Pixie California was pleasant in June if the weather had followed its usual pattern, but that wasn’t the case the day Mr. Hornbuckle raced down the neatly planted row of strawberries. He was the foreman at Juicy Acres fruit farm. It was hot, so hot that he shed drops of sweat as his horse galloped towards Carson Lattimer. The berries shined in the midday sun, and they had never looked tastier or seemed more longing to be sitting on a bed of shortcake.
Carson had been one of Mr. Hornbuckle’s most reliable fruit pickers. He was one of a handful of workers who traveled a loop following the ripe crops. Others would leave the area and go back to wherever home was, but it appeared Carson didn’t have a home or at least not one he wanted to return to.
Strawberries were his preferred fruit to pick, although he could do without being on his knees all day. Every picker made their own pads to protect the knees. Carson came upon an abandoned shack that had an old bed with a mattress, which he dragged back to the bunkhouse. He and his fellow workers used the salvaged cotton to create knee pillows. Carson wasn’t much with a needle and thread, but he managed.
A wagon full of workers was needed at a vineyard up north for grape picking. There would be no more kneeling, but nothing was perfect, and there’d be some drawback. Raspberry picking sounded like a good assignment until Carson discovered there were prickers involved. Nothing in life came without drawbacks, and he had learned to live with most of them, but not all.
Carson heard the thunderous hooves approaching, placed his hand horizontal over his forehead, and wondered what was so urgent. As kind as he was, Mr. Hornbuckle was a touch lazy and liked to avoid the scorching sun.
“Has someone died?” Carson asked.
“Maybe, I don’t know,” he responded. “A telegraph came for you, and it’s not often one of my pickers gets a readout like this. I’m surprised there’s someone who knows where you are.”
“I try and keep my mother updated, and she’s the only one. Must be from her.” Carson’s hands were shaking as he took the paper into his dirty hands. Carson was trembling because he feared something had happened to his beloved mother, Vera.
“Where is she?” Mr. Hornbuckle asked.
Carson ignored his foreman and went on to read the telegram.
Father died. Come home (stop)
Carson took off his floppy leather hat and ran his fingers through his blond hair. “Mom’s in Salinas, California, and I’ll be heading home because my father died,” Carson said. “I imagine I won’t be back to finish this crop, but if I make the rounds again next year, I hope to make it back.”
Carson could barely make out the words. He got Father, died, Mom and home. His mother hadn’t included details because Carson would have been unable to read them.
“You’re a hard worker Lattimer, and we’d welcome you back. Having someone say goodbye and not just walk off the job makes my life a lot easier. Your wages will be ready at Jeanette’s desk. Good luck and sorry about your father.”
Carson walked away from the half-filled crate of berries sitting beside the plants that were still heavy with fruit. Another worker would come and continue where he left off, no questions asked; at least that’s how it was supposed to work. It wasn’t uncommon for workers to walk off the job mid-shift. He had done Mr. Hornbuckle a favor by announcing his intentions, which he owed him because he had been fair as far as foremen went. For about fifteen seconds, Carson thought of remaining in Pixie until the field was cleared, but the message came directly from Mom. It was an unspoken rule that Vera Lattimer was referred to as Mother except in the most tender and private moments when he used Mom.
Carson had a quarter-mile walk back to the bunkhouse, during which he recounted the final argument he had with his father, Tobias Lattimer. It had been the last time he saw his father, and it wasn’t a good memory.
Carson was eighteen years old, and his life in Salinas was packed with responsibilities. He worked at his father’s bookstore, The Reader’s Room, and did more than his share of chores at the house. Being the only son, that was expected. When his good friend Tom Hefner had a day off from working at the grist mill, Carson took a few hours to himself so they could do a lot of nothing together. They did things like spending time at the river, diving from the high rocks, and smoking cigarettes if they could be found. It felt good to reconnect with someone he grew up with, and it didn’t happen often because both boys were diligent and hard-working.
Carson walked home before sundown, and Tobias was waiting on the front porch, his silhouette visible as he placed his foot on the long dirt path. He sat outside waiting for him, which was never a good sign. He did it when something he had to say wasn’t appropriate for Carson’s sister Vivian to hear. Vera was also shielded from any unpleasantness, at least that’s what Tobias thought. She saw and heard everything from inside the screen door.
