Monday, May 18, 2015

Until the Harvest by Sarah Loudin Thomas, © 2015

Appalachian Blessings
Summary: "In 1970s West Virginia, a family tragedy derails Henry Phillips's college studies, and he returns home to Appalachia feeling devastated and desperate. Can a sweet and unique young girl and her older sister help him find his way again?"–– Provided by publisher.
Until the Harvest
My novels are all about Appalachian blessings--the people, places, qualities, and kindnesses of my favorite place on earth. ––author Sarah Loudin Thomas
My Review:

My heart goes out to Henry. He needs to find the right way and not wallow in the depths of sadness and a longing for what does not satisfy who he is. Henry, don't let darkness pull you over. I want to encourage Margaret to continue to be all she can be. I sorrow for Mayfair; for not being allowed to fully see all that can be before her in the giftings she has been given ~ not held back from joy. Rise above all of the destruction and lack of hope portrayed before you. Each day is new, fresh, and bright for you. We are cheered on to be released from chains of the past, and like these characters in Until the Harvest, may we grow and shed the chaff that wants to imbed and disable all that is available to our todays.

A slippery slope in just one more time, Henry is watched over and prodded to return to a life that can be his. There is no easy way to try to grasp a life without repercussion when it has to be hidden from those who love us. Steady plodding is the best way, the sure way, having a clear focus on what is ahead; not being deceived by the lives of others that pull us away to choices we would rather not make. Henry doesn't want to appear to be chicken, or different, even though he knows a better way.

Life is going on around him ~ Margaret is moving into his great-grandmother's house. Somehow, that stings him a little. Like belonging. The little gray house, when times were easier.

"There's not having anyone to talk to, and then there's not talking to the ones you've got. You make sure you know which is which."
   --Until the Harvest, 181

Cottage tips, prepare por winter  Life intermingles from generation to generation. How much has come before affects where we are going. Face what you're up against head on. Truth revealed.
   "God only called one man to build an ark, Henry. Whatever His purpose is for you, it's different from anyone else's. You ponder on what makes you feel satisfied. That ought to at least point you in the right direction."
   --Ibid., 240
Well, I will leave you with hopes that Henry finds his greatest heart's desire. You will enjoy Until the Harvest as the characters learn to "do the next thing." Love this ~ shared so many times by Elisabeth Elliot Gren in her ministering.
Poem: Do the Next Thing

Sarah Loudin Thomas
Photo Credit: © Kristen Delliveniri

Sarah Loudin Thomas is a fundraiser for a children's ministry, who has also written for Mountain Homes Southern Style and Now & Then magazines, as well as The Asheville Citizen-Times. Her debut novel was Miracle in a Dry Season. She holds a BA in English from Coastal Carolina University. She and her husband reside in Asheville, North Carolina. She can be found online at her website.

***Thank you to Bethany House Publishers for inviting me to review Sarah Loudin Thomas' newest release, Until the Harvest. This review was written in my own words. No other compensation was received.***

Have you read her full-length novel, Miracle in a Dry Season, and Novella intro to Appalachian blessings, Appalachian Serenade?
Cover Art  Cover Art

Enjoy this excerpt from Sarah Loudin Thomas' novel, Until the Harvest ~ Chapters 1-3

Let both grow together until the harvest.
Matthew 13:24–30

Wise, West Virginia
New Year's Eve 1975

HENRY PHILLIPS SLICED INTO THE VENISON STEAK on his plate and savored the rich meatiness of it. Mom always cooked his favorites when he came home from college, and this Christmas break was no different. He’d been enjoying being home so much he almost decided against broaching the subject of his music for fear Mom and Dad would launch into their usual speech about his education coming first, but he was itching to share the latest news.
   “Mort Jeffries asked me to come play at the Screen Door down on High Street. Guess I must’ve sounded pretty good.”
   His father raised one reddish eyebrow shot through with gray and chewed a bite of potato. “Oh?”
   That was all the encouragement Henry needed. “Yeah, he heard me fooling around with my fiddle on campus one afternoon and said I should come sit in with the band. Guess he thought I was good enough to play a night or two. Even got some tip money out of it. Man, those guys can play.” He put down his fork and used his hands to illustrate. “Mort gets that guitar going, and Benny plays the mandolin like he was born with it in his hands—almost as good as you. Sure wish you could come hear us.”
   His mother smiled and gave his father an inscrutable look.
   “Son, you know we don’t want you to let music distract you from your studies.” His dad buttered a roll and took a bite. “You’re talented in more ways than one, and getting an education should be your priority right now.”
   Henry tried not to roll his eyes. “I guessed you might say that, but somehow I thought—maybe this time—you’d see it’s not just dreaming. I actually made some money. And Mort said if I’d commit to playing with them regular, he might be able to work out something steady.”
   Dad sighed. “We’ve been over this before—”
   “Yeah, I know, and it’s always the same. School, school, school. Maybe you don’t think I’m good enough.”
   Mom reached over and squeezed his arm. Henry wanted to jerk away but knew it wouldn’t help his case.
   “I thought you were enjoying school.” Dad leaned back in his chair and studied Henry. He had a way of looking at him that made Henry feel like he was reading his very soul.
   “Yeah, I do like it. It’s just . . .” He spread his hands wide, as though reaching for something. “I feel so connected when I play. It’s almost spiritual or something, and the music flies out all around me, and . . . and I feel great.”
   Dad smiled. “I guess I know what you mean. Might be I should dust off my mandolin and see if we can’t make some music together after supper.” He glanced at Mom. “I know your mother would enjoy that.”
   “Does that mean it’s okay if I play more regular? I know I can do it and keep up with classes.” Henry tried not to sound too eager.
   “No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying I know how you feel, and I know how hard it will be to put this dream on hold until you finish your degree.” Dad folded his napkin and laid it beside his plate. “Music is one of the purest things this world has to offer, but I’ve never let it get in the way of my responsibilities. I know you won’t, either.”
   Henry swallowed hard and pushed away his half-eaten steak. If his dad really understood, he’d know it was possible to get an education and play the fiddle at night. But he respected him too much to argue any more.
   “Yeah, I understand.”
   Dad smiled. “Good, now go get your fiddle, and let’s serenade your mother.”
   “Maybe tomorrow. It’s New Year’s Eve, and I promised the guys I’d go out with them tonight.”
   His mother frowned. “Which guys?”
   “Oh, just some fellows from high school. Most of ’em are home from college like me.”
   “You be careful. Some of those boys drink.”
   “Mom, you know I don’t drink.”
   His dad caught his eye and winked at him. “Our son’s a good man, Perla. We can trust him.”
   She looked from her husband to her son as she smiled and stood to begin gathering dishes. “Casewell, you always did have a knack for thinking the best of folks, especially the ones you love.”
   He caught her wrist and tugged her closer, wrapping an arm around her waist. “Not always, my love, but I learned my lesson.” He kissed her elbow and released her.
   Henry was sometimes embarrassed at how affectionate his parents were, but he guessed it might be worse. Some of his buddies’ parents were divorced, and some didn’t even talk to each other. He stood to go find the keys to his dad’s old truck. Yeah, his parents weren’t perfect, but it sure could be worse. And maybe they didn’t have to know about it every time he played at the Screen Door.

