.

Today was Heath’s third morning back home since he had been rescued from his journey into violence. For four days and nights Victoria had been gripped with fear and worry. She had prayed for her son’s safe return as his brothers and the other men combed the Valley in search of him. The dread lay heavy on her heart, but it was the agony of not knowing his fate that threatened to hurl Victoria toward despair. How terrible it would have been if Heath had vanished without a trace and his family had never found him.

The gloom that hovered over the household vanished when Nick and Jarrod brought their younger brother home. Heath was tired, dirty, sore and a little thinner, but he was otherwise fine. Victoria had the answers to what happened and why, but more importantly she had her son safe at home. A lightness and gaiety once more permeated the house.

Silas was busy loading the table with ham, eggs, biscuits, honey and Lord knows what all - including a bowl of pale yellow grits.

Heath was the last to make it down for breakfast. “Good morning!” Heath said to the family as he walked over to the server and poured himself a cup of hot black coffee.

Victoria and Jarrod greeted him in kind. “Sit down, Boy!” Nick ordered with obvious affection. “Your grits are gonna get cold. This makes the third morning in a row I’ve had to look at that mush.”

“Thank you, Silas.” Heath took a seat next to Nick.

The servant beamed back at him. “You’re mighty welcome, Mr. Heath.”

“I want to see some steaks back on this breakfast table,” Nick bossed as he filled his plate, “if that still carries any weight around here!”

“Of course it does, Mr. Nick!” Silas bantered back. “The first thought that pops in my head every morning as soon as I wake up is… I wonder what Mr. Nick might be wanting for breakfast today.”

Victoria, Jarrod and Heath couldn’t suppress their chuckles as Silas headed back into the kitchen.

“Well, the answer’s not grits!” Nick declared loud enough for the houseman to hear and then dug into his breakfast.

“Always got to have the last word, don’t ya Big Brother?” Heath grinned.

“Get to eating those grits, Heath. We got work to do.”

The pleasant mood lasted the remainder of the meal until Heath mentioned his plans for the afternoon.

“With all the work we’ve got to do, you’re gonna run off to town?” Nick boomed and cast an incredulous look at his brother.

“I just wanted to drop by the tanner’s shop and buy a wallet. I feel kinda naked without mine.” Heath said, folding his napkin and laying it on the table.

“They stole your wallet, Heath, not your pants! I had every able-bodied man on this ranch gallivanting all over the countryside looking for you for four days.” Nick rose from his chair. “This is a working ranch and until the work gets caught up, buying a new wallet is gonna have to wait. We’ve still got to finish repairing the fence-line around the north pasture so we can move the herd up there.”

“You’re right, Nick.” Heath said quietly. “It can wait.”

Nick gave him an approving nod and headed for the door. “We’ll see you two at supper. Come on, Boy!”

“Hey, Nick!” Heath called as he rose to follow. “If we split up we might be able to get that fence finished by nightfall and then we could get started moving the herd first thing in the morning.”

“We’re not splitting up!” Nick spun around and glared at his brother. “We’re going to work that fence-line together!”

“But Nick…” Heath began. “You’re the one who said we could split up and make better time. We can have those cows moving by…”

“Heath!” Nick interrupted, waving his hand in exasperation. “What does time matter to a cow?”

A quizzical look spread over Heath’s face. His mouth opened but he was at a loss to come up with a reply. Nick, satisfied that he’d put an end to the matter, strode through the foyer and out the front door.

Heath stood in perplexed silence as the sound of Nick’s jingling spurs faded. “I didn’t mean…” he started and then shook his head. “Aww, never mind. See ya later!” Heath called back over his shoulder as he hurried to catch his brother.

Victoria gave Jarrod a knowing smile. “I don’t believe Nick intends to let Heath out of his sight for quite some time.”

“That’s exactly what I was thinking, Mother.” Jarrod’s voice took a more serious tone. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea until Hemet and his people are well out of the Valley. He’s being released from jail today. Fred can’t hold him for kidnapping since Heath decided not to press charges. Cyrus, on the other hand, will end up doing a fair amount of time in prison. Phil Archer is mulling over whether to go for a second-degree murder or a manslaughter charge since girl’s death was accidental.”

