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     There was something strange about the faded, red envelope in her mailbox. Emily Patterson reached in and gingerly lifted it from the stack of mail. The edges appeared frayed and soiled, but the grimy appearance wasn’t the only thing different.

     No return address. No postage.

     In spite of the icy wind slicing through every stitch she wore, Emily stood glued to the curb in front of her house, staring at what appeared to be her first holiday greeting of the season. Only when a passing car honked, shaking her out of her curious daze, did she realize she was freezing. She grabbed the rest of the mail and hurried up the walk.

     Emily’s numb fingers wrestled with the door key of the stately Victorian she’d called home for the past twenty years. Her grandfather, Sterling Patterson, who made his money in cattle, built the house in 1903. The house, something of an anomaly in the Panhandle, had been his way of proclaiming his status in the community of Redwood. The only Victorian in four counties, it sat just two blocks from the town square. When she heard the familiar click of the lock, she breathed a frosty sigh of relief and let herself in. It was cold inside too, but nothing like the outside.

     After her grandparents passed away, her parents moved  into the house. They renovated and updated with modern appliances, new velvet drapes, Persian rugs, and some of the finest artwork available.The one thing they didn’t do was install a central heating system. Every fall, Emily promised herself she would install heat before winter arrived. Now here it was, the twenty-seventh of November, and once again, she had let another year pass without doing so. But this evening something besides central heating occupied her mind. She tossed the rest of the mail on the hall table as she passed, but carried the red envelope into the kitchen. She slid her fingernail beneath the seal, which lifted without any pressure, the yellowed adhesive confirming the passing of time.The out dated illustration on the front puzzled her. And it looked soiled, like it had been handled a lot or maybe carried around in someone’s pocket for awhile. When she opened the card, a sheet of paper floated to the floor. She ignored it for a moment as she stared at the unfamiliar name on the card.

     Mark.

     Finally, she bent down and retrieved the sheet of paper.

 

                 Dear Emily,

                 I hope you will forgive me for being such a coward. I never had the nerve to tell you how much I care about you. I wasn’t sure how you felt about me, and I guess my pride ouldn’t allow me to speak up for fear of being rejected. And then there’s the matter

of your parents. I’m sure they don’t approve of me. But here I am, thousands of miles away, and I’ve decided it’s now or never. When you stare death in the face every day lke I do, your priorities change real fast. I don’t know if I’ll get out of this place alive, bt if I do, I’m coming back for you. I have to go now. The sound of mortar fire is getting coser. Looks like we’re in for it again.

                 Merry Christmas, Emily.

                 Love, Mark

 

     Emily wrinkled her brow in confusion. Love? And he says he’s coming back for me? Her heart gave a tiny leap. It had been a long time since a man had shown any interest in her. But then, not too many eligible bachelors resided in Redwood. She could count them on her fingers, and all of them were as old as Methuselah. Most of the men her age had families. All her old classmates had moved away or married someone else. Including Frank Butler. 

      She sighed at the thought of Frank. She’d passed up her one and only chance for marriage when she turned down his proposal twelve years ago. They’d dated off and on for five years after she finished college. Everyone expected them to get married, even Frank, but she just didn’t have the courage to marry someone she didn’t love. Being fond of a man didn’t qualify him as a lifelong companion. Or did it? Could she have been any lonelier than she was now if she had married Frank? He’d said he would wait until she was ready, but he didn’t. Frank had married and raised a family with someone else. He always tipped his Stetson when they happened into each other, but he never spoke. At first she’d been offended by this formal gesture, but then she realized he’d given her every opportunity to accept his proposal. He’d been hurt and probably a little humiliated when she continued to put him off month after month.

     She glanced down at the letter again. Mortar fire? Thousands of miles away? He must be in a foreign country. She turned the card over. Tiny brown spots dotted the back like something had splattered on it. Emily reread the letter, hoping to find a missing clue, but there was nothing to enlighten her as to its author. This was just someone’s idea of a bad joke.

