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By Nan Ryan
MIRACopyright © 2006 Nan Ryan
All right reserved.
Boston, Massachusetts March 1855
A cold winter afternoon, in a sparsely furnished room in Boston's South End, twenty-two-year-old Kate VanNam read to her elderly, hard-of-hearing uncle. Nelson VanNam was a gentle, caring, life-long bachelor, who had raised Kate and her older brother, Gregory, after their parents had perished in a fire at sea a dozen years earlier.
For a short time, he had been a successful and prosperous businessman who had provided well for his niece and nephew. But in 1849, an unexpected reversal of fortune had changed all that. The once prominent VanNams had fallen on hard times. The grand Chestnut Street mansion in Beacon Hill had been lost, along with the VanNam fortune.
When the fortune disappeared, so did Gregory VanNam. The senior VanNam was now in failing health and eternally grateful to his sweet-natured niece for selflessly tending him.
On this bitter January day, the two sat as close to the fire in the grate as was safe, blankets draped over their knees. As Kate read to her uncle — shouted, actually — she heard a loud knock on the door.
Kate lowered her well-worn copy of the Dickens novel Oliver Twist, and gave her uncle a questioning look. He shrugged his thin shoulders. Kate laid the book aside.
"I'll see who it is. Stay right where you are," shesaid to her uncle.
Kate opened the door. A uniformed messenger stood shivering on the steps. He handed her a sealed envelope on which only her name was written in neat script. She started to speak, but the youth who delivered the message had already turned and left.
Puzzled, Kate closed the door and returned to the fire and her uncle. She held out the envelope to him.
Squinting, he read what was written. "It's addressed to you, my dear. Open it."
Kate tore open the end of the sealed envelope and slipped out the folded velum paper. After reading the brief message quickly, she explained to her uncle that it was a summons for her to come to the law offices of J. J. Clement, the attorney who, like his father before him, had always represented the VanNam family.
"Why on earth would Clement want to see me?" Kate mused aloud, as she handed the message to her uncle.
"I have no idea, child," he stated, reading the missive. "But I'm sure it can wait. No need for you to..."
He stopped speaking, shook his white head and began to smile. The curious Kate was already reaching for her heavy woolen cape hanging on the coat tree beside the front door.
Swirling it around her slender shoulders, she said, "It's time for your afternoon nap, Uncle Nelson. While you rest I'll walk to the law offices and see what this is all about." She smiled at him as she buttoned the cape beneath her chin and drew the hood up over her gleaming golden hair. "I will be back within the hour, the mystery solved."
Nelson VanNam knew it would do no good to argue that it was far too cold for Kate to be walking to the attorney's office. His pretty niece, while as kind and caring as a ministering angel, was also a decisive, strong-willed young woman who discharged duties and met challenges with an immediacy that was admirable, if at times somewhat annoying.
The old man smiled fondly as Kate waved goodbye and stepped out into the cold. He sighed, folded his hands in his blanketed lap and gazed into the fire, recalling the first night the ten-year-old Kate had spent in his home.
"No, Uncle Nelson." She had set him straight when he'd offered to leave her door ajar at bedtime.
"Please close it. I do not fear the dark, sir."
Nelson VanNam was warmed by the memory. He had learned in the years since that the dauntless Kate was not afraid of much.
His smile abruptly fled. He was afraid for her. What, he wondered worriedly, would become of his dear sweet Kate once he was gone?
Teeth chattering, shoulders hunched, Kate briskly walked the eight blocks to the law offices of J. J. Clement. Hurrying across the narrow cobblestone street, she dashed up the steps of the two-story red-brick building and entered the wide central corridor.
Sweeping the hood off her head and smoothing her hair, she knocked politely before entering the attorney's private chambers. A warming fire blazed in a large hearth.
"Why, there you are already, Miss VanNam," said
J. J. Clement, rising from his chair. "I had no idea you'd come in this afternoon. Please, have a seat." He gestured to one of two straight-backed chairs pulled up before his desk.
Kate frowned as she sat down. "Your message summoned me, Mr. Clement, did it not?"
The attorney smiled. "So it did. Your prompt response is admirable, but I hope you didn't freeze on your long walk." He sat back down across from her. "It was thoughtless of me to have you come in. I should have paid you a visit at your —"
"Never mind that." Kate waved her hand. "What's this all about?"
The attorney smiled at the impatient young woman. He leaned toward his desk, picked up a legal document and informed Kate, "My dear, I believe I've a bit of good news."
"You do?" She shrugged out of her heavy cape. Unlike the drafty rooms of home, this handsomely appointed office was comfortably warm. "For me?"
"Indeed. The firm has been informed that Mrs. Arielle VanNam Colfax — Nelson's aged aunt and therefore your great-aunt — has passed away in San Francisco. She has left all that was hers to you."
Stunned, Kate said, "Why? I didn't know her. Never corresponded. I never even met her, so why...?"
"The elderly widow had no children. With the exception of Nelson, you are her next of kin. You and your brother, Gregory. However, Arielle made no provision for Gregory. Now, to tell the truth, I don't know if you've inherited anything of real value. The old lady was quite secretive." The attorney shrugged.
Kate nodded. "However —" he shoved a printed handbill across the polished desk " — as you probably know, a great deal of gold has been brought out of the Sierra Nevadas of California in the last five years."
"Yes, I've heard about the gold rush. Who hasn't?"
J. J. Clement said, "You have fallen heir to a house of sorts. I understand it has not been lived in for the past five years. And there is a claim to a California gold mine that may or may not be worthless." He handed Kate a map indicating the mine's location.
"The house? It's in the mountains of California?"
"Yes, the house and the mine are both high up in the Sierra Nevadas in a mining camp called Fortune," said the attorney. "I've no idea what Fortune, California, is like, but I would imagine it's one of those primitive tent cities populated by hardscrabble miners hoping to strike it rich." He shook his head.
"But if my great-aunt built a house there, then surely —"
Interrupting, he said, "As I told you, Kate, it has been abandoned for years. Obviously, your great-aunt deserted the house and the camp for a good reason."
"I suppose so," Kate grudgingly conceded.
"Child," said the kindly attorney, "I'm aware of your financial woes. Your uncle has been a friend as well as a client for many years. I'd like to be of help."
Lips parted, Kate stared at him. "That's very kind, Mr. Clement."
"Tell you what, I'll have our California agent, Harry Conlin, take the claim and the property off your hands and —" "No," she interrupted. "It is not for sale. I'll just hold on to it for the time being."
She rose to leave, fastening her cape under her chin. J. J. Clement came to his feet.
Kate said, "When I lose my dear uncle Nelson, there'll be nothing holding me here. Who knows?" She picked up the printed handbill. "I might just headWest."
Excerpted from The Sheriff by Nan Ryan Copyright © 2006 by Nan Ryan. Excerpted by permission.
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