“Yes, it was an accident. He was trying to kill Heath!” Victoria said crisply with a flash of her gray eyes. “Do you think Hemet might still be a threat to Heath?”

“There’s no way to be one hundred percent sure, Mother, but no, I don’t believe so.” Jarrod replied.

“Nick thinks Heath should have pressed charges.”

Jarrod shrugged. “It was Heath’s decision. He just wants to put it all in the past and be left alone. And Nick does tend to be rather heavy-handed with his retribution where Heath is concerned.”

Victoria nodded. “I’ll never forget how he almost started a range war with Wally Miles when Evan wounded Heath – and they had been our close friends for many years. I can only imagine the blood that would have been shed if one of those people had shot Heath.”

A wry smile crossed Jarrod’s face. “Mother, you can rest assured Brother Hemet became well acquainted with Brother Nick that night! Nick took him aside and held a little prayer meeting. That’s why I’m so certain that once Hemet and his people leave the Valley, they won’t ever come back.”

“I hope you’re right, Jarrod.” Victoria said softly.

Jarrod took a sip of his coffee. “I dropped Heath’s chain off by the jewelry shop to have it repaired. I suppose I should have offered to pick up a wallet for him while I was in town. But that’s such a personal item for Heath, kind of like his boots or his saddle. Although he has always been very gracious when I’ve given him a gift, I realize our tastes are oftentimes quite dissimilar.”

Victoria laughed. “Do you mean like the little derringer pistol you bought him that first Christmas?”

“Exactly! I asked him several months later if he had ever fired it. He said ‘No, it’s still in the box. But if any midgets come around that need killing, I’ll be ready’.” Jarrod chuckled. “I realized my mistake. A derringer wasn’t the most utilitarian choice.”

“Well, I’d say you more then rectified your error on his birthday.” Victoria observed. “Heath was overwhelmed when you gave him the customized Colt revolver.”

“I still had some trepidation that he might consider it too fancy, but I knew he liked the gun for certain when it was in his holster the next morning. My brother Heath is a man with his own mind and his own tastes.”

“That he is!” Victoria agreed. “I remember seeing Heath’s wallet and what struck me is how much it reminded me of the kind Tom used to buy for himself – good quality leather, but otherwise plain.”

There was a moment’s silence as Victoria paused in reflection and then her countenance lit up with a smile. “Jarrod,” she said. “I assume Tom’s wallet is still locked away in the safe in the study.”

Jarrod looked at her curiously. “Why yes, Mother. It’s been there ever since…” his voice trailed off and he cleared his throat. “I haven’t touched it since the night I put it there.”

“I want Heath to have Tom’s wallet.” The gray eyes held a full measure of resolve. “Other than his father’s boots, I haven’t found the right opportunity to offer him any more of Tom’s personal items. It may seem like I’m being sentimental, but this gives me the perfect chance to do that. I would really like Heath to have it. I don’t think Nick would mind.”

“Of course he wouldn’t, Mother!” Jarrod said warmly. “He would think it is a wonderful gesture, just as I do. Heath never knew Father, and all that died with Father was lost to Heath forever. I know I speak for Nick when I say your decision has our blessings.”

“Thank you, Son.” Victoria smiled at her eldest across the table.

“Then that settles it, Lovely Lady.” Jarrod rose from his chair. “May I escort you to the study and retrieve your gift?” He teased her as they walked out of the dining room arm-in-arm, “My only request is that Nick and I be on hand for the official presentation.”

Jarrod removed his father’s wallet from the safe and ran his fingers over the smooth-grained brown leather. He took a deep breath. “I guess I should remove the contents first.” It was something Jarrod had not bothered to do the night of his father’s murder.

“Yes,” Victoria agreed. “Just put Tom’s personals back in the safe.”

“There’s just the cash he was carrying…” Jarrod put the money in the safe. “Let’s see, here’s a picture of a very beautiful lady, and here’s another one of three fine children. The daughter and eldest son are particularly striking, I might add. And there’s a few old business cards.” Jarrod handed the wallet over to his mother and began to peruse the cards. The words on the second one caused his heart to pound so hard he could hear it in his own ears.

