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September 1893 Knotty Pine, Texas
"Hey, let me go! I ain't done nothing wrong."
Sheriff Mitchell Hammond wasn't buying that for a minute. The furtive way the boy had been sneaking out of the boardinghouse garden had guilt written all over it. In fact, Mitch's gut told him this kid was more than likely the culprit responsible for the rash of petty thefts that had plagued the town the past week or so. "Stop your squirming, son. I think maybe we need to talk about that bunch of carrots you have stuffed in your shirt."
"Them's my carrots."
The kid's voice had more than a touch of bluster to it.
Mitch tightened his hold on the boy's collar. "You don't say? Well, here comes Mrs. Collins now. Since she runs this boardinghouse and this here is her garden, why don't we see what she has to say about that."
Cora Beth Collins was hurrying toward them. Even in the early morning light, he could make out the concerned look on her oh-so-readable face, could tell that her honey-brown hair was pulled back in its usual tidy bun, could appreciate the way her crisply starched apron was tied around her trim waist.
Mitch frowned as he realized where his thoughts had strayed. He'd always considered Cora Beth a fine lady and a good friend. But lately he'd begun to feel something a little warmer than mere friendship when he caught sight of her.
And that was definitely not a good thing.
"What's all this commotion about?" Her breathless voice held an accusing tone that he was certain was aimed more at him than at the young scoundrel in his grasp.
Mitch tipped his hat with his free hand. "Morning, Cora Beth. Sorry if we disturbed you." He tilted his head toward his still-squirming captive. "I caught this boy raiding your garden."
Consternation flitted across her face and then she gave Mitch a challenging look. "It's not raiding if he has my permission."
He wasn't surprised by her quick defense of the boy. Cora Beth had the softest heart in townshe'd give up her last crust of bread if she thought someone else needed it more. Especially if that someone was a kid. But he also noted that she hadn't actually claimed to have given the kid permission. And he hadn't missed the surprise and relief that flashed across the boy's facea dead giveaway that his captive hadn't expected her to back him up.
"And did he?" It would be interesting to see how she answered himshe was too honest to out-and-out lie, no matter how much she wanted to rise to the kid's defense.
But to his surprise, she looked him straight in the eye, her expression free of evasiveness. "Actually, he's been weeding the garden in exchange for whatever produce he can carry." Then she glanced back at the boy and gave him an encouraging smile. "And a fine job you've been doing of it, too, young man."
That gave Mitch pause. Had he been a little too quick to judgment with the kid?
The boy mumbled something that might have been a thank-you, then glared up at Mitch, renewing his efforts to get free. "See, I told you I wasn't stealing. So, you gonna let me go now, mister?"
But despite Cora Beth's staunch defense, Mitch wasn't quite ready to believe the boy was totally innocent. "It's sheriff, not mister. And hold still. I'm not through with you just yet."
"Go easy." Cora Beth put out a hand but stopped short of touching either of them. "He's just a boy, not some hardened criminal." Her expression softened as she turned to his captive. "What's your name?"
Mitch raised a brow. "Now that's mighty interesting. He works for you, but you didn't bother to learn his name."
Cora Beth's expression reflected a mix of guilt and bravado, but she refrained from responding.
Keeping his amusement in check, Mitch turned his attention back to the closemouthed youth. "The lady asked you for your name, son."
"Ethan." The boy dug a toe into the ground and his tone was surly, grudging.
"Got a last name to go with that?" Mitch asked.
No response other than a tightening of the lips.
Cora Beth placed a hand on her supposed-gardener's shoulder. "You know, my brother Danny is twelve years old. I'll bet you're just about the same age, maybe a little older."
"I'm eleven." The boy's suddenly straighter posture bespoke a pride that was no doubt due to the fact that she'd erred on the plus side.
Which, knowing Cora Beth, she'd likely done deliberately.
"Is that right?" she said. "Well then, you're a very mature eleven." She cocked her head to one side. "Have you had your breakfast yet?"
The boy shook his head, and his rebellious expression shifted to hunger for a flash before he guarded it once more.
From the looks of the kid, Mitch guessed it'd been a while since he'd had a decent meal. But he'd landed on the right doorstep, figuratively speaking, to take care of that. If there was one thing Cora Beth could do exceptionally well, it was cook.
Sure enough, she straightened and gave a nod toward her back porch. "Well, we're going to do something about that. You come on inside. I just took the biscuits from the oven and it won't take more than a few minutes to scramble up some eggs."