“Look who decided to grace us with his presence. Where have you been all day?” Tobias asked with a slight slur because he had been drinking. “I know you weren’t here where chores are piling up or at the bookstore, and last time I checked, that’s what puts food on the table. Looks like you don’t care if your mother or sister eats.”
“I care plenty. It’s not every day that I take a few hours to enjoy myself. I was at the bookstore for opening this morning, and I have time before dinner to check on the horses,” Carson commented. “The Reader’s Room doesn’t need my help every day, and last month I repaired the porch you’re sitting on.”
“You have an answer to everything. Excuses won’t get you far in this life. You should have learned by now not to talk back. Admit you’re a lazy horse’s behind, apologize and promise to do better,” Tobias spat.
Carson was standing at the bottom of the three steps that led up to the porch. The smell of alcohol emanated from his father’s mouth as he spoke. Tobias didn’t drink a lot but often, and he was a mean drunk. One whisky at night was enough to change his mood, and as the sunset, the Lattimer family knew what to expect.
“I’ve figured the numbers in my head, and the family would be better off if I worked a couple of days at the grist mill,” Carson proposed. “Tom says they need the extra help, and I know Mr. Vanpelt pays a decent wage. By next summer, we can have a new picket fence just like Mother wants. On top of that, we’ll be able to afford new books for The Reader’s Room. We need to freshen up our offerings because too many customers walk out without making a purchase. We need an updated selection.”
By that point, Carson had climbed the steps, and he was standing next to his father. Hatless with his thinning hair glistening with grease and sweat. He was thankful he looked more like his mother’s side of the family.
“Did you just say you figured the numbers?” Tobias questioned, followed by an antagonizing chuckle.
“Yes, sir, that’s what I said,” he responded.
Tobias cackled. “You showed today that you’re lazy by taking time off to waste with your friend, but now you’re showing your stupid side too. You’re dumb as a day is long, and I doubt whatever figures come out of that head of yours. You’re the only eighteen-year-old I know who can’t read or write – idiot.”
Tobias hit a nerve, and Carson responded. “If I’m stupid, it’s your fault for never letting me consistently attend school. You’d pull me out when you realized I provided free labor. I wanted to learn to read and write, but you wouldn’t let me. It didn’t matter that you were breaking the law by not sending me to school because your friend is on the school board,” He spoke loudly and forcibly, something he didn’t often do in front of his father. “I never had a shot at becoming book smart, but one thing’s for sure, I’m smarter than you’ll ever be. I picked up numbers quickly from working the cash register, and I know reading will be the same way.”
Tobias got up from his chair and glared at Carson with his bloodshot eyes. He raised his arm, and his open hand came across Carson’s face. He used the full force of his body to slap his eighteen-year-old son. The sound from his palm as it made contact with Carson’s cheek was something he’d never forget. The pain faded, but the sound would echo in his mind forever.
From behind the screen door, Carson heard his mother gasp and realized the slap hurt her as much as it did him. He thought of Vivian too, his sister, who was only twelve at the time. Carson had a tremendous love for them, but he could no longer tolerate his father. Remaining in Salinas the way it was would be like living a slow death. He was never going to be enough for Tobias.
That was the last time he saw Tobias, and now he was dead – God rest his soul.
Carson went inside the long bunkhouse, which was pretty much the same as every other one he’d slept in. It had been seven years, and he packed his things to go home to Salinas. He said goodbye to the men he had worked with in the fields. Some he’d known for years. None of them became good friends like those he had growing up. Tom and Jay had always been there for him in Salinas, and no one would ever understand him as they did. He looked forward to seeing them when he returned home
“I’m leaving you the bottom bunk in the corner. You had better move fast if you want it,” Carson said to Hector. Sleep, which was never enough, came easiest in the dark corner where it was possible to hide from the chaos.
“Thanks, I’ve been waiting for you to leave so I could get that prime spot. Did a sweetheart from years past call you home?” he asked.
“Ah, no. My father died,” Carson answered flatly.
