This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
When I first moved back “home” or about thirty miles from where I was born and raised, I felt as if a giant circle had been closed. I’d left in part to follow a dream, in part to find myself. I’d done both on my journey through college and medical school, through love and loss and discovery—and here I was, back in the country. I wrote When Dreams Tremble that year, thinking about the time I had spent working at “the Lake” the summer I graduated from high school. That book is still one of my favorites, and when I decided to write another book “close to home” it felt natural to connect the two stories. Circles never close in life, they just overlap and expand.
Homestead is not a sequel, but a few old friends do show up—and the themes of returning home—a little world-weary but maybe a little wiser—play through both stories, as does the hopeful theme of second chances. As I said when writing Code of Honor (speaking metaphorically then) when we return to a favorite place we feel a sense of comfort and belonging, and a part of us comes home. In writing these stories, I have literally come home (our farm is featured on the cover of the book) and parts of me wander the landscape. I hope you enjoy visiting the characters who emerged to keep me company.
Thanks go to Sandy Lowe, whose hard work makes mine easier; to Ruth Sternglantz for knowing my writing better than I do; to Stacia Seaman for always finding ways to make me better; and to my first readers Connie, Eva, and Paula for reading the early drafts and urging me on.
Sheri, many thanks for always finding the heart of the story.
And to Lee—Amo te.
For Lee, for sharing the vision
Tess balanced a fifty-pound bag of sweet feed on her right shoulder and wended her way through the aisle of the Agway toward the checkout counter. The burlap scratched the side of her neck with each step, as irritating as a bit of straw trapped under the waistband of her jeans. A trickle of sweat, sticky and hot, ran down the center of her back. The strands of strawberry-blond hair that had escaped her John Deere gimme cap clung to her cheek, resisting her efforts to swipe them away with the sleeve of her red-and-blue-checked cotton shirt.
Too damn hot already and not enough rain on top of that. Early June felt like mid-August—a sultry heat sat heavy on the cracked dry surface of fields where corn and soybean seedlings withered under cloudless skies. Heat waves rose from the steaming earth and clouded the horizon with shimmering curtains of haze. The milk cows lay down in what shade they could find, too dulled by the scorching sun to graze on the little pasture grass that would grow. Her feed bills were soaring in an effort to keep their weight up and their milk flowing. If the weather didn’t break soon, her projected profits in corn and milk were going to suffer. And she had precious little room for loss, not this year. Her goal was to grow all the silage and haylage her herd would need year-round, and she was close to reaching her goal—or she would be if the heat ever let up. She’d invested so much in her crops, if she had to supplement with store-bought feed she would have almost no profit to carry over into the next year’s budget.
“Help you there, Tess?” Jimmy Larsen asked as he rounded the corner with a length of hose in his hand. The skinny twenty-year-old wasn’t much taller than Tess’s five-seven and probably only had twenty pounds on her hundred and thirty. When he wasn’t working at the feed shop, he worked around the farm doing odd jobs and giving her and her foreman a hand.
“No, I’ve got it, Jimmy, thanks.” Tess smiled and moved on before he could strike up a conversation. He was well-meaning and harmless, but he’d had a crush on her since she’d babysat for him when he was ten, and she’d run out of ways to politely deflect his awkward advances. Fortunately, whenever he was at the farm, they were both too busy to do more than mutter a passing hello.
She joined the line at the makeshift checkout counter behind two brawny men in sweat-stained cotton shirts that looked pretty much like hers—dusty and pocked with bits of hay—as they discussed the main topics of conversation for farmers everywhere: the weather, the economy, and the price of feed. When they’d moved off, she balanced the bag against the front of the long board counter and pulled out the thin stack of folded twenties she’d pushed into the front pocket of her jeans when she’d left the house. Earl Bundy, barrel-chested with cheeks as flushed as his curly red hair, manned the counter. The county was littered with Bundys, one of the original founding families along with the Whitesides and Pearsons, and Earl had run the local Ag store as long as she could remember. He glanced at her absently, and then his pale blue eyes sharpened as he focused on her.
“Well there, Tess,” Earl said, his rough voice sounding like gravel crunching under the tires of her truck, “I was right sorry to hear about Ray. I woulda been there for the service but the wife was off at her mother’s and I had to drive out there to get her. She won’t fly, you know.”
“Thanks, Earl. That’s fine.” Tess believed the sincerity of his words, even though she knew her stepfather hadn’t been very popular with most of the locals. Ray Phelps hadn’t been born in Washington County; he hadn’t been a farmer by birth, but rather by marriage; and he’d never been of the land the way she and her mother were, despite two decades of working it. Earl’s sympathies were for her more than Ray, and she appreciated it.
“So,” he said, drawing out the word thoughtfully, “you still planning on going organic? Big change, especially running things all by yourself.”
Tess felt the hairs on her arms stand up and imagined if she’d been her long-departed coonhound Molly, the fur along her spine would be standing on end too. Never mind that farmers’ wives and daughters had worked the land same as the men and boys for centuries—driving plow teams and tractors, baling hay, and trucking produce to market—the idea of a woman in charge was still an oddity. Just as she’d understood his genuine sympathy for her loss, she also understood that beneath his question lay sincere concern as well, so she stifled the growl that wanted to climb out of her throat and nodded. Laying two twenties on the counter, she said, “Yep. Another six months and the whole herd will be certified.”
She didn’t add if the soil tests, the milk tests, the water tests and Lord-knew-how-many other tests all came back free of pesticides, metal contaminants, hormones, and a list of about two hundred other chemical derivatives. She couldn’t think about that right now or the little kernel of panic that festered in the pit of her stomach would blossom into all-out terror.
He cleared his throat and rang up the sale. “Well, if you need any help, I can always send Earl Junior around to give you a hand.”
“I appreciate that.” Tess pushed the change from the second twenty into her pocket. She wasn’t above accepting help when she needed it, but Earl Junior was the last person she wanted to show up offering a hand. He’d been offering a hand and a lot more than that ever since eighth grade, and despite the number of times and ways she’d said no, he didn’t seem to be getting the message. Even the wedding ring he now sported hadn’t deterred his efforts. Being a single woman in a small community was a bit like being male in an old folks’ home—a sought-after minority—and though she’d never made it a secret she wasn’t interested in male company, some people chose to ignore that message too. “Things are under control. But thanks.”
She reached down to hoist the feed again.
“Although,” Earl went on, “seeing as how they’ll probably be drilling soon, you might not have to worry about working the farm for all that much longer. You might be able to make a killing and retire.” He laughed and closed the cash drawer with a thump. “I know quite a few folks are hoping to do that.”
Icicles rained down Tess’s spine and she straightened, leaving the bag where it leaned against the counter. “What do you mean?”
“I heard over at the Grange last night that the planning board was set to repeal the moratorium on drilling that was voted in a number of years ago, especially since Rensselaer has gone ahead and done it already. They say the state’s gonna put a stop to all that anyhow before long—too much money in gas to leave it under the ground.”
“That doesn’t have anything…” Tess decided the less said the better. She’d learned a long time ago that silence and secrets were often far safer than misplaced trust. Too often, those who you thought were in your corner turned out not to be. “When is the vote supposed to come down?”
He scratched beneath his collar, his expression contemplative. “They’re saying sometime in the next month or so, but they’re already moving rigs into Johnsonville. I hear they’re about to start drilling out at the Hansen place.”