Ethan scowled up at Mitch. "I don't think the sheriff'll let me go."
Cora Beth tossed Mitch a look. "Well then, I guess we'll have to invite him to join us."
Mitch touched the brim of his hat, giving her an answering smile. "Now, how could I turn down such a gracious invitation?"
She placed a hand on the boy's shoulder, her gaze still locked on Mitch. "You can let go of him now. He's not going anywhere, at least not until he's had his breakfast." She gave Ethan a smile. "Are you?"
Mitch repressed the urge to roll his eyes at the boy's overly docile tone. Cora Beth might trust him not to make a break for it but Mitch wasn't so gullible. Maybe because he had more experience with individuals who wore Ethan's hunted look. Likely as not, the kid would bolt at the first opportunity.
He kept a close eye on the boy as he let the two of them precede him. Stepping inside the large kitchen of the boardinghouse, Mitch removed his hat and hung it on a peg by the door. "Nothing like the smell of fresh baked biscuits to get a man's stomach to rumbling."
That earned him a smile from Cora Beth. "You menfolk take a seat at the table and I'll have your eggs and bacon cooked up quick as a cat's pounce."
Mitch smiled a thank-you before he pulled out a chair, careful to seat himself between the boy and the door. "You're in for a treat." He kept his tone friendly. "Mrs. Collins is the best cook in these parts."
The boy seemed a little more relaxed now. Was he ready to answer a few questions? "You're not from around here, are you?"
The bitter edge to the boy's tone was unexpected. Mitch filed that impression away to mull over later and continued his questioning. "So where are you from?"
The boy shrugged, not meeting his gaze. "Here and there. We move around."
So he wasn't traveling alone. "Who all makes up that we? "
Ethan clamped his lips shut, then looked past Mitch. "Is there something I can do to help you, ma'am?"
Cora Beth smiled over her shoulder. "Why thank you, Ethan, but I have it all under control."
Mitch reclaimed the boy's attention. "I asked you who you were traveling with."
He saw Ethan's internal struggle play out on his face. "My pa likes to travel," he finally blurted out.
Something in the boy's demeanor gave Mitch the feeling that Ethan was holding something back. But before he could press further, Cora Beth looked over her shoulder again.
"Your mother doesn't travel with you as well?" she asked.
"My ma's dead." There was no heat in his answer this timeonly a starkness of tone and expression.
The sounds of Cora Beth's utensils against the pans stopped. "Oh, Ethan" her voice carried a caresslike sympathy "I'm so sorry."
Ethan looked up to acknowledge her concern. "Thank you, ma'am. I miss her a lot."
Mitch, who'd lost his own mother at a young age, felt a tug of matching sympathy for the boy. But he couldn't let his feelings get in the way of his job. Learning what he could about the boy's situationnot feeling sorry for himwas the best way to help him. "And where is your pa right now?"
Ethan glanced back at the table. "Our camp is set up a couple miles outside of town."
Before Mitch could press further, Cora Beth set a plate in front of each of them. "That's enough with the questions for now, Sheriff. Let the boy eat."
Ethan reached for a biscuit and scooped up a forkful of the scrambled eggs at the same time.
"Ethan." Cora Beth used that voice most mothers acquired instinctively, the one that was gentle yet
uncompromisingly firm at the same time. "In this house we always give thanks before we eat."
Ethan tensed for a moment, rebellion tightening his jaw. But he set down his fork and gave her a pinched-faced apology. "Yes, ma'am. Sorry."
She touched his shoulder before taking a seat beside him. "I know you are." Then she turned her moss-green gaze toward Mitch. "Sheriff, would you say grace for us, please?"
He nodded and bowed his head, oddly touched that she had turned to him to perform that service. "Father, we thank You for this food and for the one who so generously prepared it. We ask that You watch over us this day as we go about our business. And we also ask that You keep a special eye on this young man sharing the table with us since he seems to be in need of Your guiding hand. Amen."
Cora Beth and Ethan echoed his amen. Ethan sent him a glower as he looked up, but then dug into his food without comment.
Mitch frowned as Cora Beth stood and headed back toward the stove. "Aren't you going to join us?"
"The others will be down for breakfast soon. I've got several more plates of eggs to fix."