     She tossed the card on the kitchen table and rubbed her freezing hands together. Thank goodness Clifford had been kind enough to stack some wood inside the porch for her last week. If it weren’t for good neighbors like Cliff, she’d be in serious trouble.

     Minutes later, with the fireplace blazing, Emily went back to the kitchen, grateful she had made a pot of beef stew over the weekend. She needed a steaming bowl of food to fight off the bone-numbing cold whistling around the corner of the house. She carried her meal to the living room and ate in front of the fireplace, still puzzling about the strange Christmas card. When the fire died down to a few glowing embers and the room grew chilly again, she turned out the light and headed for the bedroom. It was only after she put on her blue flannel pajamas and slid beneath the quilts that she remembered what the letter said about her parents not approving. Her parents were dead and she was an adult, so what did it matter?

     Something’s wrong here.

     She threw back the covers, slipped on her house shoes, and made her way to the kitchen. The red envelope lay upside down where she had discarded it. She turned it over and squinted at the faded postmark.

     December 1, 1968. Someone mailed me a Christmas card in 1968, and I’m just now receiving it in 1989?

     A chill crept up her spine, and goose bumps formed on her arms.Had she known a Mark somebody back then? She was only eighteen, a senior in high school. But how could she forget someone in Redwood?

     Emily walked over to the bookshelf and pulled out her 1968 high school yearbook. She blew the dust off, and carried it to the sofa. For the next few minutes, she searched through every roster, looking for anyone named Mark. She browsed through the senior class of which she’d been a part. With that shoulder-length style from the sixties, her own portrait didn’t resemble the woman she was today. She leaned back and closed her eyes, willing herself to remember 1968. Let’s see. High school graduation. And those terrible riots. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. All the boys started shipping out to Vietnam. Emily chewed on her lip for a moment, conjuring up images of the past. What a horrible time, all those boys getting killed; their mangled bodies shipped home to their families. Lenny Burnett never made it home. They never found him. His mother died of a broken heart.

     Emily opened her eyes and sat up. Mark must have been in Vietnam when he wrote the letter. That would explain the mortar fire. But it still didn’t tell her who he is, or why she was just now receiving it.Closing the yearbook, she yawned and climbed back in bed. Emily closed her eyes, but all she could think about was the mysterious Mark from 1968. What had happened to him? Why didn’t he ever come to see her? A chilling thought crossed her mind. Maybe he didn’t make it home alive. Or maybe he was an MIA or POW.

     Emily opened her eyes and rolled onto her side. She had to quit thinking about him. A faint light streamed through the open shade on her window. In the glow from the street lamp on the corner, she could see the first snowflakes beginning to fall. The snow reminded her of the fragrant white talcum powder her mother used to sprinkle on after her bath. The snow, like the powder, clung to whatever surface it landed upon. Sadness swept over Emily. She still missed her parents, especially at Christmastime. The wintry scene outside her window blurred as tears stung her eyes.

     Dear God, I can’t stand to spend another Christmas alone.

 

     My uncle, Joel Webster, disappeared without a trace on June 1, 1949. At the time, he lived on the family farm at Silver Creek, Texas, with my parents. I wasn’t around then, but my mom told me stories about him that intrigued me at an early age. Of course, her stories only went as far as the date of his disappearance.

     On the day he vanished, Dad invited Uncle Joel to go with him and my mother into Silver Creek. “Joel, let’s go into town and pick up some supplies. While we’re there, we’ll get us something cold to drink and visit with some of the other fellows for awhile.”

     Uncle Joel shook his head. “Warner, I think I’m just gonna set on the porch awhile and enjoy the nice weather. We won’t have too many more days like this before the heat sets in. You and Maria go on into town and do your shopping.”

     My mom joined in hoping to persuade him. “It’s your birthday, Joel. Come with us. We’ll treat you to an ice cream soda.”

     But he couldn’t be swayed. They left him sitting on the porch alone, smoking a Viceroy cigarette and blowing smoke rings into the fresh morning air. When they returned later in the day, Uncle Joel was gone.