   Henry woke the next morning with an abruptness that frightened him. Was that a sound? Had someone spoken? He shivered, even though he was snug under two layers of quilts. The sun had begun to color the sky outside his window. He shoved up on one elbow and listened. The house was quiet—too quiet. And too cold. He shivered again, but this time it was the chill air slipping around his shoulders. Dad should be making noise by now, turning up the furnace from its nighttime setting, chatting with his mother while she started breakfast. Maybe they were sleeping in.
   Henry swung his bare legs over the side of the bed and pulled on a pair of dungarees, shaking in the cold. He tried to credit his uneasiness to the late night ringing in the New Year—it was 1976 now—and the nip or two of moonshine he’d sampled. He didn’t much like alcohol, but it would have been unsociable to abstain completely.
   He grabbed a sweatshirt with the name of his school emblazoned across it—West Virginia University. He’d need to head back in the next day or two. He’d begin the second half of his junior year on the seventh, but he had until the final day of break to turn in his paper on Soil Genesis and Classification. Man, who wouldn’t prefer playing the fiddle to that? Just thinking about it made him want to crawl back under the covers, but the silence of the house was too much. He finished dressing and headed for the kitchen.
   Mom sat at the table, her robe wrapped around her, bare feet tucked under her chair. Her feet looked almost blue. Confused, Henry laid a hand on her shoulder. She jumped up, sending her chair clattering to the floor. For a moment, Henry thought she was going to hit him.
   “I’ve already called Al Tomlyn. He’ll send someone shortly. I knew I should wake you, but I didn’t know . . .” She glanced down at her tightly cinched robe. “I’d better put some clothes on.” She shot a look at the bedroom door, and her face crumpled.
  “Mom, what’s going on?” His stomach churned, and it felt like his heart was trying to keep up with his speeding thoughts. “Why did you call the funeral home? Who died?” As the last word fell from his lips, the earlier feeling of disorientation closed over Henry like jumping into the swimming hole on a hot day. And he thought he might drown.
   Turning toward the door to his parents’ room, Henry took a tentative step. His mother grabbed his arm. “I can’t go in there,” she said.
   “Can I?” Henry wasn’t sure if he was asking his mother or himself. He took another step, and Mom released his arm. She tightened the belt to her robe, as though tying a tourniquet to stop—what? The pain?
   Henry pushed open the bedroom door. His father lay in the bed, blankets tucked beneath his arms, hands folded neatly on his chest. For a moment, Henry breathed again, and then the wrongness of the scene penetrated his thick brain. His father would never sleep like that. Dad would never stay in bed past six in the morning. Henry glanced at the clock on the bedside table, and his shoulders sagged when he saw it was twenty after six. As if everything would be all right if it were only five fifty-five.
   “Dad?” Henry’s voice squeaked. He cleared his throat. “Dad, time to get up.” He moved the last few feet to the bed and gently shook his father’s shoulder. The icy dread that roiled his stomach earlier gripped his heart. He laid two fingers on his father’s throat and felt his own pulse slow, as though trying to match what he was feeling—nothing. Nothing at all.
   Mom stood in the doorway, watching dry-eyed. “Son, the men from Tomlyn’s are here. Can you . . . ?”

