Perched high in her Peterbilt semitruck, Corrie Lancaster winced as the leather seat sucked at her tanned arms. She swiped at the sweat dripping down her nose. Didn’t matter. She loved harvest time.
Consistent and efficient. Just what she liked.
Enclosed in the cab cocoon, she waited out the cloud of dust and chaff spewed out by the back end of the combine as it inched across the wheat field. She counted down the seconds until the last of the dust storm passed, then she opened the door and hopped down from the sweltering cab. Even a hot day felt like a fresh breeze after being trapped like that. Filling her nostrils with the smell of wheat and dirt, she shuffled through the stubble and knelt. With deft fingers, she moved aside the chaff and scoured the ground for wheat kernels.
Seeing only two, she exhaled. The old girl kept chugging along. If the 9600 John Deere combine could keep doing that for the next two thousand acres, they’d be set. With the years of drought and bad grain prices, the piggy bank had squealed its last a long time ago. A good harvest was the only hope for reviving it.
Corrie straightened, brushed her hands on her jeans, and readjusted her dark aviators as her gaze darted over the field she’d planted and cared for. Ambling to the semi to wait for the next load, she groaned when a familiar rusty-orange Ford F-350 tore into the field, wheels spitting up chaff in their wake. George, her hired man, slammed the door, the pickup shuddering with the force.
“Here we go again,” she mumbled, posting herself next to her semi, careful not to touch the black paint molten in the sun’s heat. She waited for the large oaf to close the distance. “George, what’s the rush?”
His tongue darted out and licked his chapped and peeling lips. His licentious gaze raked her while still communicating disdain. Quite a trick for someone with mush for brains. She hugged her arms around her chest.
“The rush?” George spat. “Rush is, I quit.”
Her arms fell to her sides. “What?”
“You heard me.”
Corrie balled her hands into fists and kept herself from planting them in George’s overfed face. “You can’t quit.”
“I ain’t about to work for no woman for minimum wage. Especially a woman like you.”
Bright? Diligent? Caring and responsible? Words he probably didn’t know.
She narrowed her eyes. “Fine. Quit.”
“Or you could do what any reasonable woman would do. Sell the farm. To me.”
Corrie snapped her mouth shut on a nasty swear word. “When pigs fly.” She clambered up the semi steps and slammed the door. Hot, humid air and her heavy breathing filled the cab as George sped from the field, truck tires making a permanent rut. Corrie pawed at the window knob until the coolest breeze a ninety-five-degree day could muster blew through. Laying her head back against the headrest, she closed her eyes and, for the first time, longed to be back in Sioux Falls with a juicy story to unfold to the readers of the Argus Leader. Impossible, of course. Her family needed her.
She jumped in the seat and banged her knees on the steering wheel. She couldn’t remember praying for patience, but she made a mental note to remind God she didn’t need any more for a while.
“Nathan! You scared the living daylights out of me.” She quirked an eyebrow. His fifteen-year-old face resembled a Cheshire cat’s. “Did you scare me on purpose?”
“No.” Tinges of crimson crawled up his neck. “I swear on my ability to drive, I didn’t mean to.” His blue eyes radiated innocence, but he’d made her look like a fool before.
“If I even get a hint, a breath of a hint, that you did it on purpose, I’ll take Old Bertie away for two days.”
“How am I supposed to practice driving if you take the truck away?”
“You shouldn’t have sworn by it then, should you?” She reached out and ruffled Nathan’s hair. Ignoring his scowl, she asked, “Why are you here, anyway? I thought you had a grain bin to clean.”
“The auger’s broken, and I couldn’t get ahold of George to fix it. I thought he’d be here with you.”
“George quit.” And all she wanted to do was find ways to exact revenge upon him. Ex-lax in his morning coffee? Too messy. A new mouse infestation in his pickup? Too mousy. “Losing” his last paycheck—
“Corrie? Are you there?” Nathan waved a hand in front of her face.
“What do you want me to do?”
Go find the loser and run him over. No. That wouldn’t help. He would be only slightly less useful dead. “I’ll figure something out. Did you finish the rest of your chores?”
“Yeah. I was just about to finish cleaning out the grain bin when the stupid auger broke. Can I still go to the lake with my friends?”
His large boots thumped on the running board. Just this morning, he’d complained they were getting tight on him.
“Yeah, you can go.” Before he could hop down, she grabbed his arm. “Double-check with Mom and make sure you’re home by five to relieve Nikki. She’s been in that combine since eight.”
He beamed at her and walked away with a lanky stride caused by a six-foot frame and an arm span to match.
She hollered, “Why didn’t you just call over the radio?”
“Broken,” he yelled over his shoulder before he slammed the door to the old red manual pickup he’d learned to drive.
