Laurel Falls, N.C., 2009: Life on the farm was pretty much one day the same as the next—until that stranger showed up. I’ll never forget the first time I first saw him and how everything changed after that. It might not have turned out so crazy if he’d known who he was. We figured that big gash on the back of his head stole his memory. But how did he get that wound? And who was after him?

It had seemed wrong to turn him away, especially since you might say I saved his life. But what he wrought on my life … well, you can’t imagine how much havoc a man without a past can wreak.

It wasn’t ‘til my friend Della Kincaid put her crime-reporter skills to work that we got to the bottom of everything. And I do mean bottom. Things sunk pretty low before we started getting at the truth. ~Abit Bradshaw

You'll enjoy this suspenseful standalone mystery because who hasn’t wished someone would show up and change their lives (hopefully for the better)?

If you love Louise Penny, Richard Osman, and Fern Michaels, you're sure to enjoy the Appalachian Mountain Mysteries series.

Get it now—for the rich natural setting, colorful characters, and suspenseful investigations.



Alder trees know no shame. They sprout and grow and crowd out everything that gets in their way. Greedy for life. Like some people I’ve known.

Those trees were what brought me down to the creek that summer’s day. I was sweating from all the sawing and swearing at the pretty little trees just because there were too many of them. I’d worked all morning, carving my way down a good piece of the creek.

By the time I’d stopped for a break, the sun had burned through the morning mist, though wispy patches still hovered, casting a ghostly glow. That was when I saw him. A man, lying crumpled in a place the trees had yet to claim. Half on the bank, half in the creek, his face dangerously close to the water. No sign he was breathing.

I hurried over and pulled him from the water and mud. When I stood again, my head swam, not from exertion but an overwhelming sense of sorrow. And the promise of more yet to come.

I sat a moment, the wet earth quickly soaking into my overalls. I studied the man as he lay there, silent-like. I’d been part of enough police matters to know I shouldn’t move him any farther, but that creek was doing its best to suck the life right outta him. Something tugged at me to get him away from there—somewhere dry and warm. And safe.

He wasn’t a big man, maybe five foot nine or ten, but dead weight felt twicet as heavy as regular. I ran to the house—up a slow rise and across a couple of acres—and got my wheelbarrow. I would’ve driven the truck, but it can’t get down that far. (Well, it can get down that far; it just can’t get back up). Besides, I’d never’ve been able to lift the man into its bed without doing him even more harm.

I bumped my way back down with the wheelbarrow, and as I approached the creek, I stopped short. He’d moved. Just a little, his arm now resting over his head. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.

“Listen, mister, this might hurt some, but do not be afraid,” I soothed, as much for me as him. “I don’t know where or why you were hurt, but I am here in good faith.” Then I added, “And if you can hear me, I sure would appreciate any help in getting you into this wheelbarrow.”

He didn’t—couldn’t—help, but somehow, by tipping the lip of the barrow down to the ground, I was able to ease him into its bed. He called out some gibberish, likely painful protests, when I tucked his legs into what they call the fetal position.

I pushed that wheelbarrow partway, then pulled it the rest of the way back up that slope. I had to stop three times to catch my breath, and each time I checked to make sure he still had his. I drove that cart with all my might and finally stopped in front of our chestnut log barn.

Half the barn was now my woodshop, and a few year ago I’d built a guestroom in the other half in what used to be cattle stalls. I wasn’t that kind of farmer, so no need to worry about them losing their shelter. I had oncet thought about getting more animals than just chickens, but that promise had long ago faded. A number of friends and drifters had stayed in the guestroom, which was nice enough with the maple bedstead I’d made and a quilted coverlet—Bear Paw, I believe the pattern’s called. I’d made a small kitchen and a pretty little table and chairs that sat under the window. I’d always enjoyed taking my meals looking outside, and I’d reckoned my guests would too. The window hosted a wooden flower box I’d built years ago, but now only black, bleak stalks remained, like stragglers at a funeral.

I pulled the coverlet offa the bed. No point in getting mud or worse all over it; the sheets would be easy enough to wash. The front door to the room was plenty wide—I’d used the frame that had guided those wide-hipped steers inside—so the wheelbarrow fit through just fine. Somehow, I picked that poor stranger up and settled him on the bed. I was never so happy to hear a groan.

“You’re safe now, mister. I want you to know I am here to help you, not hurt you any further. Rest here for a while, and we’ll sort things out later. I just hope and pray you won’t be bringing any harm to my home. There’s enough trouble going on already without you adding to it.”