“Oh, sorry, I had no idea. I recall the day my father died, and it was the worst day of my life because that man was my life. Eventually, I realized that he left me with gifts and the strength to survive in this world without him. I send every penny I make home to my mama,” Hector remarked. “Some say it’s the time you truly become a man.”
Carson nodded his head in agreement. “You take care.” Hector was right because he was now responsible for his mother and sister. However, his father had left him with no gifts. All Carson learned from him was that he had to strive not to be like him.
Carson went on to say goodbye to the other workers who happened to be around, which wasn’t many because it was midday. He stuffed his extra shirt and notebook in a cloth sack and walked out of the bunkhouse for the last time. The notebook was empty, but he carried it with him because he dreamed of one day learning to write and filling it with thoughts and ideas.
A wagon transported workers from the coast to the Central Valley a couple of days a week, and he was lucky that it was Wednesday. Three other men were waiting for the wagon, so either they were all wrong, or he could expect it’d come soon.
Carson sat under the shade of a massive oak tree. He called out to one of the other men waiting nearby. “Hello, I’m heading west to Salinas. Am I in the right place to catch a ride on the laborer’s wagon?” he questioned.
“Sure are, I’m heading to Saxton, so we’ll be traveling chums for most of the way, although if you have been picking hard like me, we’ll likely sleep during the journey,” he predicted.
“You’re right on that account. Will you do me a favor and nudge me awake if the wagon comes and I’m asleep? Carson asked. “If I don’t wake up, throw a rock at me or give me a swift kick.”
“You’ve got it.”
Carson pulled his hat down over his half-mast blue eyes. He was exhausted, but he didn’t fully sleep because his mother, Vera, was on his mind. When he thought of her, soothing memories came to mind, and he hoped she was able to find peace in the years of his absence.
After Carson’s father struck him, it wasn’t possible to spend another night in the house he loved and grew up in. Tobias crossed a line when he struck him as an adult. Most children deserve the paddle or a switch now and then. It was brutal at the time, but he had lessons to learn, and those disciplinary swats were something every child endured. Hitting a young man out of anger was different, and if he got away with it once, it would happen again.
Carson had left with the confidence that Vera would be left alone, physically at least. She saw her son pack his things the night he left and knew that he was doing the right thing.
“I won’t tell you to stay because I love you too much to see you hurt.” Vera laid her hand on his cheek that was still marked by his father’s imprint. “I have some money put aside to get you started …”
Before she could finish, Carson interrupted, “I’ve been putting money away for years. It’s not much, but it’s enough to get started. I’m worried about your safety, even though the sheriff will throw Father in the hole if he so much as threatens you.”
“I’ll be fine,” Vera promised.
Vera realized her friends would always be there to protect her. Years ago, she was found crying while sitting at the river when Pearl and Simon happened by. They were a married couple and among her best friends. She let them know that Tobias had come home in a sour mood and had harsh words for her. After hearing her story, they realized she may be in danger if things ever turned physical. Feeling the need to protect Vera, they brought in their good friend Judy DeKalb and her husband Sam. He was the Salinas sheriff, and when he heard about the incident, promised he would protect Vera with the power of his badge. He even went so far as to confront Tobias with a warning.
“What about Viv?” Carson asked about his twelve-year-old sister.
Vera smiled gently. “As far as your father is concerned, Vivian is an angel, and he thinks she adores him when she’s really scared. She’d never say anything to set him off,” she assured him. “Where will you go?”
“I’ll start with spending a few days with Jay. He has so many brothers and sisters that his parents won’t notice I’m there. If they do wonder why I’m around, Mr. and Mrs. Keneally will understand because they are good Christians, and I don’t think they like Father much. At least they dislike him as much as their faith allows. Can you sneak away with Vivian so I can say a proper farewell?” Carson questioned.
“Vivian would like that. She looks up to you and doesn’t want to see you hurt, so your leaving will make sense to her,” his mother remarked. “If I can, I will. I love you, Carson, and I’m sorry your life hasn’t been what you deserve,” she sobbed.
“I have you and Vivian. Life isn’t over yet: it’s just taking a turn. I love you, Mom, and someday we’ll be together again.”
Carson felt a kick to the bottom of his boot. “You said I could kick you,” the man going to Saxton joked.