     At first, they didn’t worry. He often went to town on Saturday with his friends to shoot pool or eat at The Silver Diner, the only local café. They did wonder why he waited until they left to go himself, but there was no accounting for the way Uncle Joel thought. He wanted to live his own life, make his own decisions, and do it his way, no matter what the situation.

     The next morning Uncle Joel didn’t show for breakfast. Dad, thinking he’d overslept after coming in at some ridiculous hour, went to wake him. When Uncle Joel didn’t answer his knock, Dad opened the door. The bed hadn’t been slept in. The closet door stood open, revealing a bare interior.

     Mom told me that Dad stayed gone so long she went looking for him. She found him standing in the doorway of Uncle Joel‘s room, a frown creasing his brow.

     “What’s wrong, Warner?”

     Dad shook his head. “Joel hasn’t been here all night.”

     “Maybe he stayed the night with one of his friends. He’s done that before.”

     “No, he’s gone.”

     “What do you mean he’s gone?”

     Dad stepped aside so Mom could enter the room. “See for yourself.”

     Mom looked around in disbelief. “His things are missing.” She walked across the room and back as if to be sure it was real. “Did he leave a note?”

     Dad stepped inside the room and began searching for evidence that Joel had, at least, said good-bye. Mom said he lifted the pillow on the bed and looked under it as though he might find a clue hidden there. He walked over and peered into the closet. “There’s nothing here. He’s just . . . gone.”

     Mom crossed to the window and peered out. “Why would he leave? Where would he go?”

     “I don’t have the faintest idea.” Dad pulled the string attached to the bare light bulb in the closet. The light only emphasized the empty space. “He took everything he owned, not one scrap left. Ornery rascal. This is just like him to run out on me.” When Dad reached to turn off the light, he jerked on the light string so hard it broke off in his hand.

     Uncle Joel was known for his pranks. He never did anything to hurt people, but loved to surprise them and make them laugh. In turn, this made him laugh.

     That morning, my folks stood around in Uncle Joel’s room as if they expected him to jump out of the closet and say “boo” at any moment, laughing at the joke he had pulled on them. But their shock subsided into dismay as they realized it wasn’t one of Uncle Joel’s pranks. He had deserted them.

     When they finally went back into the kitchen, they stared at the bacon and eggs, no longer hungry. Their coffee grew cold as they sat, each lost in their own thoughts.

     “Warner, what will we do without Joel? It won’t be the same around here without him.”

     Dad sighed deeply. “It’s not just that. How does he think I can run this farm by myself. It‘s too much work for one man. This is just like him to run out on responsibility and leave everything for someone else to deal with.“ He shoved his plate of cold food aside. “Guess I better go into town and see if anyone’s seen him. Maybe talk to the sheriff. Just in case.”

     “Just in case, what?”

     “That by some small chance it might not be one of his pranks.”

     Mom bit her lip. “But all of his things are gone. You don’t think . . .”

     Dad shrugged. “I never said anything has happened to him, but it won’t hurt to be sure.”

     When Dad told Sheriff Mason about Uncle Joel’s disappearance, he followed Dad home to investigate. He walked the yard and surrounding fields. He searched my uncle’s room but didn’t turn up a single clue or evidence of foul play.

     “Warner, judging by the fact that all your brother’s possessions are missing, I’d say he left of his own free will. It’s too bad he didn’t leave a note or let you know, but that’s how it looks to me.”

     During the next few weeks, Dad drove to nearby towns looking for his brother and contacted what few relatives we had in the area hoping they had heard from Uncle Joel. All without success.

     Mom said every evening after supper that summer, they would sit on the front porch in the rockers and stare down the road, hoping for a sign of Uncle Joel. She said she would never forget the sunsets that year. They were the prettiest she’d ever seen. The sun would splash its fiery colors across the Texas sky, then slowly fade into violet twilight, and finally, disappear leaving only star-studded darkness. But by summer’s end, there was still no sign of Uncle Joel.