Raymond W. Kincaid, Esq. Attorney-At-Law
Strawberry, California

Jarrod looked over at his mother, who was busy admiring the handsome wallet. She had not noticed his obvious shock. “Oh yes,” she was saying, “I mustn’t forget Tom’s secret compartment. He kept the first dollar he ever made from our own business folded up inside there for good luck. I think I’ll put it in my jewelry box.”

Victoria pulled up the leather flap that lined the interior of the wallet where the paper money was carried. “Ah, here it is!” She found the old dollar in the hiding place folded down to a quarter of its full size. “And here’s another…” Victoria’s voice trailed off.

The picture fit into her palm. The handsome blond lad in the Union Army uniform looked to be about thirteen or fourteen years old. On the back, in the boy’s own handwriting, ‘Heath Thomson 1865’. But Victoria could barely make out the inscription through the tears that flooded her eyes the moment she recognized her son.

Victoria had always felt somehow closer to Tom by his graveside – like Tom was near, though out of sight. But like a wolf, always there, an unseen presence in the brush. She imagined that if she could hear the sound of his voice just once more that he could give her the reassurance she desperately needed. Then the shattered image in her mind would once again coalesce into a perfect whole.

“Oh Tom,” Victoria whispered her plea. “Please tell me you didn’t abandon your son.” She went completely still, her eyes closed, narrowing all awareness to a single faculty of sense, searching in the dark behind her eyes for some meaning, listening for the faintest whisper on the drifting breeze.

Finally, Victoria rose from where she knelt and turned to Jarrod. “We’re going to Strawberry.”


“Southern women are Mack trucks disguised as powder puffs.” – Reynolds Price


The sign said ‘Strawberry’ in weathered red paint. Under the name of the town, much smaller, was the legend ‘pop. 618’. Someone had X’d out the 8 and left the number 61. Somebody else had used a different color paint to add the words ‘last count’ beneath the legend. Tom Barkley leaned over his saddle and contemplated its meaning with sadness. The once booming mining town was in its death throes.

At the edge of town Tom slowed his horse, letting the big bay walk down the center of main-street. Strawberry was no longer teeming with life and excitement, but that was to be expected. The town’s lifeblood flowed straight from the veins of the old B & L goldmine. No, Lassiter Mining Company owned the mine now. Tom had sold his half stake nearly nineteen years ago. The once rich mine was drying up fast and Strawberry was drying up with it.

Tom spotted a sign advertising a livery stable, and he nudged the bay a little faster, checking the shops and businesses on both sides of the street. The place wasn’t completely dead. Scattered businesses remained open, including the saloon and the hotel. There was even a newspaper.

Tom dismounted in front of the stable. The sign said ‘Riley’s Livery’. It had belonged to a man named Morrison the last time he was here. Tom tugged on the reins and pulled his bay through the yawning doors. Inside were rows of unoccupied stalls strewn with dirty straw litter.

A wrinkled, little white-haired man dressed in overalls dropped his hayfork and stepped out of an empty stall. Tom nodded. The little man ignored him. He walked past Tom to the bay, patting his muscular neck, feeling the heat and dampness. His gnarled fingers slid over the shoulder and down the horse’s front leg. The old man shuffled around the bay once, observing the flanks for heavy breathing, glancing between the back legs for frothy, white lather.

When he had completed the circuit, the man said, “Nice horse, mister. Traveled not more than a half-day’s ride at a leisurely pace. You come here from Stockton?”

Tom smiled. “That’s right, mister.”

The old man finally introduced himself. “Duncan Riley,” he said, sticking out an arthritic hand.

“Tom Barkley.” Tom replied with a handshake.

Riley looked him hard in the face. The old man squinted as he leaned toward Tom. “You’ve been in here before,” he stated.

“I have, old-timer, but it’s been more than eighteen years ago. Henry Morrison owned the livery back then.”

“I bought the livery from Morrison about six years ago.” Riley said. “I can’t put my finger on it, but I know I seen you before.”

“Have you ever been to Stockton?” Tom asked, handing Riley the reins.

“Nope, I can’t say that I have.”

“Perhaps our paths crossed somewhere else then, Mr. Riley. I’ll be back for my horse in less than an hour.” Tom started back out the wide livery doors.