Though I’d just told him to rest, I knew I had to get those wet clothes offa him. Turned out he was harder to undress than my two boys, back when they were small and fell asleep on the way home from a concert or some other outing. I could tell his clothes were made of fine fabrics, even with all the muck and rank smell. A cut above anything from round here. I was able to pull off his soaking wet shoes, socks, and trousers easy enough, but his shirt was another story. I couldn’t imagine what he was doing wearing such a fine, thin one—the kind men wear to offices and church—without a jacket. In these parts, he coulda frozen to death, even in the middle of summer. The shirt had stuck like glue, and as much as I hated to, I had to cut it offa him. I just couldn’t budge him enough to do any different. I threw the tattered thing in a corner and pulled the sheet over him before rushing next door to my woodshop for a heater. After I plugged it in, I ran to the house for clothes.

I let the screen door slam as I hurried inside to see what I could find. I rummaged through my closet, but my six-foot-three frame called for clothing too big for him. I’d never had any extra weight, which gave me a leanness that registered as sharp angles and boney edges. As I closed the closet door, I caught a quick glance in the mirror. It surprised me to see how I’d grown even thinner than usual. Maybe that was why people, the few folks I’d been round lately, asked me if I was all right.

I sat on my bed and thought about the man. He was a complete stranger to me; I didn’t have a clue what his story might be. My mind went to work on the worst things that could happen, like him getting better and trying to overtake me. I got so into it, I actually started to scare myself. Then my thoughts shifted to wondering if he was someone good—even great—who needed my help. That didn’t last long. I was soon back to picturing him a ruthless killer.

I hated thinking thataway, but out here in the mountains, away from even the small town of Laurel Falls, I had to consider all the possibilities. And yet didn’t that include good things happening too? I wondered what in my makeup kept me from seeing him getting well and offering me treasure instead of slitting my throat. Of course, I knew why. Good things like that didn’t happen.

But for now, he was at death’s door, and my only concern was keeping him from crossing over. Life is a fragile thing; it can change faster than the weather come March. So the way I saw it, we needed to throw our arms round what we had any given day. And what I had today was a stranger in my guest room, struggling to live.

Long ago, almost twenty year now, I’d made my own religion with kindness at its center. Kindness is mentioned more in the Bible than all the sins and misgivings Mama used to bring up on a daily basis. I’d come to understand the call to kindness when I was on a trip to Mt. Rogers park up in Virginia. I believe Jesus was there that day when wild ponies showed me about living life as each of us are meant to, natural-like. Not Mama’s idea of what that life should be for me, certainly not Daddy’s. Mine. That revelation gave me such a sense of peace and good will that kindness became my watchword. Lately, the way I’d been living here on the farm, I hadn’t given myself much chance to show kindness, and it felt good to feel its warmth again.

Over the years I’d tried—and failed more times than I cared to remember—to show more kindness than the day before. But when you think about it, that’s not such an easy task, especially when you take the time to explore the depths of kindness. Oh sure, it’s easy to be kind when you’re baking a birthday cake for your boy or helping a friend like Della Kincaid move heavy boxes at Coburn’s General Store. Or coming to the aid of that stranger, so vulnerable at the moment. But what about harder acts of kindness, like calling an ambulance for him? I’d ignored that idea when it came to mind earlier, not wanting town folk roaming round my place. So who was I being kind to? Likely me more than him. And thinking ahead, was it kind to my boys to have a stranger living amongst us, someone who, for all I knew, could do us harm? My head ached with possibilities. By the time I’d finished arguing with myself, the sun had left that side of the house and the room began to feel cold.

I made myself get up and move to my boys’ room. Not long ago I’d bought a few things on sale they’d need to grow into. At 12 year old, Vern was already taller and wider than Conor, even though he was a year younger. I figured his things would have to do. I also grabbed an old quilt we kept in the linen closet.

Back in the guestroom, I saw the man hadn’t moved. He did grumble as I gently placed the quilt over him. I saw a terrible mess on the pillowcase from a seeping wound I’d missed because of his tangled hair and all that creek water, washing it clear at the time. I kept a first aid kit in my woodshop (I needed it more often than I cared to admit); I brought that over and dressed his wound best I could, both for his sake and so I didn’t have to look at its gore. I was able to stuff him into the sweatsuit and thick socks and then wrap him in the quilt, tighter than a newborn coming home from the hospital.

Throughout the rest of the day, I kept watch. Sometimes I’d tiptoe in and stand next to his bed, making sure he was breathing. Other times I’d stand by the door, just listening, not wanting to disturb him.

I couldn’t help but smile, recalling the time I had the flu real bad, and the boys, back when they were just 8 and 9 year old, would come creeping into the bedroom to make sure their daddy wasn’t dead. The first coupla times they did that, I was sick enough I couldn’t say anything to assure them that, in time, I would be okay. But as I got better, I had to work hard at not laughing at their little faces, creased with concern, peering down at me. Finally I couldn’t hold back, and I started to laugh. They jumped on the bed, and we rolled round together, happy I was back with them. I cherished that memory, especially now.

Oncet the busy work of survival was done, I didn’t know what else to do. I started thinking about that ambulance again, but it didn’t seem right not to give him a say. No telling what his story was and how he got into this state. Round here, we’re careful about things like that.

He came to a coupla hours later.