   Margaret Hoffman bustled around Emily’s house, tidying things and making sure every surface gleamed. It wasn’t only to please her sweet employer; it was because every woman in the community—including Margaret’s own mother—would traipse through here just hoping to catch a speck of dust, an unmade bed, or a dirty dishrag. Emily was easy to please. It was the rest of the world that gave Margaret a hard time.
   She sighed and put the last of the breakfast dishes away. News traveled fast, especially when it was as sad as Casewell Phillips dying in his sleep. And as soon as the ladies of Wise could throw together a casserole or a cake, they’d be knocking on the door with their condolences. Poor Emily. Margaret couldn’t think of anything harder than losing a child, no matter if he was six or fifty-six. She squared her shoulders. Well, she’d been working for Emily since she was sixteen—five years now—and if there was anything she could do to be a comfort, she would be more than glad.
   “Margaret?” Emily walked into the kitchen, bracing her-self against the backs of chairs like an old woman. She was nearly eighty, but she’d always behaved as though she were much younger.
   “Yes, ma’am? Do you need something?”
   “I do. Somehow I’m not sure how to dress for . . . this.” She waved a hand vaguely in the air. “People will start coming any minute. Won’t they?” She turned wet eyes on Margaret, as though she had the power to change things.
   “Yes, ma’am, I expect they will. The house is about as ready as I can make it. Now, let’s see about getting you dressed in something nice.”
   Margaret hooked her arm through Emily’s and led her to the bedroom. She sifted through Emily’s closet, finally pulling out a plaid skirt and a simple blouse. “I think this will be about right. You can wear one of your sweaters over it. I don’t think it’s supposed to warm up much today.”
   “Oh, thank you, sweetheart. I’m not normally at sixes and sevens like this. But you know that. Don’t you?”
   “Oh yes. It’s not like you to be unsure of yourself.” And it wasn’t, thought Margaret, but losing a child so suddenly would set anyone off. They didn’t even know when Casewell died exactly. Was it in 1975? Or 1976? What would they put on the tombstone?
   A knock on the back door, followed by the squawk of worn hinges, interrupted her musing. She’d been meaning to oil that door.
   “Must be family,” Margaret said. “I’ll go tend to it while you finish dressing.”
   Emily nodded and rummaged through the drawer where she kept her underthings. For a slip, Margaret hoped. Emily would be mortified if she forgot a slip in her present state of mind. But she’d likely be even more mortified if Margaret hovered over her like a child.
   Closing the bedroom door, Margaret walked into the family room and found Henry standing with his head down and shoulders slumped. She’d heard he was in from college but hadn’t seen him. Normally, she wouldn’t be seeing him now. Emily always insisted on doing for herself over holidays so Margaret could be with her family. Not that she much enjoyed being with her family, except, of course, with Mayfair. Her sweet little sister was always a bright spot.
   “Hey, uh, Margaret? Right?” Henry straightened up a bit.
   Margaret nodded. “Your grandmother is getting dressed. She’s a little fuddled this morning.”
   “We all are,” Henry said, and for just a moment Margaret caught a glimpse of anguish, but then his face shuttered closed again. “Mom thought I should bring Grandma over to the house. Make it easier on everyone.”
   “That’s sensible,” Margaret said. She wondered if she should go on home but felt a surge of desire to be a help to the Phillipses’ family. “I could stay here and send anyone who stops by on over to your place.”
   Henry’s brown eyes warmed, and he almost smiled. “That’d be great. Thank you.”
   They stood staring at each other, and Margaret became aware of how she must look. She’d thrown on a worn blouse over green polyester slacks when Emily called early that morning. She knew she’d need to tidy the house so selected something shabby. Now she almost wished . . . But why? To impress a college boy who had been a year behind her in school? He wasn’t likely to notice her even on a good day, at least not for the right reasons. She had a round face absolutely covered in freckles, and a figure her father indelicately referred to as “good for childbearing.” Plus, her hair tended to frizz. None of which would impress the tall man in front of her with his wavy chestnut hair and broad shoulders. He scuffed one foot on the rag rug, and Margaret jumped.
   “I’ll go check on Emily.”
   Henry nodded and focused on a picture of his family that was sitting on the mantel. Margaret followed his gaze. The photo showed his parents with Henry and his sister Sadie on either side. Casewell looked like he’d been pleased with the world on that particular day. Margaret hoped he’d felt the same right up until he went to sleep the night before.

   After the funeral, Margaret tried to get her parents to take Mayfair home instead of subjecting her to the crush of mourners at the Phillipses’ house, but they wouldn’t hear of it.
   “She needs to be exposed to crowds like this,” Margaret’s mother said.
   Her father nodded as his lips tugged down. “She’s twelve now. We can’t treat her like a child forever.”
   Margaret sighed. No wonder it was hard for her to think of these people as Mom and Dad. Wallace and Lenore Hoffman were typically more concerned about appearances than they were the well-being of their children. Mayfair would retreat into her books for a week after being forced into a social situation like this. She could manage sitting in church between her mother and older sister, but circulating in a house full of people would be too much. Why couldn’t her parents see that?
   Mayfair’s shoulder touched Margaret’s as they got out of the car and walked toward the house. An impromptu parking lot had been created in a nearby pasture, and Lenore picked her way through the grass like she expected to encounter cow manure at any moment. Wallace tried to take his wife’s elbow, but she shot him a look and jerked her chin in the air. Margaret wondered what they were fighting about now.
   “There are too many people,” Mayfair whispered.
   “I know, sweetie.” Margaret tucked her sister’s hand into her own and pulled her tight against her side. “Maybe we can find a quiet spot for you to read. Did you bring a book?”
   Mayfair reached into the patch pocket of her skirt and pulled out a well-worn copy of Anne of Green Gables.
   “Good for you, coming prepared.” Margaret’s praise raised a timid smile. “Just remember, the angels are holding hands all around you. Nothing can hurt you while they’re here.”
   Mayfair gave a jerky nod and turned her head so she could watch the people entering the house through her peripheral vision. Margaret ached for her sister, wishing she could make life easier for her. Who knew? Maybe there really were angels, although she doubted it. She reached into her purse and felt for the handful of hard candies she always carried. If Mayfair’s sugar dropped too low, she’d need something fast, and Margaret prided herself on always being prepared.