“I can see you take good care of this horse, Mr. Barkley!” Riley’s eyes glided over the bay with approval. “Only right a man should take proper care of the animal he depends on. This big fella comes up lame and you walk home, don’t you…” It wasn’t a question, and Tom didn’t even try to answer. “And you don’t look like a man who has to do much walking.”

Tom’s left eyebrow lifted in curiosity as he waited for Riley to speak his mind. The little curmudgeon was a typical stableman – highly opinionated and very out-spoken. By the time they were as aged as this old-timer, more often than not they had acquired all the charm of a dead cow. But if you ever got the chance to hire one who really knew horses, you were way ahead of the game, no matter what his age or disposition. Tom answered Riley with an amused half-smile and a wave good-bye.

Riley’s eyes grew wide and his white head tilted as his gaze followed Tom into the street. “Wish I could remember where I seen you before, cause I surely have. I know that much,” the old man mumbled under his breath.

Tom spotted his destination on the ride into town – the building right across the street from the Strawberry Gazette. He examined the exterior of the law office. Paint was chipping off the window casings and the sign was fading. Tom turned the door handle and stepped inside. There was a receptionist’s desk covered by a fine layer of dust and an empty waiting room.

Tom cleared his throat. “Mr. Kincaid?” he called.

A door opened down the hallway beyond the reception room and a man stepped into view. “Mr. Barkley?”

“That’s right.”

The young lawyer hurried up to Tom and shook his hand. “Thank you for coming, Mr. Barkley. Ned thought you wouldn’t show. Come on back to my office.” The lawyer led the way. “Ned is already there.”

Tom followed Raymond Kincaid to his office. Ned Parker sat in one of the two chairs in front of Kincaid’s desk. Ned’s face was deeply creased, his hair was gray and going, but Tom would have known his old mine foreman anywhere.

“Ned,” he said warmly, offering a handshake. “It’s been a long time.”

Ned crossed his arms and gave Tom a cool stare. “Well if it ain’t Tom Barkley, Mr. Bull of the Woods himself. Never figured to see you back in Strawberry.”

There was some real sand in the old miner’s craw, Tom thought as he took the other seat. But if Kincaid’s letter was accurate, the man had a legitimate gripe.

Ray Kincaid broke the uneasy silence. “Mr. Barkley, as I told you in my letter, I am representing Ned and the others in a civil lawsuit against Lassiter Mining Company. A dispute has arisen over pension money that the miners believe they’re due.”

“Hell yes, we’re due!” Ned interjected.

“I know you are.” Tom said evenly.

“Why, because you say so?” Ned spat. “I’ll tell you why! We worked down in that hole day after day for twenty years. You could taste the dust down there cause it burned your throat like trying your first cigarette. After twenty years, if it’s not the lungs that go, it’s your back or hips or knees from the picking, the loading, the hauling, and the lifting. By the time that mountain gave up all its gold, the men who mined it were spent too!”

“Mr. Barkley, only you, Daniel Lassiter, and Ned – acting as representative for the miners – were present at the meeting where certain financial commitments were made to the men. Mr. Lassiter’s position is that those obligations applied only to the now defunct B & L Mining Company.”

“A lot of things changed around here after you sold out and skedaddled. Lassiter even started working young boys in the mine.” Ned looked directly at Tom to gage his reaction.

“Dan used child labor?” Tom was appalled.

“Sure enough. But you weren’t around to stop it, were you?” There was a mocking in Ned’s tone.

“Mr. Barkley, California law recognizes a clear verbal agreement between two parties as an ‘Oral Contract’. Your testimony would add credibility to our case that such a verbal commitment did in fact exist. The tricky part of winning this case will be convincing the judge that those obligations were transferred to Lassiter Mining. Dan Lassiter, of course, will deny it.”

Tom could see the sincerity in the young lawyer’s eyes. Perhaps Raymond Kincaid had not yet moved on to greener pastures like the other partners in the firm because he wanted to win a just settlement for these old miners. The thought of a certain twenty-six year old law school graduate who was just as idealistic and committed to justice brought a brief smile to Tom’s face.

Tom reached into the inside breast pocket of his coat. “Mr. Kincaid, I have something that I think you will find even more valuable than my testimony.” Tom handed the document to the lawyer.