Carson picked up his bag and started his journey home to Salinas.
They had been moving for a couple of hours and had an hour to go. Late spring in California was the most beautiful time of year, and Carson couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Before he landed in Pixie and another dozen towns just like it, he considered heading east. He wasn’t sure how far he’d go, but every place he asked about had seasons of brutal weather and times when nothing blossomed. Not seeing things grow for months at a time would be intolerable. As far as Carson could see from his spot on the wagon, the fields were lush green, cut by sparkling streams and rivers. Wildflowers were free to pop up where they pleased. The colors of orange and purple that only existed in nature changed to pinks and yellows as they moved away from the river banks. Reds that dominated the undulating hills in some places suddenly became blue. The eagles soared, and he could only imagine the celebrations insects were having in places he couldn’t see. Carson couldn’t wait to find out how the dogwoods had grown around the house. They were planted when Vivian was born. The quaking ash trees outside of town on Amity Mountain were his favorite, and many times, he escaped there when his father’s mood turned sour.
“What do you have going on in Salinas?” A man with bad posture and dirt beneath his nails asked. “I’m Wylie, and I’ve been picking for years. I take this route sometimes just to hear about interesting work popping up elsewhere.”
“Salinas is home to me. My father died, and I’m going to care for my surviving kin. I don’t know what sort of work I’ll find there,” Carson responded and offered his hand.
“I’ve been out here so long I don’t remember home,” Wylie said. “Doesn’t seem you take this ride often, so I’ll give you some advice; watch your belongings. Some men just hop on to see what they can pilfer.”
“Thanks for the warning.” Carson smirked.
He had nothing worth stealing, and if he did, it would have already been taken in the bunkhouse. Good men in the bunkhouse but also desperate. They’d steal anything of value. Carson pulled his hat down and closed his eyes for a spell.
“We’re about a mile out of Salinas. You have to get out here because I won’t get any closer,” the man holding the reins said.
“Thanks for the ride,” Carson said as he hopped from the wagon while it was still moving and tipped his hat to his fellow travelers.
In the distance, Carson spotted a large structure on the banks of one of the river’s tributaries. It wasn’t there when he left, which made him think there were probably a lot of changes. He had been away seven years, and there would be new buildings, trees would be larger, and most importantly, people would have changed. Carson hoped the people of Salinas remembered him.
It was a water wheel, just like the one that ran the grist mill in town. As Carson approached, he realized that it was the grist mill and on the loading dock was a large man waving his hands in the air. He recognized the figure and movements as his good friend Tom Hefner. Carson began to run as Tom jumped from the dock and lumbered in his direction.
“How the heck did you recognize me?” Carson asked Tom when they were still a few lengths apart.
“Some things you never forget, like your walk or that stupid floppy hat you’ve been wearing since you were sixteen. I’d ask you the same thing, but I know. Not many folks in Salinas are my size, and I think I’m probably bigger than you recall,” Tom expressed as he gave him a manly bear hug. “I was kind of expecting you back in Salinas when I heard about your father.”
“My mother and sister need me, so here I am. I was thinking on the way here that I don’t even know how my father died. Will you fill me in if you can?” Carson inquired.
“From what I heard, he was walking behind his horse and getting ready to hitch him to his wagon. The horse kicked Tobias so hard he landed outside the barn. He hit his head and died on the spot,” Tom informed his friend. “If it helps, he didn’t suffer much.”
“I promised myself that I wasn’t going to speak poorly of the dead, but I know I can say anything to you, right?” Carson asked.
“Same as always. Your words are always locked away, and I eat the key.” Tom laughed. It was their friend Jay who came up with that one.
“I always thought someone was going to do my father in because he had a history of treating people poorly. I never thought it would be a horse. Is that animal still around because he needs some kind of recognition,” Carson jested.
Carson could get his anger out of his system and make jokes with Tom. Best to say things like that in front of a friend instead of his mother. There was something Vera must have seen in Tobias, long ago and the last thing he wanted to do was celebrate the death of her husband.
