Thirteen-year-old Abby Kendall brushed her long cinnamon curls off her shoulder, yawned, and returned to her writing task. This day in October had been unseasonably hot—Indian summer the residents of Pueblo de San Jose, California called it—when the wind stilled and it seemed like the sky had forgotten to breathe.
The one-room schoolhouse was stuffy as a result. Although Abby didn’t like most sports, she looked longingly out of the schoolhouse’s one window and thought of the swimming hole at Coyote Creek. But all she could see was a distant row of alder trees, blue sky above, and heat waves shimmering on the glass.
The younger children, seated up front, were taking turns reading out loud while the teacher, Mrs. Jacinto, helped others at the blackboard. Abby glanced across the aisle at Luke Quiggley, her best friend. He caught her glance and rolled his eyes heavenward. His sun-streaked hair fell over one eye as he leaned toward her and whispered, "I’m ‘board’ as a fence. I’d rather go out and wake snakes."
She nodded with a grin, then turned her gaze to her slate work. But an unusual sound penetrated her heat-fogged brain.
Abby sat up straight. What’s that? she wondered.
She looked toward the school’s door. Someone, or something, was climbing the four wooden steps of the schoolhouse.
Ker-thunk, ker-thunk. It was unsettling.
As the door creaked open, Abby held her breath. A sense of doom, like a cold gust of wind, swept over her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Luke’s head turn toward the door, too.
Outlined against the October sky was a wide-chested sailor, who paused before he took a step inside. In a glance, Abby saw that he had only one good leg. His other was gone from the knee down, and in its place was a wooden peg.
Abby’s eyes widened in awe. From his simple duckcloth pants and cotton shirt, there was no doubt he was a sailor, but the peg leg gave him the air of a pirate.
Just then Mrs. Jacinto turned from the blackboard. "Who—who are you?" she asked in surprise.
McGuffey readers were forgotten as all heads turned to take in the stranger. The children instantly fell silent.
Ker-thunk, ker-thunk. The wooden leg sounded hollow on the floor as the stranger moved into the classroom. His dark eyebrows drew together. "I be lookin’ fer one Abigail Kendall." His black eyes roamed the room.
Abby’s hands grew clammy. She glanced at Luke, whose mouth hung open like a barn door, and swallowed. "I . . . uh . . . I’m Abby Kendall."
He started toward her . . . ker-thunk, ker-thunk. From somewhere behind her, Abby could hear Mrs. Jacinto say, "Here now, what’s all this about?" But she couldn’t take her eyes off the man limping toward her. He wore a silver earring that swayed each time he took a step. Reaching under his ratty vest, he pulled out a folded envelope.
By the time he drew to a stop in front of her, Mrs. Jacinto had hurried over to stand beside Abby. She laid a hand on Abby’s shoulder, her fingers clutching.
The sailor cocked his head at the teacher. "I kin see you don’t git many visitors here." When he laughed, Abby noted his blackened teeth.
Mrs. Jacinto pursed her lips and cleared her throat. "What can I do for you, sir?" Her voice sounded firm, but her fingers on Abby’s shoulder trembled.
"The store owner told me Abigail was here. I got to git back to me ship, so I can’t be running out to the country lookin’ fer her pa."
Despite the sailor’s somewhat ominous air, Abby’s curiosity flared. Who was he, and why did he search her out?
"Have you come from the South Pacific, sir?" she asked, her heart thudding with anticipation.
"Aye, all the way from the Pacific Isles. And me cap’n has carried this with him." The sailor laid the envelope on her desk. Abby caught a strong smell of sweat and the faint odor of the briny sea.
With his callused hands he smoothed out the folded envelope on her desktop.
"This letter’s from a Samuel Kendall," he said, one eyebrow raised as he glanced over Abby’s head at the mesmerized faces of her classmates. "Me cap’n and him are mates, and I’m to deliver it to his kin."
"Uncle Samuel!" she said enthusiastically. Oh, I hope he sent another story of the islands! There was nothing Abby liked better than dreaming of adventure and travels with Luke—especially to faraway mysterious lands.
The sailor pinned her with a stare. "Carry it to yer pa fer me?"
Abby picked up the stained envelope and smiled. "I will. Thank you."
But the sailor had already turned toward the door, his peg leg thumping out an uneven beat. Then the door slammed behind him.
Everyone began talking at once. Mrs. Jacinto clapped her hands loudly. "Quiet!" She put one hand to her forehead. "Oh my, Abigail! I certainly hope your uncle won’t be sending us any more surprise visitors."
Abby tucked the letter in her well-worn sketchbook and reluctantly set it aside. "I hope so, ma’am. I’m sorry for the interruption. But Uncle Samuel often sends word with sea captains coming our way." She looked over at Luke, who was trying to suppress a grin.
"Exactly where does your uncle live, Abigail?"
"In the Sandwich Islands, ma’am."
At that moment Sarah, Abby’s eight-year-old sister raised her hand but didn’t wait for Mrs. Jacinto to call on her. "Ma says that’s where natives dance in the moonlight!"
"Sarah, that will be quite enough," Mrs. Jacinto said briskly. She gave some boys nearby a withering look that silenced them, but the rest of the class was too excited now to concentrate on seatwork.