Raymond Kincaid’s eyes widened and he glanced up at Tom. He began to skim through the three-page ‘Buy-Sell Agreement’ between Daniel Lassiter and Thomas Barkley. When he finished, Kincaid threw back his head and laughed.

“It’s all in here, Ned! It’s all here!” The young lawyer was jubilant. “B & L Mining opened an escrow account at the San Francisco Bank earmarked for your pensions. Per the terms of this ‘Buy-Sell Agreement’, Lassiter Mining assumes the pension obligation and a percentage of the mine’s profits were to be deposited into the account annually.” Kincaid turned to Tom. “Thank you, Mr. Barkley. Dan Lassiter never even hinted that this agreement or the escrow account existed.”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Kincaid.” Tom said. “It’s only right that the miners should get what’s coming to them.”

Ned Parker brushed trembling fingers through his gray hair. “Lassiter never would have told us,” he said softly. “He’d have stole our money if he could’ve gotten away with it.”

Tom rose. “It’s a long ride back to Stockton so I’ll be on my way. Mr. Kincaid, don’t hesitate to wire me if I can be of further assistance. Ned, take care and give the men my best.”

Tom paused on the boardwalk outside the lawyer’s office. He let his eyes wander in the direction of a small frame house out near the far end of town. It was there Tom regained consciousness almost nineteen years earlier, after being nearly beaten to death and robbed. He awoke in the care of a young woman. If physical appearance guaranteed nursing skill, he was in the best of hands - her face and body could make dumb men talk and blind men see.

It had been impossible not to think of Leah Thomson as Tom rode back to Strawberry. Memories flooded his mind – fond memories of being tucked into that soft goose-down mattress and served soup and muffins; of listening, warm and drowsy, as she rocked and talked at the foot of the bed in her soft, honeyed drawl. He remembered the joy of being nursed and pampered by a woman like this and the desire that came to burn between them until it could no longer be denied.

Tom was lost in his thoughts as Ned Parker closed the office door behind him. Tom startled when Ned cleared his throat. “I’m glad you hadn’t rode off yet.” Ned began. “Gives me a chance to thank you proper and tell you I was wrong about what I’d been thinking, Mr. Barkley.”

“That’s alright Ned, I understand. I suppose I should have checked back to make sure Dan fulfilled our agreement. It appears you weren’t the only man who never figured to see me back in Strawberry.” Tom’s blue eyes were solemn. “I’m sorry if you men suffered because of that, Ned. I own stakes in over a dozen mining operations and this has taught me that if a man doesn’t look after his own obligations, no one else will. It is something that I intend to have my son Jarrod follow up on. But you can understand how a man might not know all that’s gone on in his absence.”

“Yeah, Mr. Barkley, I can see how a man might not know.”

“I better be getting along.” Tom stole one more glance in the direction of the little house.

“She still lives there, Mr. Barkley.”

“Who?” Tom asked, incredulous. It was if the old miner had read his mind.

“Leah Thomson.” Ned replied. “She never did marry… And she’s still a mighty fine-looking woman too!”

Tom Barkley stood at the gate of the picket fence, staring at the small white house. Leah’s place was neat and well cared for. It still looked much as it had so many years before, just like Tom remembered.

Another image from long ago kept crowding in on him. It was just after sunrise and a shaft of sunlight peeked between the curtains and fell across the bed where they had shared a night of passion. Leah slipped quietly from the bed. Standing there naked, her light brown hair hanging long and silky down her back, she turned to look at him. Her body was perfect: soft, yet strong, and the curves were right where they should be. Tom could still see her now, her lovely face picking up a radiant glow from the rays of the morning sun. Leah looked like a beautiful, golden statue. That moment became frozen in time for him. It was how Tom always remembered her. It was how he saw her still. Leah was made to be loved and cherished by the right man. She was meant for that.

What mystified Tom was that she would still be here. He was well aware of Leah Thomson even before he woke up in her bed. Other skills and attributes might be appreciated and duly noted, but her beauty was obvious to all. She could have had her pick of any of the eligible men in Strawberry. Many wanted her - it was just left up to Leah to do the choosing. He always imagined her as the wife of some lucky man, and mother to a brood of children.