   Henry ducked his head and aimed for the front door. He’d had enough of hearing about what a wonderful man his father was, how he was with Jesus now, and how he’d had a weak heart ever since he was born and was lucky to have lived this long. If anyone knew how great Casewell Phillips was, it was Henry. Someone even commented to his mother that it had been a blessing for Dad to die in his sleep. That was when Henry’s hands balled into fists, and his heart began to beat a drum in his head. It was leave or hit someone, and he didn’t want to disgrace his mother. Although he was getting closer and closer to not caring.
   Bursting through the screen door, Henry nearly collided with two women scrunched together there. He started to push past them and then recognized Margaret, the girl who worked for his grandmother.
   “I suppose you’ve come to spout platitudes like everybody else,” he said. “Well, save it.”
   Margaret’s cheeks turned scarlet, and she put an arm around the shoulders of someone he realized was little more than a girl. “That’s pretty fancy vocabulary for somebody without any manners. Guess you learn big words like that in college.”
   He stopped short. There had been no call for his outburst, but he was too ashamed to back down. Instead, he continued the attack. “You have to be pretty smart to get into college in the first place. Let’s see, which school did you go to?”
   Margaret leaned in so her heavily freckled nose was inches away. “I’m going to assume that grief is making you act out of character. Now, you can either go on, or you can help me find a safe place for Mayfair while I check to see if your family needs anything.”
   Henry opened his mouth to tell her where she could go when his eyes met the girl’s. They were more gold than brown and something about them stopped up his words. He felt a sudden deep longing, though he wasn’t sure for what—his father, he supposed. Dad would never treat guests like this. Tears pricked his eyes and the beating of his angry heart slowed, as though matching some rhythm outside him. And all at once he wanted—more than anything—to make this girl happy.
   “What do you mean, ‘a safe place’?”
   “Mayfair’s kind of shy around people. I was hoping I could tuck her somewhere out of the way until it’s time to go home.”
   “Dad’s workshop.” Henry spoke without thinking. He hadn’t been in the shop since the last time he was home at Thanksgiving. He didn’t really want to go there now, the memories would be too close, but the desire to help Mayfair outweighed his misgivings.
   He led the two girls to the shop and pushed open the door. It was heavy, but the hinges were well-oiled. Dad would never leave it any other way. He wondered what would happen to the tools and supplies now that his father was gone but quickly shifted his thoughts back to Margaret and Mayfair.
   A small potbellied stove sat in the center of the room with two chairs pulled up to it. Dad always said it was practical to use the waste from his labors to heat his workshop. Henry opened the little door and found a fire already laid. By his father, no doubt. He choked on sorrow, not sure he could do this. Not sure he could set fire to something his father had touched only a few days ago.
   Mayfair brushed his hand, and he felt the warmth from her fingers. “I’m not cold.” Her voice was quiet but had a clarity that was almost musical. He wondered if she could sing.
   He leaned toward her and smiled. “Dad would have my hide if I didn’t make his workshop comfortable for guests.” He looked back into the grate. “He laid that fire for you. The least you can do is enjoy it.”
   His hand shook as he lit a long match and held it to the crumpled paper under the kindling. Mayfair touched his elbow, and the shaking stopped. Flames started to consume the paper and wood. He reached into a box and added some larger pieces of scrap lumber.
   “You’ll be fine here,” he said. “I don’t think anyone will bother you.”
   Mayfair smiled and slid onto one of the wooden chairs. She pulled a book from her pocket and was immediately absorbed. He saw Margaret tuck a piece of candy into her sister’s palm.
   “Only if you need it,” she said.
   Henry walked Margaret back toward the house.
   “I thought you were leaving,” Margaret said in a way that made him think she was still stinging from his earlier greeting.
   “I was, but I’m over it now. I guess people mean well.” He looked toward the house and the steady stream of people coming and going. “Dad would expect me to stay.”
  “Parents expect a lot of their children,” Margaret said, her lip curling back.
  “Do your parents expect a lot of you or Mayfair?”
   Margaret shot him a look that he couldn’t read. “Both, I guess.”
  “I like your sister.”
   Margaret finally relaxed and shoved her hands in the pockets of her jacket. “So do I.”
   Henry noticed she was wearing a skirt with knee-high socks and brown shoes. He wondered if her legs were cold. He opened the front door for Margaret and earned a small smile. Man, she even had freckles on her lips.