Rage exploded from deep inside of Corrie. With a scream, she scrunched up an empty Pepsi can, and pretending it was George’s head, she chucked it out of the truck cab. For all his horrible qualities, George had worked hard. And he didn’t earn minimum wage. He earned a dollar an hour more.
An approaching tractor’s purr drew her attention. Her cousin Joey bounced up and down as the John Deere inched closer. He lined the grain cart up with the semi and began dumping golden wheat kernels into the trailer. After several minutes, he pulled away and headed down the rough field to await another combine hopper.
She started the truck and drummed her fingers while it aired up. When the red light signified the truck was ready, she shifted into first, exited the field, and began the twenty-mile drive into Sandy. Metallica screamed through the truck’s speakers, and she bobbed her head to the vicious beat.
They would have to hire another person. A person crazy enough to work for a dollar an hour more than minimum wage.
A full moon illuminated the well kept Lancaster farmyard as Corrie pulled into the driveway. She hauled herself out of the pickup, every muscle in her body threatening mutiny.
“Well, Old Bertie, you did well today. I hope Nathan’s treating you right.” Giving a tap to the pickup’s hood, she chuckled. “I’ll have to remind him you’re three hundred thousand miles old.”
Trusting that Nathan had fed the dog, she rattled the doorknob on the barn to check the lock and trudged to the large two-story colonial-style farmhouse. Its brick façade with white windows and a red front door welcomed her home. She scratched the panicked idea of going back to Sioux Falls. As much as she enjoyed the city, she needed the country and its peaceful quiet and meandering back roads.
She inhaled the cool summer air bursting with the scent of her mother’s pansies planted snugly in terra-cotta pots. She sank into a white wicker rocking chair. A plane’s red lights blinked in the starlit night, and a shooting star soared into the black abyss.
Nearer, farm equipment not being used in the field hunkered down in the tree belt, far past the reach of the single farm light on the barn roof. Most of it would have to wait until spring to be brought out and put to use. Corrie shook her head. Although perhaps idiotic and slightly neurotic, she couldn’t help feeling as if the planting equipment stewed in jealousy and dejection for most of the year. Maybe her parents had read her too many Corey Combine books. Apparently, they had thought she would be a boy and had chosen the name before she drew her first breath. Surprised but not beaten, her parents had ditched the spelling and kept the name.
With a grunt, she heaved herself out of the rocking chair and tiptoed into the dark house. Nikki, Nathan, and her mother would have gone to bed hours ago.
One person, however, would still be up. After kicking off her shoes, Corrie walked into the living room. The fresh scent of furniture polish spoke of her mother’s Friday cleaning. The television glow illuminated vacuum tracks in the plush white carpeting. A solitary figure sat in a brown leather recliner.
“Hey, Dad.” She stooped and kissed the top of his head, noticing for the first time the lines and wrinkles edging his eyes, signs of aging he’d always hidden.
Jake responded with a slurred variation of her name and a wobbling smile. She muted the game show. He’d never liked game shows, and now the Game Show Network was the only thing on when he was in the house. The no-nonsense man she’d known all her life had died when a semitrailer slammed into his truck one icy December evening.
As she did every night, she sat by his slippered feet and told him about her day. The damage hadn’t touched the part of his brain that loved and lived off farming. Every day convinced her even more that his love of the land was nurtured not in his head but in his heart. Nothing could kill that.
“George quit today.” Corrie saved the worst news for last.
Her father’s eyes met hers and reflected the anger he couldn’t formulate with words. Then a sliver of worry crept around the anger in his eyes.
Wanting to reel the words back in and swallow them, she sighed. “Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll take care of it. I’ll find someone to replace George.”
The worry and anger didn’t leave his eyes. With a sigh, she got off the floor and laid her hands on his once-broad shoulders. “Don’t stay up too late. Morning comes early on the Lancaster farm.” She pressed a kiss to his forehead and left him watching Deal or No Deal. He would be up for hours.
Corrie groaned into her pillow and hid from the protruding fingers of sunlight soaking through her window shades. If only she could cover her head with her comforter and fall back into her wonderful dream about Middle Earth and hobbits. But she couldn’t afford the luxury. Not with a truck full of grain to take to the elevator. Not if she wanted to beat the line so she could get back and service the combine. Nikki could take care of the other morning chores, but the combine was Corrie’s baby. Nobody greased it except her.
Bacon and eggs sizzled as she entered the bright kitchen. The west wall, full of floor-to-ceiling windows, faced her mother’s garden. As a child, Corrie had loathed weeding and watering the garden. Now, a day in the garden would be a nice reprieve.
“Good morning, dear.” Corrie’s mother, Cynthia, greeted her with a smile.
“Good morning.” Corrie took the proffered tongs and flipped the bacon, careful to avoid the splattering grease. “How’s Dad this morning ?”
“Fine.” Cynthia no longer cried when she talked about her husband. A steely reserve now crept into her eyes and flared whenever Jake was mentioned.
Corrie took the hint to shut up. After transferring the bacon to a paper towel–lined plate, she set the table. She watched closely as Cynthia stirred the scrambled eggs with a little more force than necessary. Corrie stopped herself from chewing on her bottom lip, a bad habit carried over from toddlerhood. She wanted to ask her mom about her dad, needed advice about the future of the farm—of them—but all was cut short when a herd of stampeding feet echoed down the stairs.
“You two make enough noise to scare the dead,” Corrie scolded as Nikki and Nathan scooted around the corner.
“We’re just hungry. That’s all.” Nathan nipped a piece of bacon. “Where’s Dad?”
Before Corrie could intercept the question, Cynthia spun around with a spatula covered in scrambled eggs and whipped the air with it. “Eat. Now.”
Nathan ducked his head. “Sorry. I just wanted...”
Corrie’s hand squeezed his shoulder, stopping his comment. Cynthia threw the spatula into the pan of eggs, tossed a potholder on the table, and slapped the pan down, egg shrapnel exploding over the table. She left the kitchen, and when the master bedroom door slammed shut, Nikki and Nathan jumped in their seats.
Several minutes of awkward silence thicker than bacon grease permeated the kitchen. The cheery yellow of the walls and crystal-clear glass of the cupboard doors did nothing to stop the shadows of doubt lurking in every corner. No one mentioned the unspeakable but not improbable event they most feared.
Nikki exhaled. “Do you think they will... you know... get a divorce?”
Corrie shushed her and grabbed the salt and pepper. She no longer had an appetite, but it would be a while before a meal came her way. Forcing herself to swallow, she glanced at Nathan as he scraped at his full plate. “You need to eat, Nathan.”
“I’m not hungry.” He scooted back his chair and stalked out of the house. Nathan ran across the farmyard and into the barn, where he would most likely find solace in the soft fur of his miniature Australian shepherd, Bacon.
After the barn door slammed, Nikki turned back to her food. “So, do you think Mom will want a divorce?”
Corrie winced at the pain radiating from her seventeen-year-old sister’s eyes, the same glacier blue of their father’s. Nikki twirled her curly blond hair around her index finger, warming Corrie’s heart for a moment with memories of holding her baby sister, mesmerized by the tiny index finger creating equally tiny curls. Her chest swelled as she surveyed her sister, a combination of dirt and the most delicate of wildflowers struggling to soak in the last raindrops.
“I don’t know. I really don’t.” Corrie finished her orange juice. “I can’t imagine what Mom is going through right now. I don’t think I want to.” She started cleaning up. “We need to keep praying.”
“It’s not working.” Nikki swirled the rest of her scrambled eggs around on her plate.
Corrie abandoned her task of clearing off the table and sank beside her sister. “I know things are hard right now. Trust me, I feel the weight of all this. Sometimes, we can’t see where God wants us to go. And sometimes, instead of smoothing the mountain for us, he gives us the tools to climb that mountain, and only from there can we see the beauty and majesty of his plan.”
Nikki laid her head on Corrie’s shoulder. “I’ll keep trying. I’m just really tired.”
“Me too.” Corrie pressed a kiss to Nikki’s hair. “Tomorrow is Sunday. We can rest then. Until then, we’ve got work to do. I’ll take the truck into the elevator and meet you at the field later.” She headed for the door. “Don’t forget to pack a lunch. I don’t want to have to go to the café again.”
Nikki rolled her eyes. “One time and I’m branded for life.”
“Forget again, and I’ll brand ‘lunch’ on your forehead,” Corrie teased. She laughed at Nikki’s pouty face and rushed across the yard. Nathan was busy gassing up Old Bertie and making sure the fuel tank on the back of it was full of diesel. Corrie slipped into the passenger side and waited until he finished turning off the tank.
He ambled over to the passenger door, opened it, and blinked in surprise. “You’re going to let me drive?”
She chuckled. “Don’t expect this every day.”
He sprinted around the front of the pickup, hopped in, and started the old girl up. Stomping on the clutch, he slammed the stick into low gear then let off the clutch while easing the gas pedal down. Old Bertie responded with a grunt and spasm but obeyed with jerking movements.
“Okay. Now let the clutch fully out. Good. Give her a little gas. You’re choking her. Okay. Now ease in the clutch again and shift to first.”
He complied, and soon the pickup was soaring down the road toward the field. She glanced at his profile and wondered when he’d grown up on her. Gone was the scrawny boy who cried every time he came across a dead bird or a hurt farm cat.