The mid-day sun beat down on him. The clouds were high overhead, almost as distant as those long ago memories. Tom sighed. He was stalling and he knew it. A small curl of smoke suddenly puffed through the chimney. It was almost twelve-thirty now. Leah was probably making lunch and maybe a fresh pot of coffee. She always made great coffee.

Tom stood on the front porch and rapped the door with his knuckles. He waited, shifting his boots, unable to get comfortable. Tom looked down at his feet as if to reprimand them. Just then the door swung open.

“Rachel, since when do you ever knock…” Leah was taken aback at the sight of the well-dressed stranger. He was looking down and the brim of his black hat hid the upper part of his face. A salt and pepper beard covered the rest. “Sorry, mister. I thought you were…” The man raised his eyes to meet hers. “Tom?” she asked, breathless.

“Hello, Leah.” Tom took off his hat.

“It’s been a long time, Tom.” She could hear her heart beating in her chest, a pounding, distant drum.

“You look wonderful, Leah.” Tom meant it. Ned Parker was right - she was still a mighty fine-looking woman. At thirty-six, her face was still girlish, with big brown eyes, the fine nose you could draw with a compass, a small chin and a rosebud mouth. Her teeth were straight and white and her long brown hair arranged in an upsweep except for scattered stray tendrils. A well-worn cotton dress snuggled a soft, hourglass figure.

“Thank you, Tom.” She was a bit flustered. “I’m sorry, I’m forgetting my manners. Please come in.”

The front room was simple and tidy. Tom looked around the room and noted Leah had only one of everything: one sofa, one coffee table, one rocking chair, one lamp, one picture hanging on the wall. Everything was in its place. It was if she wanted to keep her life uncluttered and quiet.

“Sit down, please.” Leah motioned to the sofa. It was draped in a hand-sewn quilt-like cover to hide the worn upholstery. She sat at the other end. “I hope everything is well with you and your family!”

Tom looked at Leah’s face. Her innocent expression was just like an angel’s. She really wanted to know that all was well. “Yes.” Tom smiled. “Victoria and the children are fine! We even have a twelve year-old daughter in addition to our two sons. Her coming along ten years after Nick was a bit of a shock though.”

“Babies do have a way of coming along when you least expect them.” Leah’s right hand went to her cheek and nervously fussed with a wayward strand of hair.

“But Audra has been a joy, a real blessing, just like my two boys.” Tom added proudly.

Leah’s hand fell to her lap. “Why’d you come back to Strawberry after all these years, Tom?”

“To see to some old business commitments.” Tom replied. “Dan Lassiter is trying to cheat the miners out of their pensions. Fortunately, I had the disability and pension obligations well documented when I sold him my shares.”

Leah nodded. “Dan Lassiter always was a snake. I’m glad you could help the miners, Tom. A lot of those men would be left destitute without their pension.” She looked back toward the kitchen. “You want some coffee?”

“Do you still put egg shells in it?”

“Yes, I do!” Leah laughed.

“Then I’ll have a cup, if it’s no trouble.”

“You were trouble from the minute I found you in that alley, Tom Barkley.” Leah said in a silky drawl. “A cup of coffee is nothing at all. I’ll even make you a ham sandwich. I was just about to fix myself one.”

Leah left him there for the much needed solitude of her kitchen. She put one hand on her heart and the other over her mouth. He was back. Tom Barkley was really here. Time had changed Tom, it was true. The years of ease and prosperity had added a fair amount of weight to his frame. At thirty-nine, he had been trim and clean-shaven, with handsome features and a defined jaw-line. The extra pounds had softened and rounded his face. The eyes were the same clear ocean-blue. There were little crinkles around them now, but with the graying hair and beard, they gave him a look of knowing and experience. It really didn’t matter to her how well he wore his fifty-seven years. It was the essence of the man that she had fallen in love with. And seeing him again, Leah could not deny she loved him still. She had fallen hopelessly in love with him all those years ago, and he was far too compelling to have ever been replaced in her heart. He was still the man of her dreams – that dashing black-haired man in his prime who made love to her and gave her his baby.

Leah loaded the lunch tray and took a deep breath. Tom was here on business. He’d take care of that and then he’d go back home to his wife and family – back where he belonged. It would take some kind of performance, but she’d make it through this one brief visit.

Leah emerged from the kitchen and sat the tray on the coffee table. She served Tom a sandwich on a small plate and a mug of hot coffee that smelled like heaven.

“Still take it black?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, ever the product of his proper upbringing. “And it’s just as delicious as I remembered.” Tom added after taking a sip.

“My ham sandwiches aren’t too shabby, either.” Leah laughed and sat down to her own lunch. “You’ve made quite a name for yourself the past eighteen years, Tom.”

Tom arched his eyebrow as he chewed a bite of sandwich. “Our local paper has carried lots of stories about you through the years.” Leah explained. “I always knew you were destined for great things, Tom.”

“Thank you, Leah.” Tom said. “Luck had a lot to do with it. Mining’s a hit or miss proposition. When I sold my stake in the mine here, rather than put all my eggs in one basket, I decided to invest in several different claims.” Tom shrugged. “Every one of them came up pay dirt! Things really took off for us then. We had money to expand our ranch and buy top quality livestock.”

“And I bet you’ve got a big, beautiful house, too!” Leah grinned.

“It’s big alright.” Tom smiled. “And it’s beautiful because I left all the decorating to my wife.”

There was a wistful flicker of Leah’s gaze across the sparse room and then she lowered her eyes. Tom caught the look.

“Leah, I just don’t understand what you’re still doing in Strawberry. I always imagined you leaving here and finding yourself a good husband. Or marrying someone here… You had half the men in Strawberry tied up in knots!”

That got a hearty laugh. “Half? Oh well, I’m gonna take that as a compliment anyway!”

Leah had an infectious laugh. And she was one of those breezily unpretentious people who was forever finding something or other humorous. Tom laughed with her and twenty years seemed to melt off his face.

“Seriously, Leah, I just meant you could have had so much more in life.”

Leah stiffened. “Who are you to judge what quality of life I have? You can’t look through my eyes or feel what I feel! My life may be simple, but it is rewarding. I tend my garden, work my jobs, cherish my good friends, and enjoy my moments of solitude. You haven’t known anything of my life in over eighteen years, Tom. Don’t you be telling me what I am or what you think I ought to be!”

She was a product of the Old South, which demanded of its women both strength and femininity, coupled with a die-hard spirit of independence. But having spent those weeks with Leah, Tom was not convinced she had no interest whatsoever in traditional domesticity.

“I’m not passing any judgment.” Tom declared. “You just seemed so suited for marriage and motherhood. And it’s not too late. You’re still young and attractive, Leah. Living alone in a dying mining town can’t offer you much security.”

“Remember me telling you about marrying Charlie Sawyer?” Leah looked him in the eye. “I was just past sixteen years old. Oh, he promised he was gonna take care of me in fine fashion! Two weeks later, I was a widow. I grieved for that man even though there was talk around town – talk that Charlie was a two-bit swindler and that I was just a victim of his latest scam. I didn’t want to believe it! But all I know for sure is that his body was never found and what little money I had saved disappeared the same time as Charlie did.” Leah shook her head. “I decided to change my name back to Thomson. I married once for security, Tom, and maybe all I got instead was a cheap hustle.”

“Then he was a fool!” Tom stated hotly.

“And so was I.” Leah said after a moment. “I was going to be a dutiful wife and Charlie would give me security and protection. It seemed like a fair exchange. Then two years later I learned the real meaning of love. It is a gift and to deny true love blights the soul. I could never marry or lay with a man for any other reason.” Leah stated it with such clarity that Tom knew it to be true.

Tom looked away. Leah knew then that he sensed what she had not directly stated. The two lapsed into silence, neither one very comfortable right there in the moment. Leah bit into her sandwich. If she chewed, then he wouldn’t expect her to talk. A few minutes passed and she saw that he was finished as well. Leah stood and began to clear the low table.

“Another cup of coffee before you go?” she offered.

“Thank you, Leah. That would be nice.” Tom looked up with a nod and handed her his mug.

She disappeared into the kitchen and Tom rose from his seat. He walked over to the fireplace and draped his arm on the mantle. Tom stared into the depths of the empty, blackened hearth and heaved out a sigh.