“If I weren’t walking and you hadn’t heard my voice, would you have recognized me?” He knew he had grown by the way his clothes fitted him. His pants were too short until a foreman’s wife gave him a pair from her dead brother. They were too wide but reached the ground, and Carson wasn’t above cinching them tightly with a belt and hitching them up now and then. Carrying water and full crates helped add muscle, so his loose shirts buttoned up tight. He wanted to know if his changes were noticeable to others.
“When you left, you were the boy I grew up with, and now you’re a man. You look like someone who could have children like me.” Tom smiled.
“I hope you married a gal before this child came along,” Carson remarked. “I wouldn’t put it past you to do things the other way around.
“I did everything in the right order. I courted Ada after asking her father and then asked him again when I wanted to marry her. Our little girl, Amy, is two years old. I love those two more every day,” Tom gushed. “Growing up, you had a difficult father, but I had a mother and father who could have cared less if I lived or died. I’m going to do it differently. What about you?”
“I have no sweetheart, but I sure wouldn’t mind finding one,” Carson admitted. “I’m sure there are a lot of women in Salinas that I’ve never met, but I have other priorities.” As Carson got older, he became more embarrassed that he couldn’t read and write. He’d like to say his father having called him an idiot didn’t still bother him, but it did.
“Twenty-five ain’t young, and taking a wife should be something you’re thinking about.” Tom looked at Carson closely as they walked. “Word of advice, shave whatever’s growing on your chin,” Tom jested.
“I was too busy to notice. I guess a beard won’t be happening for me.” Carson laughed. “My mother’s parents were German, and I resemble them.” He referred to his blond hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, although his skin stopped burning after a few years in the field. “I’ll take care of the beard if you can call it that when I make it home.”
Tom offered to take Carson the rest of the way into town, but he preferred to walk. He’d enjoy looking at all the changes that had taken place in Salinas. Carson told Tom about his years picking fruit and how he had managed to keep in touch with his mother and Vivian. That had been thanks to Vera’s friend Judy who received his letters and passed them on to her. Carson was aware that his father kept a tight budget, so he sent Vera most of what he made.
They reached the mill and still had so much to talk about. It would take a lot of talking to catch up after seven years.
“I almost forgot to ask. How’s Jay, and is he still around?” Carson asked. “He took me in after I left home, and I’ll never be able to repay him for that.”
“Jay is still in Salinas, causing the ladies to swoon, according to my wife. He changed from an awkward boy to a sought-after gent, but on the inside, he’s the same old Jay. Doesn’t seem interested in much other than his job and making money to help his mother and father. Goodness knows they need the help because there are more youngins in that family than I can count.
“Is he still a whiz with numbers?” Carson inquired. When Jay was no more than fifteen, businesses in town were hiring him to take a look at their books. He even helped Tobias at the Reader’s Room.
Tom nodded his head. “He works for Mayor Bellingham, keeping up with the financial records for the city. I wouldn’t be surprised if he became mayor someday.”
“Wallace Bellingham is still mayor?”
“He sure is and likely will be until the day he dies. He won’t tire of it because the job doesn’t require much. The town council holds most of the power around here, with Ralph Jenks leader of that group. I suppose some things have remained the same since you left, and many of the new things don’t seem so new to me anymore because I’ve never left Salinas.”
“I can’t wait to meet the girl who agreed to marry you, brave soul,” Carson joked. “Seriously, bring the family to the house because I’d love to meet them.” He waved from behind as he left.
Carson walked over the River Bridge, which was the same, although several boards had been replaced over the years. When he got to the middle of the bridge, he found the old railing was still intact. He ran his finger over the weathered gray wood and felt his own initials carved when he was thirteen. Carson couldn’t write much, but he knew how to manage “CL”. As he pushed his hand further, there was a “TH” and a “JK”. He and the boys had wanted to be remembered forever as having lived in Salinas. So far, their dream had held true. He glanced down and saw the water was rich with trout. They were so plentiful that if Carson wanted, he could reach in and grab one with his bare hands.
“Carson, is that you?”
“It’s me, just got back into town after seven years away. I wouldn’t have recognized you if not for the voice. You’ve come a long way since we were skipping stones,” Carson commented to Fern Smith. She had been part of the gang he grew up with in Salinas. She was no longer the carefree girl in pigtails. Fern’s green frock was buttoned up, and her hair was pulled back without a strand hanging loose. She clutched a stack of books tight against her chest.
