"[An] appealing picture of ranch life and small-town affairs, of barbecues and fiestas, of jocular locals and warm family and friends." —Publishers Weekly
Sunshine and Shadow (Benni Harper Series #10)by Earlene Fowler
Spirited ex-cowgirl, quilter, and folk-art expert Benni Harper is back, investigating the connection between her favorite author, the murder of a family friend, and a crazy quilt. And when she starts receiving strange phone calls and anonymous letters telling her she'll be the next victim, her interest in the case becomes even more urgent.See more details below
Spirited ex-cowgirl, quilter, and folk-art expert Benni Harper is back, investigating the connection between her favorite author, the murder of a family friend, and a crazy quilt. And when she starts receiving strange phone calls and anonymous letters telling her she'll be the next victim, her interest in the case becomes even more urgent.
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Sunshine and Shadow
By Earlene Fowler
Berkley Publishing GroupCopyright © 2004 Earlene Fowler
All right reserved.
March 31, 1978
The service porch screen door opened with a rusty screech. Heavy boots thumped across the ranch house's creaky linoleum-covered wood floor.
It was a little before 7 A.M. and I didn't have to turn around to see who was behind me.
"Jack Harper," I said over my shoulder, my hands deep in hot soapy dishwater filled with last night's plates and glasses. A sliver of sun was just starting to paint the craggy hills surrounding the Harper ranch with shadows. "Those boots better not have a speck of mud or manure on them. I just mopped this floor." Keeping this seventy-year-old wood frame house clean was a challenge even for the enthusiastic energies of a barely twenty-year-old newlywed wife like me.
A set of muscled arms circled my waist and lifted me up until my feet dangled. He rubbed his scratchy, early-morning stubble across the side of my neck. "Blondie, I flat out love it when you get all housewifey."
"Put me down!" I said, helplessly swinging my legs and giggling. "I swear, Jack, if you don't put me down ..."
He lowered me slowly, and when my feet touched ground, I swung around to face him. He dropped his hands from my waist to cup my rear end. "Mrs. Harper," he murmured, kissing me. "You have no idea how good you feel to me." He tasted of Clove chewing gum and smelled like worn leather and clean, sweet hay.
"No way!" I said, trying to squirm away. "We have a history class in an hour and a half. We can't-"
He stopped my words with his lips, cool and damp from the brisk April morning air. I rested my wet hands on his darkly tanned forearms, arms made hard and sinewy from years of bucking one-hundred-twenty-five-pound alfalfa bales.
"Jack," I murmured, trying to pull away. But a determined and amorous twenty-year-old male was hard to resist, especially when I'd been married to him for only three months.
"C'mon," he said, pulling me toward the bedroom. "It won't take long."
"What am I going to do with you?" I said, smiling as I let myself be led astray.
He grinned, his warm brown eyes narrowing slightly. "Oh, babe, let me show you."
Twenty minutes later we were in our red Chevy pickup truck with HARPER'S HEREFORDS painted on the doors squealing down the ranch's long gravel driveway toward the highway, a brown dust cloud spiraling behind us.
A quarter mile ahead of us, his older brother, Wade, walked along the driveway toward the new five-bedroom house, a gray-and-white clapboard set a football field's length from our two-bedroom house, the ranch's original homestead. Wade, their mother, Wade's wife, Sandra, and their new baby, Johnny, lived in it now. Six years ago it had been built by their father, John Harper Sr., right before he died of a heart attack, leaving both houses, the thousand-acre ranch, and all their financial problems to his wife and two teenage sons.
Wade was most likely heading toward the huge pancakes, eggs, bacon, and biscuits and gravy breakfast my sister-in-law fixed every morning. My stomach growled, reminding me that because of our early-morning detour back to bed, Jack and I would have to grab breakfast from a vending machine at Cal Poly San Celina, where we were college sophomores. My major was American history with a minor in agricultural management. Jack's was farm management with a minor in animal husbandry.
"Slow down!" Wade yelled as we barreled past him. Though he was only five years older than us, he often acted three times that, having shouldered the responsibility of running the ranch since he was nineteen. The strain showed itself in an anxious expression that never seemed to leave his craggy, strong-jawed face.
Jack slammed on the brakes, threw the truck in reverse, and backed up.
"Where're you two off to in such a hurry?" Wade asked, dipping his head to peer into the truck's cab. Though it was not even 8 A.M., he already looked exhausted. "Did you check on those heifers this morning? I didn't like how that big-eared one looked last night." He tugged at one side of his droopy, blondish-brown mustache.