Life is a mystery to be lived, and perhaps love is its most profound enigma. Tom had found an answer he could barely comprehend. Leah was still here alone because she had loved no other. She had spent the intervening years pining for her first love – a love that could never be. He wished he could hold Leah responsible for much of what had happened, but he couldn’t. Tom castigated himself for the affair. Leah was so very young. He was twenty-one years her senior and he had a wife and family at home – a wife that he dearly loved. Leah did not try to win his heart and steal him away. She was just so in love, she gave him her heart anyway. And Tom had grown to love her too, in his own way.

It was his deep affection and attraction for Leah that drove Tom away from Strawberry. He thought back to the day he’d sold his shares in the mine to his partner.

Dan Lassiter sat in stunned silence for a few moments. “Of course I’ll buy your stake, Tom! But are you sure this is what you want to do? We’ve had ore samples assay at over ninety-five percent pure gold! A mine this rich could produce another twenty years. Opportunities like this don’t come along every day.”

“I realize that, Dan.” Tom said. “But I’m certain I want to sell my half interest. I’ll use the profit to stake another claim.”

“Yeah, but there’s nothing like a sure thing, Tom. There’s no guarantee you won’t end up owning a worthless hole next time.” Dan shook his head in disbelief. “This is all because of that Thomson girl, isn’t it?”

Tom ignored the question. “Dan, do you want to buy my stake or don’t you?”

“Sure, Tom. I’ll buy you out and you can go on back to Stockton and play the devoted family man.” Lassiter grinned. “It doesn’t really matter to me why you’re selling. I’ll make a fortune off this mine. But that girl may end up being the most expensive piece of tail you ever had!”

In an instant, Tom nearly snatched Lassiter clean across the desk by the front of his shirt collar. “Don’t ever speak to me like that about her again!” Tom’s voice was low and threatening.

“Easy, Tom… I’m… sorry.” Lassiter stammered. He straightened his tie and shirt front when Tom released his hold. “I didn’t realize you had strong feelings for the girl. That would be reason enough right there for a lot of men to hold on to a business interest here in Strawberry.”

“I’m not ‘a lot of men’, Dan. No matter how this looks, I still love my wife very much. And I have too much regard for Leah to keep her up as a mistress. She’s a wonderful woman.”

Tom’s mind snapped back to the present. Yes, Leah was a wonderful young woman, and when they’d met she still had her best years ahead of her. After he left her, Tom had hoped Leah would soon forget about him and find someone without strings or guilt. He wanted her to have all that life had to offer. Now, Leah was a woman alone in the world and he felt to blame. Tom slammed his fist down on the top of the mantle. The impact caused a little wooden picture frame sitting on the mantle to topple over on its face. Tom glanced up at the small photograph as he started to prop the frame upright again. The boy’s face in the picture caught his eye.

Tom sucked in a sharp breath. He walked over to the window to better study the small picture. It seemed like the floor beneath him vibrated with every step, rattling his bones and threatening to take Tom to his knees. The stronger light did nothing to calm him. It only served to remove all doubt. Tom had indeed seen the familiar face somewhere – he’d seen it reflected in his own mirror when he was a boy.

Tom thought again how Leah seemed to have only one of everything. All those years ago, she’d had only one winter coat. One pair of good shoes. One pretty hat. Yes, she had one of everything. She even had one child. His child.

“I’d left the coffeepot off the stove. I had to reheat it for you…” Leah sat the steaming mug on the coffee table.

Tom turned from the window to face her. His cheeks were glistening, but Leah didn’t realize it was from tears until he reached up with his left hand to wipe them away. Her pleasant smile faded and concern flooded her warm brown eyes.

“Tom? Are you alright?”

Tom wondered if he would be able to speak past the knot in his throat. Silently, he raised his right arm to eye level, turning the small picture frame to face in her direction.

“Why… why didn’t you tell me, Leah?” he finally said in a voice both tight and stricken.

Leah backed away a step, but said nothing. Tom noticed her hands were trembling. They stood there in silence, the anguish in her brimming eyes matching his own. She still hadn’t said anything.

“Answer me, dammit!” Tom choked out.