A STRANGER

Excerpt from The Smuggler's Secret by Vanessa Lind (copyright 2024)

Setting out along the route Clara had suggested, Jo passed the lighthouse, then veered onto a scarcely indiscernible path, traipsing through the beach grass amid stands of alders. Perspiration beaded along her brow. Perched in the western sky, the afternoon sun seemed a feverish orb, unusual for this time of year.

What a sight she must be—a woman tromping alone through the tall grasses along an uneven path most unsuited to a lady. And yet across the country, female reporters like Jo—petticoat detectives, people called them—went daringly into situations that polite ladies eschewed, investigating matters that needed to be brought to light.

Proud to count herself among such women, Jo ignored the perspiration that trailed down the side of her cheek and the dust gathering along her skirt’s hem. The path seemed to go on and on, crisscrossed now and again by other trails forged by deer and elk frequenting the area. No wonder Patrick had lost his way.

Just as she thought the trail was about to peter out altogether, the waters of the Columbia showed through the alder branches bobbing in the breeze. She hurried toward the water’s edge. Looking out over the river, she saw that the waves were choppier than when the ferry had come in. Judging from the blue-gray clouds hunkered along the western horizon, the weather was turning.

She shifted her attention to the shoreline, where a stand of pine and fir trees crowded out the alders. Shaped by storm-whipped winds, their leeward branches grew longer and stronger than those on their windward side. Many had fallen, and Jo had to step gingerly over their trunks as she made her way to the river’s nearest bend. Rounding it, she spied a tall, broad-trunked tree that fit Clara’s description.

Drawing close, Jo circled the tree. On the west side of the trunk was a large hole. She saw no owl, but she could envision Patrick coming upon it in the twilight, at once fascinated and also a bit taken aback at the sight of a big owl blinking at him from the hole.

She surveyed the bank on either side of the tree. To the south, she spotted a large oaken barrel lying on its side, caught in a pile of brush near the river’s edge. The staves showed little sign of weathering, indicating that it had only recently washed ashore. Approaching, she saw Shelton Shipping Company stenciled on the barrel’s side. Its top was nailed shut, but a portion of the covering had broken off.

She crouched, peering into the barrel, but the light was all wrong, and she could see nothing. The smell coming from the barrel was musty. Could the contents be tea? She didn’t think so. Reaching into the darkness, she took hold of was seemed like a sort of carton. She pulled it toward the opening but found she could not wedge it through.

With some careful maneuvering, she managed to pry open the carton. Her fingers brushed a sticky substance shaped in a ball. She grabbed hold of it and drew it into the light. Dark and unevenly shaped, it smelled vaguely of fruit. Definitely not tea, she thought.

She tucked the ball into her reticule and started back along the path. Hunger gnawing at her stomach, she took out the pear Effie had sent with her. As she was about to bite into it, a rustling in the woods drew her attention.

She stopped short, peering into the spreading branches of a huckleberry bush. A pair of dark eyes stared back at her. Her breath caught in her throat. John Elliott had warned that the man she’d found along the river could have been murdered. Venturing out here alone, she hadn’t stopped to consider that a murderer might yet be lurking in the woods.

from The Smuggler's Secret: Book Five of The Tidewater Chronicles

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Secrets of the Blue and Gray

The Tidewater Chronicles

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