     On September first, Dad watched the road till nightfall. Then he leaned back and closed his eyes. “He’s not coming back.”       After that, they still sat on the porch after supper, but it was more to escape the heat of the house than to search the horizon for Uncle Joel.

     On the last Saturday in October, Silver Creek held its annual fall festival. The whole town gathered on the town square to celebrate the end of harvest and summer’s scorching heat. Booths filled with homemade pies, jellies, and quilts lined the streets. Farmers hawked their pumpkins and sweet potatoes. Games and contests for all ages made for lots of laughter and good-natured teasing.

     Mom and Dad joined the festivities with great exuberance. After the long summer vigil, they needed some fun. Mom told me it was the first time she’d seen Dad smile since his brother’s disappearance. They stayed until Jed Harper and his boys quit playing their fiddles. Bone-weary, they drove into the yard after midnight. When they stepped onto the porch, they smelled cigarette smoke hanging in the chilly night air. Someone had been there.

     Dad crept toward the door and reached for the knob. The door creaked as he pushed it open. He flipped the switch just inside and light flooded the porch. Together they searched the house, but found nothing.

     The next morning, while sweeping sand off the porch, Mom found a cigarette butt. She didn’t even have to pick it up to know who it belonged to. She could read the label. Viceroy.   

     When she showed it to Dad, he stared at the cigarette for a moment then turned and looked toward the road. “He’s been here.”

     “Why didn’t he wait for us?”

     Dad shrugged. “Joel’s always been independent and unpredictable. Just goes to show you he doesn‘t even care enough about us to let us know he‘s in the area.”

     Eight months later, on June 1, 1950, I was born. It was Uncle Joel’s birthday, and the anniversary of his disappearance. And I was a month early. Dad took one look at me and said, “It looks like this young ’uns got a mind of his own just like my brother. We‘ll call him Joel.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moved, Left No Address

              Prologue

 

            Wheels of Justice

           The Redwood Series,                                         Book 2

      Buford bounded out of his office and headed straight for me. I braced myself for another verbal tirade.

      He walked right up to me, his eyes blazed with hatred. “You little slut. You think you’re smart, telling Rick about our talk. You think you can play us against each other? We’re family. You can’t come between us.”

      My heart pounded against my chest. I shook my head. “I didn’t tell Rick anything.”

      Buford stood so close to me, I could smell his breath, and it did nothing to help my queasy stomach. He needed some mouthwash big time. I turned my head just a little to get away from the overpowering scent. It was the wrong thing to do.

      He grabbed my chin and forced my face toward him.

      “Look at me when I’m talking to you? Who do you think you are?” An evil sneer flashed across his face. “I’ll tell you what you are. You’re a tramp who walked in here off the street and played on Monica’s sympathy to get a job. Well, Monica doesn’t have the last word. I do.”

He squeezed my jaws so hard, tears filled my eyes. The pain radiated across my cheeks. I tried to pull away from him, but Buford just squeezed harder and laughed—a sound that made my blood run cold. All the warnings I’d heard about him flashed through my mind again.

      “I’d fire you today, but Monica would give me all kinds of grief.” He squeezed my jaws again. “Soon you’ll be gone. Your days at McKinney’s are numbered.” He shoved me into the wall and walked away as though nothing had happened.

      I stumbled to the bathroom, trembling from head to toe, and splashed cold water on my face. My stomach churned. I had to get out of here. I didn’t want to face Rick. He must have confronted his daddy about the tongue-lashing Buford had given me this morning. That’s why Buford had grabbed me just now.

      Back at my desk, I scribbled a note to Monica that I was sick and needed to go home for the afternoon. I left it where she’d be sure to see it and then slipped out the back door. I made my way around to my car and climbed in. My hand shook so much, the key missed the ignition, but I finally cranked the engine and pulled out of McKinney’s parking lot. If I was smart, I’d never go back.