    Henry took a big bite of oatmeal to delay answering his mother’s question. She quirked an eyebrow at him.
   “Son, I asked you a question.”
   Henry gulped his milk. “I thought maybe I’d take a semester off,” he said.
   His older sister Sadie snorted and rolled her eyes. She always had an opinion.
   Perla cut a look at her daughter, then turned her attention back to Henry. “What in the world for? It’s not like there’s anything you need to do here. Your education is too important to shirk.”
   “I’ve talked to most of my professors, and they understand. All I have to do is get ahold of Dr. Stanley to see if he’ll excuse my final paper. Then I can just pick up next August. I might even be able to take extra classes so I can still graduate in four years.” Henry carried his empty bowl to the sink and ran water into it. “You and Grandma need a man to take over here—to keep things up, maybe earn some money.” He swallowed hard. “With Dad gone, I figured I’d better stay a while.” He squared his shoulders and stood up straighter.
   “You’ll never make anything of yourself without a degree,” Sadie said. She had just gotten her first job as a librarian at a university up in Ohio. Apparently they’d been very nice about giving her a week off for the funeral. Henry thought she was kind of full of herself at the moment, but she could be all right. If she wanted to. He reminded himself that she loved his father, too, even if he’d only been her stepfather.
   Mom rubbed her temples and reached for her coffee cup. “I think you should go back, but if you can get approval from all of your professors, I suppose it’ll be all right for one semester.”
   Henry let it rest at that. He was trying to behave as though he cared about school for his mother’s sake, but honestly, what did it matter? What did anything matter anymore? He’d keep going through the motions for her sake, but he wasn’t sure he’d ever go back to school. It occurred to him that he’d be free to pursue his music now, but that thought caused a stab of pain, and he brushed it aside, as well.
   Later that day, Henry called Professor Stanley about his paper on Soil Genesis and Classification. Stan the Man as the kids called him was a real stickler, but Henry was confident his father’s dying would move even a crusty old guy like Dr. Stanley.
   “Hello?” Dr. Stanley always sounded curt.
   “Dr. Stanley, this is Henry Phillips. You’ve probably heard that my father passed away recently, and I’m planning to take a semester off to take care of my mother. Which means I won’t be able to get my paper in after all.”
   Silence stretched and just as Henry started to say something more, Dr. Stanley cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to hear about your loss, but I’m sure your father would want you to meet your obligations in school and in life. The paper should have been completed by now and will be due as scheduled.” There was a rustling of papers. “If you intend to pick back up in an ensuing semester, you’ll need this credit completed. I’m looking forward to reading your work.”
   “But there’s no way I can get it done considering everything.” Henry heard a whine in his voice and tried to regain his composure. “I’m sure we can work something out.”
   “Henry, without that paper, I’ll be forced to give you a failing grade. As I said, I look forward to reading your work. Please give my condolences to your family.” He heard a click and then a dial tone.
   Henry stormed out of the house and slammed through the door of his dad’s workshop. Gordon Stanley was a jerk. Like the fool had any idea what Dad wanted for him. It was the last straw. What did he think he was going to do with a degree in agriculture, anyway? Be a farmer like his grandfather? He’d been hearing stories about John Phillips all his life, and somehow he’d thought it might be cool to follow in his footsteps. But what difference did a degree make? His grandfather died young. His father died young. He would probably die young, too.
   So why not go ahead and flunk out of school and just live his life however he wanted? The worst thing that could happen would be dying, and apparently that was going to happen regardless. He picked up a wood chisel and considered what kind of damage he could do with it.
   A half-finished footstool sat on the workbench. Henry settled the point of the tool against the top and grabbed a mallet. He whacked the chisel, and it bit deeply into the wood. Henry hit it again, and a chip went flying. He looked at the marred surface of the stool and felt hot tears rise. He flung the tools down and cursed.
   Henry gripped the edge of the worktable until he felt his fingernails sink into the wood. It hurt. He tried to focus on the pain, finding it preferable to the guilt, anger, resentment, and slurry of other emotions threatening to drag him under. He’d always followed his father’s advice—done what was expected of him. Maybe it was time he made some decisions of his own. Maybe it was time to stand on his own two feet.
   A Mason jar stood on the counter with a handful of finishing nails inside. Henry thought back to the night his father died and how Charlie Simmons supplied the Mason jars of moonshine his buddies drank. He’d gone to school with Charlie, who played a mean guitar—used to really like him. Maybe it was time to reconnect with his old buddy. Henry eased his grip, ignoring the blood oozing from a torn cuticle. Now that was a good idea. Charlie might be the solution to several of his problems. 

