Looking for You All My Life

by Melody Carlson

The small town of Pine Mountain has much to offer a big-city girl: clean air, beautiful scenery, a marvelous mix of townspeople both funny and friendly. And though Maggie did not come to Oregon looking for love, she found it with Jed Whitewater. Or did she? While the possibility of a serious relationship exists with this enigmatic man, circumstances intervene in their lives that could spell disaster for both their dreams. What will Maggie have to sacrifice for the good of her new community? And will Jed ever be able to share his heart with her?

Chapter 1

During the first week of November, traffic through town had dwindled to a thin trickle. Besides the coming and going of the locals, there were only a few late-season elk hunters cruising down Main Street on their way back home, some with elk heads and large antler racks displayed proudly on their hunting rigs (a habit a city girl found slightly disturbing).

Maggie diverted her attention from the “trophy” tied to the hood of a dust-covered pickup parked along Main Street by watching her breath come out in little white puffs that lingered for a moment on the crisp midday air before they disappeared. The novelty of such a simple thing as frost was not lost on her as she walked toward Galloway’s Deli. It was not something she’d seen much of in southern California.

The atmosphere had suddenly changed in Pine Mountain. A quiet hush wrapped itself around the streets of this little town until it seemed that even the normally energetic merchants had become unusually subdued. Maggie waved across the street to Elizabeth Rodgers as the older woman pushed a broom across the sidewalk in front of the bookstore, lethargically sweeping dead leaves over the curb and into the gutter below. In some ways the feeling in town reminded Maggie of last spring when she and Spencer had first arrived to discover a dreary and dying business district. Only now she sensed a real spirit of hope and expectation resting beneath this temporary veneer of quiet. And no one could deny that the town looked better than ever with all its recent renovations and face-lifts.

Still, Maggie wondered how this little slump might affect commerce as she passed by the recently refurbished Pine Mountain Hotel. She peeked in the front window to see a perfectly decorated lobby completely void of guests. Of course Brian and Cindy Jordan, with their high-earning computer software stocks, could easily afford a slow season at the hotel, but few other business owners in town were so fortunate. Even with last summer’s boom and the better-than-usual fall season, an unprofitable winter could be the undoing of some of the more fragile businesses. Maggie knew it was silly to feel so overly protective of the town, but whether she could openly admit it or not, the truth was she felt an almost maternal sort of concern.

“Hey there, Maggie,” called Rosa from behind the tiled deli counter. “You’re early today.”

“Thought I’d beat the rush.” Maggie smiled sheepishly at her joke as she glanced around the nearly vacant room.

“Pretty bad, isn’t it?” Rosa sighed and gave the already clean countertop a swipe.

“I heard we might get some snow,” offered Maggie hopefully.

“That’s what Sam said too, but it’s only supposed to be a light dusting. It’ll take more than that to open up the ski season around here.”

“But it’s still early. Isn’t it pretty rare to open before Thanksgiving?”

Rosa adjusted the straw container and thought for a moment. “I suppose so, but we’ve seen it open in early November before. I guess because of the strong summer and fall seasons everyone had just hoped…”

“Well, maybe the weatherman is wrong about the dusting part of his forecast. Maybe we’re in for a foot or two.”

“You’re sounding more like us everyday. I suppose this disease is the result of our tourist-based economy. We all live in a slightly delusional world.” Rosa grinned. “We survive on optimism and unrealistic hopes—and, of course, we’re ever dependent on the weather.”

“Not to mention a lot of hard work.” Maggie glanced up at the menu board. “I’ll have a bowl of your black bean soup, Rosa.”

Rosa ladled out the dark, spicy-smelling soup. “So what’s cooking at the Pine Cone these days? Scott’s been so busy with Chloe lately that I haven’t heard much about work.”

Maggie laughed. “Those two are getting pretty serious. I’ve actually wondered if Scott might be hearing wedding bells lately. And, selfishly, I wouldn’t mind a bit. I’d hate to lose him at the paper.”

“With Chloe saying she never wants to leave Pine Mountain, my boy may have to rethink his future as a big-city journalist.” Rosa handed Maggie her order, then poured herself a mug of coffee. “Mind if I join you during this little lull?”

“Not at all.” The two women sat down and Maggie glanced across the dining room to the couple deep in conversation at a corner table. They were an elderly pair and not locals. “Well, as far as what’s going on at the Pine Cone…” she lowered her voice slightly. “Actually, I think I’m about to break open a pretty big story—at least for Pine Mountain, that is—but I’m sort of nervous about the whole thing.”

Rosa’s brows went up. “What is it? Or is it top secret?”

“It’s about Greg Snider.”

“Oh, our notorious postmaster. What’s he up to now?”

“I take it that you haven’t heard anything about it then? