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It was her. It had to be. It was the eyes that made him certain, even from this distance.
Quinn Freeman stared harder at the young woman— not much more than twenty from the look of it—sitting uncomfortably onstage. She was trying to pay attention to the long rally speeches honoring the city's recovery, but not quite succeeding. And the speeches were surely long. Politicians fought banks who fought insurance companies and everyone nursed a grudge over how things had been handled. The most eloquent speech on God's green earth couldn't explain how one man was still alive while another's life had come to an end. The uncertainty of everything made for chaos.
Still, she was here. By some astounding act of God, she was here. And what a sight she was. Even in the gray light of this cloudy morning, she looked clean and pretty, and he hadn't seen anything clean and pretty in days.
It was the eyes, really, that captured his attention. Round and wide, framed with golden lashes. Even in the brown tint of the charred photo he'd found, he'd somehow known they were an unusual color. Something between a blue and a violet, now that he saw them. The color of the irises Ma was fond of in one of the city gardens.
Quinn fished into his pocket for the battered locket he'd found last week as he walked home from yet another insufferably long bread line. He'd seen it glint in the corner of a rubble pile just south of Nob Hill, a tiny sparkle in a pile of black and brown timber. Usually, Quinn was looking up; he was always looking up at the buildings—or parts of buildings—still standing, admiring how they'd survived with so much rubble marking where others had fallen. It wasn't as if bits of lives couldn't still be found all over the city—even months out as it was, Quinn was forever picking up one shoe or a bit of a cup or a chipped doorknob.
This was different. There was something amazing about the fact that the locket was still shut, and that despite the soot and dents, there were still two tiny photographs inside. Two young women about his own age. Sisters? Cousins? He kept the charm in his pocket, making up a dozen stories as he worked or walked or waited, because everything now took hours longer than it had before. Yes, it was dirty and dented and the chain was broken, but the faces inside had survived an earthquake and a fire. And now he knew the people had, as well. Or at least one of them. Quinn just couldn't ignore the hope in that.
Reverend Bauers never called anything a coincidence. No one was ever "lucky" to Reverend Bauers—they were "called" or "blessed." Quinn had survived the earthquake and the fire. His mother had, too. But he was beginning to wonder if he'd survive the next two months. A few months ago he'd been just another grunt down at the printing press, scratching out a living, trying to hang on to his big dreams. Then the world shook and fell over. He'd survived, but why had God kept him alive while scores of others died?
"God does not deal in luck or happenstance," Bauers always said to Quinn when something went their way or a need miraculously became met. "He directs, He provides and He is very fond of surprising His children." The saying rang in Quinn's ears when he saw the familiar face on the stage this morning. And he knew, even before he pulled the locket from his pocket and squinted as he held it up to her profile, that it was her. Well, Lord, I'm surprised, I'll grant You that.
When that pretty woman saw him hold up the locket, her eyes wide with amazement, he made the decision right there and then to do whatever it took to return the locket to her, to bring one thing home.
The man fished something out of his pocket and held it up, comparing it to the face—her face—before him.
Annette's locket. With the elongated heart shape that was so unusual, the one Annette had picked out for her birthday last year, it just had to be. He had Annette's locket!
It took forever for the rally to end. The moment she could, Nora swept off her chair in search of the fastest way into the crowd. He couldn't have missed her intent given how hard he seemed to be staring at her. Surely he would wait, perhaps even make his way toward the stage.
The crowd milled exasperatingly thick, and Nora began to fear the man would be lost to her forever—and that last piece of Annette with him. Nora pushed as fiercely as she dared through the clusters of people, dodging around shoulders and darting through gaps.
She could not find him. Her throat tight and one hand holding her hat to the mass of blond waves that was her unruly hair, she turned in circles, straining to see over one large man's shoulders and finding no one.
"This is you, isn't it?" came a voice from behind her, and she turned with such a start that she nearly knocked the man over. He held up the locket. Nora let out a small gasp—it was so battered now that she saw it up close. The delicate gold heart was dented on one side, black soot scars still clinging to the fancy engraving and the broken chain.
Soot. A fire seemed such a terrible, awful way to die. Nora clutched at the locket with both hands, her grief not allowing any thought for manners. The two halves of the dented heart had already been opened, revealing the remains of a pair of tiny photographs—one of her, the other of Annette. Nora put her finger to the image of Annette and thought she would cry. "Yes," she said unsteadily, "that's me, and that's my cousin, Annette. However did you get this?"
The man pushed back his hat, and a shock of straw-colored hair splashed across his forehead. "I found it last week. I've been looking for either one of you since then, but I didn't really think I'd find you. I just about fell over when you walked onto the stage this morning, Miss… Longstreet, was it? The postmaster's daughter?"
Nora suddenly remembered her manners. "Nora Longstreet. I'm so very pleased to meet you. And so very pleased to have this back…although it isn't…actu-ally mine." She felt her throat tighten up, and paused for a moment. "It's Annette's, and she isn't…she's isn't here. Anymore." She pulled in a shaky breath. "She died…in it."
"I'm sorry. Seems like everybody lost someone, doesn't it?" He tipped the corner of his hat. "Quinn Freeman."
"Thank you for finding this, Mr. Freeman. It means a great deal to me."
Quinn tucked his hands in his pockets. He wore a simple white shirt, brown pants that had seen considerable wear and scuffed shoes, but someone had taken care to make sure they were all still clean and in the best repair possible given the circumstances. "I'm sure she would have wanted you to have it, seeing as it's you in there and all."
"I'm sure my father would be happy to give you some kind of reward for returning it. Come meet him, why don't you?"
Quinn smiled—a slanted, humble grin that confirmed the charm his eyes conveyed—and shrugged. "I couldn't take anything for it. I'm just glad it found its way home. Too many people lost too much not to see something back where it belongs."
Nora ran her thumb across the scratched surface of the locket. "Surely I can give you some reward for your kindness."
He stared at her again. The gaze was unnerving from up on the stage, but it was tenfold more standing mere feet from him. "You just did. It's nice to see someone so happy. A pretty smile is a fine thing to take home." He stared for a long moment more before tipping his hat. "G'mornin', Miss Longstreet. It's been a pleasure."
"Thank you, Mr. Freeman. Thank you again." Nora clutched the locket to her chest and dashed off to find her father.
She found him near the stage, talking with a cluster of men in dark coats and serious expressions. "Papa!" She caught his elbow as he pulled himself from the conversation. "The most extraordinary thing has happened!"
"Where have you been? You shouldn't have dashed off like that."
"Oh, Papa, I've survived an earthquake and a fire. What could possibly happen to me now?"
"A great deal more than I'd care to consider." He scowled at her, but there was a glint of teasing in his eye. She was glad to see it—he hadn't had much humor about him lately.
She held up the battered charm. "Look! Can you believe it? I thought it lost forever."
Her father took the locket from Nora's hand and held it up, turning it to examine it. "Is this Annette's locket? That's astounding! However did you find it?"
"A man gave it to me, just now. He said he recognized me from the photo inside. The photographs hadn't fully burned. Can you imagine? I knew there was a reason I needed to come with you this morning. I knew I should be beside you up there. Now I know why!" Right now that dented piece of gold was just about the most precious thing in all the world. The moment she fixed the broken chain, she'd never take it off ever again.
"Well, where is this man?" Her father looked over her shoulder. "I'd say we owe him a debt of thanks."
"I tried to get him to come over and meet you—he knew who I was and who you were—but he said he didn't need any thanks." She left out the bit about her smile. Oh, thank You, Lord, Nora prayed as she took the locket back from her father. Thank You so much!
"Did you at least get his name?"
"Freeman," Nora said, thinking about the bold stare he'd given her at first, "Quinn Freeman."
The mail had always been mundane to Nora. A perfunctory business. Hardly the stuff of heroes and lifesav-ing deeds. Papa had told her stories of how they'd soaked mailbags in water and beaten back the fire to save the post office. And now, the mail had become just that— lifesaving. Thanks to Papa's promise to deliver all kinds of mail—postage or no postage—mail had become the one constant. The only thing that still worked the way it had worked before. It was amazing how people clung to that.
No one, however, could have foreseen what "all kinds of mail" would be: sticks, wood, shirt cuffs and collars, tiles and margins of salvaged books or newspaper had been pressed into service as writing paper. Each morning Papa would take her to the edge of an "official" refugee camp—for several questionable "unofficial" camps had sprung up—and they would take in the mail. Standing on an older mail cart now pressed into heavy service, Nora took in heart-wrenching messages such as "We're alive" or "Eddie is gone" or "Send anything" and piled them into bags headed back to the post office.
Nora—and any other female—could only accept mail, for mail delivery had become a dangerous task. Arriving mail consisted of packages of food or clothes or whatever supplies could be sent quickly, and that made it highly desirable. The massive logistics of distributing such things had necessitated army escorts in order to keep the peace. Even after months of relief, so much was still missing, so much was still needed, and San Francisco was discovering just how impossible it was to sprout a city from scratch. The nearly three months of continual scrounging, loss and pain turned civil people angry, and there had even been a few close scrapes for Nora in the simple act of accepting mail. Those incidents usually made her father nervous, but today they made Nora all the more determined to help. Someone had delivered something precious to her, and she would do the same. It was not her fault the postmaster had not been blessed with a son who could better face the danger. If God had given Postmaster Longstreet a daughter, then God would have to work through a daughter. Father had always said, "We do what we can with what we have." What better time or place to put that belief into practice?
"Please," a young boy pleaded as he pressed a strip of cloth into Nora's hand. Its author had scrawled a message and rolled up a shirtsleeve like a scroll, tied with what looked like the remnants of a shoelace. "Martin Lovejoy, Applewood, Wisconsin" was printed on the outside. "All we got is the clothes we're wearing," the lad said, "but Uncle Martin can send more."
"Is your tent number on the scroll? Your uncle Martin needs to know where to send the clothes."
"Don't know," the boy said, turning the scroll over in his hands. He held it up to Nora again. "I don't read. Is it?"
The scroll held none of its sender's information. "What's your tent number?"
The tiny lip trembled. "It's over there."
The boy pointed across the street to the very large "unofficial" encampment that had taken over Dolores Park. Nora bent down and took the boy's hand. "Which…" she hesitated to even use the word in front of him, "…shack is yours?"
He pointed to a line of slapped-together shelters just across the street. "There."
The shack stood near the edge of the camp, but still, he was so small to be here by himself. Nora looked around for someone to send back with him—the unofficial camp was not a safe place to go—but everyone was engrossed in their own tasks. The little boy looked completely helpless and more than a little desperate. It was by the edge, not forty feet away, and perhaps it wasn't as dangerous as Papa made it out to be. Taking a deep breath, Nora made a decision and hopped down off the wagon. Five minutes to help one little boy couldn't possibly put her in any danger, and her father looked too busy to even notice her absence. Nora held out her hand. "Let's walk back together and we'll sort it out. We can ask your mama to help us."
The little boy looked away and swiped his eye bravely with the back of his other hand. "Mama's gone," he said in an unsteady voice. "My daddy wrote it."
Nora gripped the little hand tighter. "All the more reason that note should get through. We'll do what it takes to reach your uncle. It'll be all right, I promise. What's your name?"