   “Why you feel the need to have a job is beyond me.” Lenore examined her manicure and seemed to be satisfied. “Your allowance should be more than enough to meet your needs. You ought to be going to school.”
   Margaret sighed. She’d almost been ready to leave the two-story house in the middle of town for the peace of Emily’s house in the country when her mother wandered into her room.
   “I like working. It gives me a feeling of satisfaction. And Emily Phillips is a lovely person.” Why did she even try to explain herself?
   “But domestic work—it’s beneath you. And it’s an embarrassment to me.”
   “Helping people should never be beneath anyone.” Of course her mother would be embarrassed by her. But that would likely be the case no matter what she did. It gave her a certain perverse pleasure to aspire to a life her mother disdained.
   Lenore made a derisive sound, then brushed her nails against her perfect white blouse. “Well, the least you can do is take Mayfair with you. I kept her out of school again today—she looked flushed—and she’s certainly more suited for menial work. Goodness knows she isn’t likely to have much success in this world. Between her idiotic diabetes and her attitude, it’s a wonder she’s made it this far.”
   Mayfair sat curled in a window seat in the room the girls shared. Margaret didn’t know if her mother was even aware her younger daughter was present. Not that she’d speak more kindly if she did. Margaret wanted to point out that her parents had probably somehow passed diabetes down to Mayfair, but she knew better than to try to get her mother to take responsibility for anything.
   “I don’t mind going.” Mayfair’s whisper softened Margaret’s heart. She’d be only too glad to have her sister along today, and Emily adored the child. It had been two weeks since the funeral, and the older woman’s sorrow still hung about her like a too-large dress. Mayfair seemed to cheer her.
   “There, now. Maybe I’ll be able to get something done with both of you out from underfoot.” Lenore sailed out of the room and down the stairs.
   Margaret looked at her sister. “Has she ever done anything?” The pair giggled. “Grab your stuff. Emily will be glad to see you.”
   When they walked through Emily’s back door, they overheard her on the telephone.
   “No, I understand. Send him over anyway. Maybe some time on the farm will be good for him. I can surely find plenty for him to do.” She paused, listening. “Yes, he’ll have to be willing to do it, but maybe it’ll be easier for his ole granny than for his mother. Young people are often like that.”
   Margaret made some noise so Emily would know they’d arrived. Was Henry the mysterious “he” coming over to work on the farm? She remembered how vulnerable he looked lighting the fire in his father’s workshop. Stoic and sad all at once.
   Emily came into the room as Margaret and Mayfair hung up their coats and removed their boots.
   “Leave those wet shoes on the rug there. It’ll sop up any dampness. Mayfair, I’m so glad you came. You’re not sick, are you?” Mayfair shook her head. “Excellent, you can help me make some oatmeal cookies.” Emily reached out and gently squeezed the girl’s arm, knowing a hug might be overwhelming. “Henry’s coming, and I’m sure he still eats enough for two men his size.”
   Mayfair smiled and headed for the kitchen. Emily turned to Margaret. “Perla’s having a time with that boy. Seems he got into some trouble last night. I won’t go into the details, but I think the two of them need a little time apart.” She placed a hand in the small of her back and stretched. “Getting too old to keep up with the young people, but I’d do just about anything for that boy.” A gleam lit her eyes. “He can clean out the chicken coop.” She shot Margaret a meaningful look. “I don’t expect you to help him, but if he’s willing to talk, it might do him good to have someone more his age to listen.”
   Margaret schooled her expression. She had no intention of mucking out chicken poop with Henry. Although his father had just died. She supposed she should be digging deeper for some Christian charity.
   “I thought he’d be back in school,” she said by way of not answering Emily.
   “Apparently he got mad about some professor expecting him to keep up with his assignments in spite of his loss. Perla says he isn’t going back this semester.” She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment then opened them again. “Time and the Lord will set him right. We just have to put up with him until then. I’m sorry you have to see his bad behavior, but I know you’re a kind girl and won’t hold it against him.”
   Fifteen minutes later, Henry slammed through the back door. Margaret paused in her scrubbing of the bathroom sink when he thundered into the house. She heard Emily speak to him, then he reversed his trip with a similar amount of noise and bluster. When the door slammed the second time—he went back out, she assumed—Margaret heaved a sigh and marveled that someone Henry’s age could be so immature.
   Emily appeared in the doorway. “You’ve got it shining in here,” she said, admiring the spotless fixtures. “Henry’s out in the chicken coop. Might not be the time to join him, but maybe you’d be kind enough to check on him in twenty minutes or so?”
  Margaret nodded. She’d check to make sure he hadn’t killed any chickens, if nothing else. She and Mayfair could go gather the eggs in a little while. Her sister always enjoyed being around animals of any kind.
   After finishing in the bathroom and changing the sheets on Emily’s bed, Margaret went looking for her sister. She found her nibbling an oatmeal cookie and reading Little House in the Big Woods for the umpteenth time.
   “Only one cookie, Mayfair. Want to help me gather the eggs?”
   Mayfair lit up. She placed her half-eaten cookie on a cloth napkin and ran for her shoes and coat. “Let’s take Henry some cookies,” she suggested as she went.
   “He’s been cleaning out chicken mess. He’s too dirty to eat right now.”
   “Take him a wet washcloth.” Mayfair slid her arms into her jacket. “A warm one.”
   Margaret rolled her eyes. If it had been anyone other than her sister suggesting such a thing, she wouldn’t even consider it. She got an old washcloth out of the linen closet and dampened it in water as hot as she could stand. It would cool quickly. Mayfair took up a plate of cookies, and they walked out to the chicken house.
   Henry sat on the ramp the chickens used to come and go, muttering to himself.
   “We brought you cookies,” Mayfair said. He looked up as though someone had just offered to rob him of his chickens at gunpoint.
   “And Margaret has a cloth for you to clean your hands.”
   Margaret stuck out the cloth. Henry took it, rubbing it over his hands like he’d been hypnotized and told to do it.
   “It’s warm,” he said.
   “We knew you’d be cold.” Mayfair smiled and handed him the plate of cookies. “And hungry.”
   He handed her the soiled cloth and bit into a cookie. “Good,” he said through the crumbs.
   “Emily and I made them.” Mayfair sounded pleased, and Margaret realized this might be the longest conversation she’d heard her sister have with anyone outside the family.
   “How’re you coming with the coop?” Margaret asked.
   Henry looked over his shoulder. “Guess I’m about halfway. Probably hasn’t been cleaned out since my grandfather died forty years ago.”
   “Surely your father . . .” The words died on Margaret’s tongue. Well, that had been insensitive.
   Henry stiffened. “I’m sure he did. It was just a way of talking.” He shoved the remainder of a cookie in his mouth and handed the plate back to Mayfair. “Guess I’d better get back to it.” He shot Margaret a look she chose not to interpret.
   “We’re just here for the eggs,” Margaret said and moved to the side where she could enter and check the laying boxes. Mayfair balanced her plate on a rock and scurried ahead of Margaret. Inside, she carefully collected the few eggs, even reaching beneath two hens still on their nests. Margaret didn’t like to do that, since a hen pecked her on the back of the hand one time. But the chickens let Mayfair reach beneath them as though they wanted her to have their eggs.
   Job finished, the sisters walked back to the house leaving Henry to chip bird mess off the roosts. Margaret felt bad for him. It wasn’t a nice job, and somehow she felt she’d made it worse for him. If only he weren’t so—what? Angry? She wasn’t sure, but whatever it was, it made Henry Phillips hard to be around.

HENRY WASN'T SURE HOW MUCH money his parents had or how his father had left things, but he figured Mom would need some help now. He could always get a job in fast food or bagging groceries, but he had an idea he could make money more easily than that. And Charlie Simmons could be his ticket to quick cash.
   The first few nights he rambled around with the Simmons boys, he snuck out his window after he thought his mother was asleep. But she knew what he was up to—at least he was pretty sure she did—so he opted to stop trying to hide it. The previous night he’d strolled out the front door at ten, telling Mom not to wait up for him. The look on her face made his stomach clench, but he chose to ignore it. She should be grateful he was willing to take risks in order to provide for her. A man had to do what a man had to do.
   Of course, he hadn’t really wanted to hike through the woods to break up a rival family’s still in the dark of night. He hadn’t really enjoyed running through the woods, tripping, falling, banging his knees, and having shots fired over his head. Henry knew the Simmonses were one of only a few families still running bootleg liquor and maybe breaking a few other laws, but he was determined to prove he could handle anything they dished out. He had to, if he wanted a fair cut of the profits.
   When Mom sent him to Grandma Emily’s to help out this morning, he’d been secretly relieved. Not that he’d show it, but he felt somehow anchored on his grandmother’s farm. He felt safe, like he had a purpose. Not to mention connected to Dad. They’d spent a lot of time over there together, helping his grandmother with the garden or the few animals she kept.
   He remembered one time when they were weaning the milk cow’s latest calf. He was only ten or so and liked messing around with the calf while she was in the stall next to her mother, scratching her behind the ears and petting her wooly head. Daisy didn’t think much of it, but there was little she could do.
   Then he’d been in the calf lot one day when Daisy ambled in for the evening milking and saw her chance. He’d had his back to the annoyed cow when she charged, and his father roared, “Stop,” in a voice like thunder. Poor ole Daisy skidded to a stop, and he’d escaped into the barn just in time to avoid a trampling. Dad ran shaking hands over his shoulders and down his arms. He’d laughed a little and said he’d take a boy over a milk cow any day and warned him to stay clear of Daisy. Thinking back on it he wondered that Dad hadn’t yelled at him for being in the calf lot when he shouldn’t have been, but his father had never been one to yell or berate. He just gently admonished.
   He sat on the ramp leading up to the now much cleaner chicken house and swallowed past the lump in his throat. Chickens scratched near his feet, even though there wasn’t much for them to peck at this time of year. But they went over and over the ground around the coop just the same. He envied their mindless pursuit. They weren’t agonizing over what to do with their lives. They were simply looking for something good to eat.
   His stomach rumbled on cue. He wished he had some more of those oatmeal cookies Mayfair brought out. The one he’d eaten had been delicious, but then Margaret ruined his appetite. That girl seemed way too uptight. Probably a real prude—all prim and proper. But she did look out for her little sister, and Henry liked Mayfair. Something about the younger girl made him feel like he should take care of her.
   He stood and dusted the seat of his britches. It was probably lunchtime by now, and Grandma was sure to feed him well. Although he was almost too dirty to go inside. Once he warmed up, he’d probably reek of chicken manure. But who cared? It wasn’t like he had anyone to impress. Margaret might be cute if she loosened up, but that wasn’t likely.
   Henry ambled down to the house and kicked his work boots off at the front door. He stepped inside in his stocking feet and shrugged out of his jacket. He probably should have left it out-side, too, but he dumped it on a hook near the door instead.
   He heard laughter from the kitchen. Margaret and Mayfair were singing along with the radio. It sounded like Captain and Tennille doing “Love Will Keep Us Together.” He peeked around the corner and saw Margaret singing into a wooden spoon while Mayfair danced next to her. They joined in together on the last chorus and collapsed into giggles. Henry had been determined to hang onto his foul mood but smiled in spite of himself.
   “Not bad,” he said, walking into the room.
   Mayfair ducked behind Margaret and smiled shyly past her sister’s shoulder. Margaret blushed in a way that almost made her look pretty. Even with all those freckles. Maybe if she did something with her hair. . . .
   “Lunch is just about ready,” Margaret said, reaching for the radio knob as John Denver came on.
   “Wait, I like this one.” Henry bumped Margaret’s hand as he turned up the volume.
   He listened to the opening lines, then jumped in with “Thank God, I’m a country boy.” By the end of the second verse, Mayfair joined in. Margaret looked a little surprised but joined her voice to the din with the third verse. They made such a racket, Emily came into the room, saw what was what, and added her soprano. They were all dancing and carrying on by the time the last notes died away. Henry wished for his own fiddle so he could play another chorus or two.
   Emily flicked off the radio as laughter replaced the music. Mayfair positively glowed, Margaret looked more relaxed than Henry thought possible, and for a moment he forgot he was mad at the world.
   “Well, now, that was a fine way to start our lunch off,” Grandma said. “You’re all good singers, though I can’t say much for your dancing.” They laughed some more. “Henry, go wash up, and we’ll have us some of this fine potato soup Margaret has cooked up.”
   As Henry scrubbed his fingernails with a soapy brush, he let the pleasure of singing in his grandmother’s kitchen sink in a bit. He almost wished he could stay here. He didn’t care if he ever saw the Simmons boys again. He could quit school for good and run his grandmother’s farm. She had the chickens, and they could get a pig to raise come spring. Maybe even a milk cow. Now that would be good. Margaret probably knew how to make butter—she seemed like the kind to have a knack for those sorts of things.
   Henry stopped scrubbing and dropped the brush in the sink. He rinsed his hands and dried off. But then again, his mother needed him. And anyway, all that taking care of animals would be a lot of work. And it would definitely tie him down. He’d end up losing the chickens to foxes, the pig would get foot rot, and the cow would go dry. Farming was a whole lot of trouble, and he reckoned life was hard enough. The heck with John Denver and his stupid song.
   As he dragged back into the kitchen, Margaret dished up soup and put bowls on the table, along with a loaf of warm soda bread and a jar of peaches that probably came from the tree down at the cold spring. Well, the world didn’t much suit him at the moment, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy lunch.
   As they sat, Emily folded her hands and bowed her head. Margaret and Mayfair did the same, but Henry didn’t feel like bowing before a God who would take his father. He watched the women as his grandmother said grace.
   He had the feeling Margaret wasn’t all that into praying, either, but Mayfair seemed completely absorbed. She clasped her hands and her thumbs almost touched her nose. She squinched her eyes as Emily thanked God for the food, the hands that prepared it, and finally for Henry, who had been such a help. Henry wanted to bat the prayer away as if it were a cobweb drifting over his face, but he sat still out of respect for his grandmother.
   Once the prayer ended, Henry tasted his soup. Man, it was good. Rich and buttery. He broke off a hunk of bread and slathered it with apple butter. Margaret might not be a barrel of laughs, but she sure could cook.
   “Oh, it does my heart good to see a man eat after he’s worked all morning.” Emily patted Henry’s arm. “Your grandfather was lean, but he’d eat a whole pan of biscuits if I let him. He’d even pass up dessert for biscuits and jelly. That man could eat.”
   Henry thought his grandmother looked almost as proud as she would if she’d just said, “That man saved a child from a burning building.”
   Grandma turned to Margaret. “Will you help me make a casserole this afternoon? It’s my week to take something to Angie Talbot.”
   Margaret agreed and added some more soup to Henry’s bowl without asking. He started to get annoyed but decided to eat the soup instead.
   “Angie Talbot. Didn’t her twin sister die a while back?” Margaret asked.
   “Yes, poor thing. She’s always kept her feelings to herself, but I know it was hard on her. Of course, Frank Post is over there most every day, but he’s old as the hills himself.”
   Henry considered how ancient you had to be for his grandmother to think you were old as the hills. “How old is he?”
   “Oh, both of them must be near about ninety. I think they were sweethearts once a long time ago. Or maybe it was Liza he was sweet on.” Emily sopped up the last bit of her soup with a piece of bread. “I doubt anyone remembers. At any rate, the members of Laurel Mountain Church take turns looking after Angie. One of those visiting nurses comes in just about every day, but we like to see to our own.” She cocked her head and looked at Henry as if she was trying to decide something.
   “If you’re up to it, you could spend some time walking the old fence line this afternoon to see what needs fixing. I’ve been thinking about getting a cow.”
   Margaret made a sound like she was going to speak, but Emily kept talking.
   “Before I make up my mind, I need to know if that fence will hold an ornery old milk cow. You think you can manage something like that?”
   Henry had thought he might go home and sleep the afternoon away after his rough night, but suddenly, walking the fields in the thin January sunshine seemed like a much better idea.
   “I reckon I could.”
   “Good. About the time you finish, we should be ready to go over to the Talbot place. You can drive us.”
   Margaret acted like she was going to say something again, but Emily shot her a look. “Let’s gather these dishes and get started on that casserole. Henry, take some cookies with you.”
   Mayfair scurried to wrap cookies in a napkin for Henry. She ducked her head as she handed them over. “Can I come with you?”
   “What?” Henry wasn’t sure he’d heard the girl.
   “I want to come, too,” Mayfair said, peeking out from beneath long lashes. “Like Laura helping her Pa on the prairie.”
   “Mayfair, you stay here and help Miss Emily and me.” Margaret sounded annoyed.
   “Oh, let the child go.” Emily made shooing motions toward her grandson and Mayfair. “She could do with the fresh air.”
   Margaret made a sour face but didn’t stop Mayfair as she ran to put on her boots and jacket. Henry didn’t especially want her along but decided it would be worth it just to annoy Margaret. He made sure the girl had mittens and a woolen hat, and they headed out into the bracing air.

   “Honestly, Emily, I’m not sure Mayfair needs to be spending time with Henry. I know he’s your grandson, but he doesn’t impress me as super stable right now.”
   Emily’s eyes flickered. “What do you mean?”
   “Well,” Margaret went to the refrigerator to pull out chicken and vegetables for the casserole. “He was rude at the house after the funeral.”
   “I thought he found a spot for Mayfair.”
   “Only after he nearly bit our heads off.”
   “I suppose you might excuse a young man for being testy on the day he buried his father.” Emily pulled a two-quart casserole dish out of a cabinet and handed it to Margaret. “What else?”
   “He’s throwing away his education, and I hear he’s been spending time with the wrong crowd.” Margaret felt a tingle of triumph, shadowed by shame. She shook it off.
   “He still has time to finish school. Could be he just needs to settle himself and get used to his father’s being gone. Goodness knows, it’s going to take me a while. As for the wrong crowd, I’ll have to agree with you there, but I think it’s important we not judge someone by the company they keep.” Her eyes twinkled. “Jesus spent plenty of time with questionable people—tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, beggars. Henry could do worse.”
   Margaret puffed her breath out in frustration. “I know you love him, but maybe you’re too willing to see past his flaws.”
   “Oh, Margaret, I forget how unsentimental you can be.” Emily patted her on the arm, and Margaret wanted to shake the kindness off. The only time her parents were nice to her was when they wanted something. She had to remind herself not everyone was like that.
   “But if you ignore his flaws, how is that going to help him improve?” Margaret thumped pie dough on the counter and began to roll it out like she was smoothing out all of Henry’s shortcomings.
   “Not ignore the flaws, but love the person in spite of them. There’s a difference,” Emily said.
   Margaret turned back to the refrigerator to hide her confusion. She didn’t quite understand what Emily was talking about, but she decided not to write it off completely. Maybe she should be more gracious about having Henry around. It would give her a chance to watch Emily and her grandson and see how people who loved each other were supposed to act.

Sarah Loudin Thomas, Until the Harvest Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan, © 2015.

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