"Yep, she's fine," Jack said, looking straight ahead out of the windshield. "Gotta go. We're late for history class."
"Again?" Wade said. He turned his head and spit a stream of tobacco juice into a row of white and yellow daisies Sandra planted last week. "Boy, you're gonna get your ass kicked out of that fancy college if you don't start taking things more serious. And that'd be good money being flushed right down the toilet. Money we could've used for a new tractor."
I glanced over at Jack's profile. Minus the mustache, it was almost an exact physical duplicate of his older brother's. His jaw tightened as he continued to stare straight ahead. The conflict between them about Jack attending Cal Poly was a long-running and tumultuous one. Wade believed in learning by doing, that the old ways, the traditions taught to him by their father, a third-generation Texas rancher, was the best way to run the Harper ranch, a cow/calf operation on the Central Coast of California. Jack believed that agriculture's future was in diversification and learning to work the land in a more holistic, land-respecting way.
On the Central Coast, where cattle ranching had been one of the major agricultural strongholds for generations, there were in these last few years of the seventies, rumblings of what was coming, a move away from the family ranch toward corporate ranches that could produce in volume. There was also the new vegetarian craze, fueled by the small, but growing population of ex-hippies and environmentalists, which some ranchers worried might move Central Coast agriculture away from cattle production altogether. The Harper ranch had been losing money since their dad died so Wade had reluctantly given in to the urging of their mother and agreed to let Jack attend Cal Poly to explore new agricultural possibilities.
"All I gotta say is it better not interfere with his chores," Wade had said, his disapproval obvious by the high color in his prominent cheekbones.
Jack relaxed his jaw, then turned to grin at his brother's frowning face. "It's all Benni's fault. She had something extremely urgent she needed me to take care of before we left for school."
I laughed and kicked his Wrangler-clad shin with the side of my brown boot. "You lying hound dog!" I leaned over Jack and said to Wade, "We'll be a little late getting home from our classes today. We're helping to assemble the queen's float for the La Fiesta Parade on Saturday."
La Fiesta de Nuestra Pueblo-The Festival of Our Town-was a week-long celebration of our county's multicultural and agricultural roots. Despite its Hispanic name, it had evolved into a sort of catch-all celebration that involved every segment of San Celina society. It always ended with the Cattleman's Ball on Saturday night after the parade and street festival. This year, my best friend, Elvia Aragon, was voted Fiesta Queen, one of San Celina's highest honors, so I was taking particular interest in the flower-covered float she would be riding.
Still frowning, Wade shook his head and turned away. The social aspects of San Celina County had never interested him. "There's a stretch of fence down over on Miller flats," he called over his shoulder, his rough voice sharp and accusing. "Be nice if you could somehow work that into your social schedule."
"Be nice if you could work that into your social schedule," Jack mimicked as we pulled out onto the highway. "You can kiss my skinny cowboy ass, Wade Harper."
"Jack, don't let him get to you," I said, laying a hand on the back of his warm neck. "That's just Wade."
He slapped the steering wheel with his left hand. "Dang it all, he treats me like I'm five years old. He's nagged me about that stretch of fence ten times in the last two days. I told him I would get to it after our classes today."
"So just do what you originally planned and ignore what he says." I reached down and dug through my stained green backpack. "I had a couple of chocolate chip cookies in here yesterday. Did you eat them?"
"Yeah," he said, his face still tense and agitated. "Sorry."
I sighed, resigning myself to the prospect of a stale vending machine sweet roll.
He flipped on the radio and "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees came on. He punched buttons until Merle Haggard's voice sang out of the static-filled speakers. "Disco sucks. Who's been messing with our radio?"
I giggled. "Elvia, who else? You know she refuses to listen to country-western music. She and I went shopping down in Santa Maria yesterday. We finally found the perfect dress for her to wear for the parade Saturday."
He nodded, not answering. The day was cool for early spring, causing me to pull my wool-lined Wrangler jacket closer around me. After a few minutes of tense silence, I leaned over and kissed Jack on the side of his jaw. "Forget Wade. Think about Manifest Destiny and the opening of the American West. We've got a quiz today in history class."
His face lost a little rigidity. "I know. What's after history?"
Even though it was the middle of April and we'd been attending our classes since the semester started in January, I still had to remind Jack of his schedule. I worried that working full time on the ranch and going to school full time was too much for him, but knowing how sensitive the issue was between him and Wade, I didn't dare say so.