“Are you okay? You know, with what’s been going on and stuff?”
Good grief. As a reporter, I should be able to ask a better question. But this wasn’t some stranger or some big news-breaking story. This was her brother, and his soft heart was breaking.
His pronounced Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “I guess.”
“It’s just this morning you seemed... I don’t know...” The countryside whizzed by in a blur of color.
“I just miss Dad. I want him to be him again. You know?”
She nodded and bit the inside of her cheek to keep her tears in check. “Yeah. I do. But Dad will always be your dad. You have to know that. He still loves you, loves us, but he can’t show it like he used to. You have to have faith and believe he will get better. You never know. He might play football with you again or take you fishing.”
Nathan shrugged. “Sure. Maybe.”
In other words, conversation over. From the time he’d learned to walk, Nathan had been Dad’s sidekick. Now Jake hardly noticed his son.
Nathan brought the pickup to a jerking halt in the field, and she stepped out. “I’ve got to take this truckload in.” She poked her head through the open passenger window. “We’ll be okay.” Before he could reply, she jumped in the semi, started it, and after it aired up, drove into town.
After twenty miles of rolling cropland and pasture, she crested the hill into Sandy, South Dakota, a small town nestled against the Sandy River. At this time of year, it was more of a creek, but a river it would always be to the residents who’d grown up around its banks. She downshifted in the truck’s descent. Judging from the myriad trucks and cars, Corrie guessed Mabel must have cheese buttons as the café special. Corrie’s stomach rumbled. She could almost taste the cheese-and-onion mixture tucked deliciously in dough and cooked in cream.
The knife of memory slid and cut its way into her mind as she passed the VFW dance hall where she’d won her first dancing competition. Her father had been her dance partner for the waltz.
She blinked her stinging eyes. Amazing how one phone call could change a life forever. Like a tornado, it sucked her up, spun her around, and spit her out. If only he’d stayed home that snowy night nine months ago. He would be the one harvesting. He would be the one shouldering the farm’s responsibility.
Coming to the end of town, she turned right at the only stop sign on Main, pulled up behind a mile-long line of trucks, and inched up off the highway and onto the elevator’s graveled property.
“Good morning, Corrie.”
She beamed at the old man who hopped on the truck’s running board and stuck his head in her truck cab. “Good morning, Baxter.”
A proud working octogenarian, Baxter tipped his stained and dusty DeKalb seed cap. Upon close inspection, his crinkly face mirrored his life—full of happiness with a dash of adventure and a few sprinkles of sadness and loss. She loved to hear his stories even though she knew most of them by heart.
“You’re looking good.” He patted her arm with a veiny, rough hand.
Without a doubt, her wrinkle-free skin had grown new fissures over the past nine months, and baggy, dark circles sat like bloated toads under her eyes. No matter how many promises different shampoo brands boasted, her hair had lost its luster and hung limp in a ponytail every day. “You’re much too kind. But thank you. It’s nice to hear.”
“How are things holding up on the Lancaster farm, dearie?”
“Not so well.” She could never pretend with the old man. He was far too wise and knew far too much. “George quit yesterday.”
Baxter took off his cap and slapped it against his thigh. Dust flew. “That good for nothing...” He slammed his hat on his bald head. “That rat! Sorry to hear it, Corrie. If you need anything, please let me know.” He peered at her with wizened eyes. “I mean it, young lady. All you have to do is ask.” Someone inside the main building called for Baxter. With an apologetic pat on her head, he hopped off and ran to the weigh house.
“Spry old man,” she muttered as she shifted the truck from neu- tral into first gear for her turn on the scales. The red light turned green, and she eased onto the scales. She waited until the mechanical arm swung over from the weigh house and sucked grain into its proboscis and into the building. The red light flickered green, and she drove through the obstacle course of trucks and grain bins to the correct dumping site. She watched in her side mirror as elevator employees swarmed the truck’s hoppers like worker bees. Eventually, they signaled her to leave, and she waited in line again. Several smaller farm trucks waited ahead of her to go back on the scale. Ten minutes later, she stopped the truck on the scale until Baxter came out with her ticket telling her the bushels and moisture of the load she’d just dumped.
“Here you go, little miss. See you again soon for the same song and dance.”
Corrie laughed. “Save me a spot.” She glanced at her ticket before veering onto the highway. After doing some quick math, she gave a whoop. Eighty bushels an acre. “Praise the Lord!” That number was exactly what she needed to hear.
All day, she trucked back and forth between the quarter of land they were combining and the elevator. With all that time to think, she couldn’t figure out where she would get the extra help she needed. At eighty bushels an acre of wheat, it was really necessary.