“I’d recognize you anywhere. You’ve changed, but you still have the grin of a boy, and your eyes are still the bluest of blue. I’m a schoolteacher now as you might have guessed because I’m carrying all these books. Did you ever get hitched?” Fern asked as her mouth curled up.
“Nah,” Carson responded. In his head, he was thinking that Fern was wasting no time determining his eligibility. “I came home at my mother’s request. As you probably know, my father died.”
“Oh, yes. A horrible event. Of course, you came back to console your grieving mother. Are your plans to stay in Salinas for a while?”
“I don’t know my plans. I remember you make it your business to know much of what’s happening in town. You’ll know as soon as I figure it out,” Carson said jokingly.
Fern leaned against the rail and seemed to want to chat for a bit, but Carson didn’t have the time to spare. He threw his bag over his shoulder to signal that he was ready to leave. He thought body language would be enough to end the impromptu visit.
“I’m sure we’ll see each other soon because I’ll be looking out for you,” Fern commented as she continued on her way. Carson looked up and wondered where she had picked up her haughty walk.
Carson arrived at the two-story building with the blue and gold sign. Jefferson’s Mercantile looked like it had recently received a new coat of paint, and benches had been added to the front porch. The white board building didn’t appear as it changed too much in seven years. Of course, it had been improved and updated just like he had. He hoped his improvements were for the better, just like the mercantile.
Carson pushed open the door, which rang the bell and in turn notified Mr. Jefferson that a customer had arrived. He knew from the look on Mr. Jefferson’s face that he didn’t recognize him. It was somewhat of a surprise because he had been a regular customer back in the day.
“I was hoping to get sarsaparilla because it’s been a long day, and I’m parched. This place has improved in the seven years since I’ve been gone.”
Mr. Jefferson looked at Carson blankly at first, and then his face stretched into a smile. “Carson Lattimer. Well, I’ll be – welcome home.”
Mr. Jefferson came from behind the counter and threw his arms around him while he called his wife from the back room. She came scrambling out with her rosy cheeks and crisp white apron having not changed in seven years.
“Carson, I was very sorry to hear about your father. I’m not surprised you came home to comfort your mother, who must be in quite a state. Goodness knows Mr. Jefferson and I have had our differences over the years, but I can’t imagine life without him. Let us know if there’s anything we can do to make life easier for your family,” Mrs. Jefferson offered.
“Thank you for your kind words and generosity, and I’ll be sure to share them with my mother, Vera. I’ll take that drink and a stick of peppermint for my little sister before I head home.”
Carson got his drink and a couple of candy sticks. Mrs. Jefferson threw in a couple of Molasses pulls because she knew they were his favorites when he was younger. When it came time to pay, they wouldn’t accept his money.
“The Teacher Who Stole His Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Becky Faust has never cared much about romance or marriage, at least not like most girls her age seem to. Moving to Salinas to be a teacher is a dream come true for her, and she feels like she has everything she could ever wish for. Life as she knows it is about to change forever though when the son of the late bookstore owner asks her to be his teacher. Unexpectedly and intensely drawn to this gentle and charming man, she finds herself cherishing every moment they spend together for their lessons. Could this act of kindness end in sudden heartbreak for Becky though, or is a true love she never anticipated in the cards for her?
When Carson Lattimer finds out that his father has passed away and left him the family bookstore, he knows his place is back home. He is determined to look after his mother and sister, but a secret he has kept for years is standing in his way… he cannot read or write. Even though this is a sore spot for him, one that brings back painful memories of his father’s cruelty, he decides it is finally time to learn. Turning to the beautiful young school teacher for help, Carson has no idea that his lessons with Becky will become his favorite part of the day. When their blossoming relationship spurs ill-intentioned accusations in town though, will he fight for the woman who has captured his heart so completely?
Becky and Carson experience an extraordinary connection and together they will learn what true love is. However, a black cloud seems to hang over them and a man cut from the same cloth as Carson’s father threatens to ruin their happiness. Will they manage to overcome the powerful and menacing forces in town and live the fairytale life they were meant for?
“The Teacher Who Stole His Heart” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.