"After history," I said, "you have biology and I have sociology. Then we meet at the ag barn to work on the float. It's supposed to resemble the Santa Celine Mission when it was first built in 1775, but it's looking more like a saloon than a mission. To say the least, it needs some work."
"Did you pick up my journal notebook for history?" he asked. "It was the green one on the kitchen table. Professor Hill wants to see proof I'm working on it."
"It's in your backpack. You know, I deserve half the degree you're getting simply because I'm the one who remembers your books and papers." Though Jack always received solid B's in his classes, he was the most unorganized person I knew. His strength was in relating to people and he knew and used that.
He reached over and squeezed my knee. "Babe, you deserve everything I own and more. I'd be a lost man without you."
I snorted, but was secretly warmed by his praise. Since my own mother had died when I was six and my gramma Dove, who raised me, had been widowed before I was born, I had no idea if I was being a good wife. And being a good wife was really important to me.
"How's your journal going?" I asked. His class project for history, as a substitute for a term paper, was a journal that required him to record for a month his impressions and experiences with people he met, both people he knew and those who were outside his normal circle of family and friends. It was supposed to help improve his observation skills and appreciate the detail of everyday life. Our history teacher, Mr. Hill, was trying to impress on us the importance of recording oral history.
"It's harder than I thought. I'm not that great at putting down my feelings on paper and, I don't know, it kind of embarrasses me to think someone will read it."
"Only Professor Hill," I said. "And he won't laugh. Did I tell you he okayed my term paper?"
"No, you didn't. I forgot, what's it about?"
I dug around in my backpack again and pulled out the small, colorful book I'd stuck in there last night. On the cover a blond girl in blue jeans and a red gingham shirt pulled a colorful crazy quilt from a hole in the wall of a log cabin. A yellow hound dog with a curly tail stood alert at her side. Her rosy-cheeked face looked apprehensive and listening.
He glanced over at it. "The Secret of the Crazy Quilt," he read out loud. "Looks like a kid's book."
"It is. One of Professor Hill's suggestions was for us to pick a person who influenced us as a child and do research on them now. We're supposed to record our memories of what impressed us as a child and compare and contrast that to whatever we can find out about them. It can be someone we knew personally or not."
"Who'd you pick?"
I pointed to her name on the cover of the book. "She's a writer. She lives in ... what are you doing?"
He peered intently in his rearview mirror and started slowing the truck down. "That guy back there needs a ride."
I turned around and watched a sixtyish Mexican man trudge toward our idling truck. "Jack, you know it makes me nervous when you pick up hitchhikers. Not to mention Wade will kill you if he finds out."
"Screw Wade," Jack said and called out the window, "Where're you heading, sir?"
The older man replied with a strong Spanish accent, "Matthews ranch."
"Climb in back," Jack said. "We're going right past there."
"No, we're not," I whispered to Jack. "We're going to be late."
Jack waved my words away with a flip of his hand.
"Muchas gracias, senor," the man said, climbing into the bed of our truck.
"No problem," Jack called out, then winked at me. "Lighten up, Mrs. Harper. You know what Pastor Satterfield said last Sunday about not being afraid to entertain strangers. That old guy back there might be an angel."
I shook my head and didn't answer, silently agreeing with what Wade said, that sometimes Jack was just too trusting with strangers. Wade was always predicting that his habit of picking up hitchhikers was bound to end in trouble. "Jack ..."
"Ah, babe, he's just a tired old man who needs to get to work. Now what about this lady, Emma whatever?" he asked, trying to divert my attention so I wouldn't lecture him.
I glanced in the side mirror at our passenger. His coppery brown, sun-lined face did indeed look tired, even this early in the morning. He appeared about as dangerous as my best friend, Elvia Aragon's, father. Our eyes met for a moment and we both looked away, embarrassed. I turned to study Jack's profile, the profile I fell in love with the moment he slipped into the desk next to mine five years ago in our high school geometry class. After my initial physical attraction to him, his sense of humor and generous, accepting nature were what truly won my heart.
"Emma?" he repeated.
"Oh, yeah, Emma Baldwin. She wrote a mystery series with a thirteen-year-old ranch girl as the protagonist. They were my and Elvia's favorite books when we were girls. They're set right here in San Celina County and so many things about them were like my real life. Except Molly Connors had two older brothers named Tommy and Andy and both her parents were alive. Her best friend, Lily Waters, was really pretty and lived in town just like Elvia, only Lily's mother was widowed and owned a dress shop. Lily's an only child.
Excerpted from Sunshine and Shadow by Earlene Fowler Copyright © 2004 by Earlene Fowler. Excerpted by permission.
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