The "others" included Cora Beth's familythree daughters, a younger brother and an uncleand her three regular boarders. He wondered what it would have been like to grow up with such a large extended family. His own parents had passed on when he was barely six and he'd been raised by his grandmother who didn't believe in socializing much outside of church. Thank goodness he'd had school to get him out of that oppressive house for a time.
"You go ahead and eat your fill." Cora Beth's words brought his straying thoughts back to the present. He glanced up to see that her smile was directed at Ethan. "There's plenty more if you're still hungry when you eat that up." Then she glanced Mitch's way. "That goes for you, too, Sheriff."
He studied her for a moment as she worked, then reluctantly returned his attention to his table companion. "Just where is this camp of yours?"
"Like I said, a couple of miles outside of town."
"I was looking for something a bit more specific."
"A couple of miles south of town."
Well, there was another way to get the answers he needed. "After breakfast, I think I'll give you a ride back to your camp."
The boy paused with his fork poised halfway to his mouth. This time he met Mitch's gaze head-on. "No need. I like walking."
"No doubt." Mitch gave him a broad, companionable grin. "I did my share of walking all over these parts when I was your age. Lots of interesting places to explore." He reached for his glass. "Still, I'd like to see this camp of yours for myself."
Ethan shoved the forkful of eggs into his mouth, his glower deepening.
"Besides, I like to meet the folks who spend time in Knotty Pine, welcome them to the area and get to know a little about them." He caught and held Ethan's glance. "I'd like to meet your pa. Seems strange that he would let you wander off so far on your own."
"Pa knows I can take care of myself."
Mitch let that one go unchallenged. "Is your pa planning to stick around Knotty Pine awhile?"
"Don't want to discuss that subject either?" Mitch planted his elbows on the table. "Then let's try a different one. Do you know anything about a shirt and sheet that went missing from Mrs. Johnson's clothesline Monday, or a pie that disappeared from Mrs. Evans's windowsill yesterday, or some damage inside Mrs. Oglesby's greenhouse?"
The boy's shoulders hunched but he didn't look up from his plate.
Mitch stabbed a forkful of eggs, trying to keep his irritation in check. The boy was looking guiltier by the second. The question was, had he been stealing out of mischief or genuine need? "You're about as forthcoming as a fence post, aren't you, boy? A person might think you aren't talking because you have something to hide."
That only earned Mitch a glare.
Time to be more direct. "Look, Ethan, I'm willing to listen to your side of things, but in order for me to do that you need to do some talking. So either you start answering my questions here and now or we can go down to the jailhouse to finish this conversation." There direct but reasonable.
Cora Beth didn't seem to agree. She plopped down a platter of sizzling bacon on the table with a little more force than absolutely necessary. "I know you have a job to do, Sheriff, but Ethan's not a criminalhe's just a boy. No need to scare him like that."
That drew Ethan's shoulders back and slapped an indignant frown on his face. "I'm not scared."
Mitch locked gazes with the boy. "Then answer my questions."
Ethan licked his lips, then tilted his jaw defiantly. "We're not planning on settling here. Probably be moving on today or tomorrow."
Not the question he'd been referring to, but Mitch decided it was a start. "Where are y'all headed?"
Ethan shrugged again. He seemed to be fond of that gesture. "Wherever Iwe can find work."
Interesting slip. "What kind of work are you looking for?"
Instead of answering, Ethan grabbed his glass of milk and began gulping it. "Don't you know?"
The boy set down his glass with enough energy to make the liquid slosh wildly. "Course I know. Thing is, my pa can do just about anything. Mostly, though, he does carpentry work."
Mitch leaned back, giving the boy a challenging look. "Well, in that case maybe he should consider sticking around here for a while. I reckon Knotty Pine could use a good carpenter."
"That's right," Cora Beth added brightly. "Why I was just telling Mrs. Plunkett the other day that some of the railings on the front porch need replacing. But now that school's started back up, my brother Danny's too busy and Uncle Grover's not up to that kind of work anymore. I'd be glad to hire your father to do the job for me."
Ethan's expression took on a trapped look as he stared back down at his plate. "I'll sure enough tell him, ma'am. But I think he's not really interested in settling down hereabouts."
The kid's answers took on a different tone when he responded to Cora Beth. She had a knack for dealing with kids, no doubt about it.
A sudden cry from Cora Beth followed by the clattering of a dropped spoon had Mitch out of his chair and across the room in a heartbeat. "What is it?"