"Boys and girls, it’s near the end of the day. We’ll dismiss early to the yard for a game of choose-up relays."
War whoops broke out as the children stampeded through the door like a herd of buffalo.
"Abby! Abby!" Friends of all ages from the one-room school gathered around her, hoping to hear more about her uncle or the sailor with the wooden leg.
Sarah hurried over. "Were you scared, Abby?" she asked. "I was! He looked fierce, like one of those bucking-ears we saw in Pa’s book!"
Abby smiled and tossed her long hair off her shoulder. "That’s buccaneers, Sissy."
Sarah’s slate-blue eyes sparkled with excitement. "What happened to his other leg?"
"Probably got bitten off by a shark," Luke said authoritatively. His green eyes danced with the thrill of adventure. "Can’t wait till we go traveling like him."
Abby’s eyes took on a faraway look. "Oh, me too! Exotic islands and people of strange tongues. But," she vowed, coming back to the moment, "I’m bringing my toothbrush and powder. Did you see his teeth?"
"I bet he has bad breath," Sarah answered. "Nobody would kiss him, not even if he had a pirate treasure."
Luke laughed, but Abby shook her head at her sister. "Even sailors have feelings, Sarah. And God doesn’t want us saying bad things about people."
"Oh, all right. His ma would probably kiss ’im—on the forehead." She kicked a dirt clod and ran off.
The sound of Mrs. Jacinto’s wooden whistle called the children to order. As they grouped around her, she announced, "Jacob and Kyle will be team leaders today." A flurry of discussion followed. Never before had the eight-year-old boys been chosen as team captains for a relay race.
When Abby caught Luke’s glance, she noticed that his smile had faded. Usually he was chosen as a team captain. And he always picked her first—even though she was the slowest runner at school. Everyone knew she’d inherited her ma’s legs—some condition that caused her to run slow and tire easily. Now there wasn’t a thing he could do for her.
Apprehension turned in Abby’s stomach like sour milk, but she tried to joke about it. "Get ready for another show of the tortoise and the hare, with me in the losing role."
She gripped her cotton skirt to dry her clammy hands. One by one, the school children around her cleared out, each picked to join a team. Soon she was the oldest and tallest person left among a bunch of shrimps. To her horror, she was the last person picked. She took her spot on Jacob’s team.
Luke looked over from Kyle’s line. "Hey, they saved the best ’til last." She knew his smile was meant to encourage her, but she was too embarrassed to smile back. Two bright-red spots of humiliation bloomed on Abby’s cheeks. Amid the hubbub of excited, jostling kids, only Abby noticed Luke slipping from the head of the line to take last place across from her.
Mrs. Jacinto raised her arm, dropped a white handkerchief, and the first runners took off. For the next few minutes, Luke’s team surged ahead of Abby’s, flying around the midway marker and returning first to pass the baton to the next in line. But halfway through, Abby’s team gained the upper hand and was half a length ahead of Luke’s.
The screams and shouts grew louder as the last few runners waiting to take their turns drew to the head of the line. Abby’s heart pounded. Her team was now a whole length ahead of Luke’s. Even so, she didn’t stand a chance. She had to run against Luke, the fastest boy at school! She would ruin it for her team, and everyone would hate her.
Abby drew to the head of the line, waiting for the baton as her teammate sprinted toward her. Luke stood across from her, waiting for his teammate, who still had not rounded the halfway marker. When Abby’s teammate flew toward her, baton outstretched, she grabbed it and sprinted for all she was worth. She’d been given a good head start!
Abby clutched the baton in one sweaty hand and, with the other, grabbed her skirt to lift it out of the way. Her lungs ached and her eyes teared with the effort. She drove herself harder than she ever had before. She heard a groan go up just before she rounded the marker and started back toward the finish line. When she saw Luke bending over to pick up his dropped baton she realized why his team had moaned. Now Luke leapt up and threw himself into the sprint.
Abby heard her teammates’ cheers as she headed down the home stretch. She stood a chance! For the first time in her life, she might not lose a relay! She was halfway down the homestretch, and Luke was just rounding the marker. Nine-tenths of the way home, she could hear Luke’s footsteps pounding behind her. The frenzied screams of her classmates told her the race was close, very close, though she didn’t dare look over her shoulder.
Abby threw herself across the finish line, doubling over with heaving breaths. Never before had she thought there was a chance she could win against anyone, especially Luke! She straightened and felt classmates pounding her back. Sarah came over and gripped her hand. "You won!"
For a moment Abby basked in the joy—the reprieve from complete humiliation.
Then she saw Luke standing with his head down, one boot scuffing the dirt. His teammates quietly milled around. Mrs. Jacinto blew her whistle. "Good race!" she yelled. "Now everyone collect your books. Class dismissed."
Luke looked up then, his eyes grazing Abby’s happy face. They exchanged smiles, and just before heading into the classroom, he winked at her. That’s when Abby knew. He had dropped the baton on purpose to give her more time!
She followed his tall form as they headed into the classroom. Gathering her sketchbook and slate into the leather carrying strap, she swallowed the emotion that was rising like a lump in her throat.
Oh Luke, she thought, tightening her book strap, you’re the best friend I’ve ever had.
Abby never suspected that the letter swinging in her sketchbook was about to change all that.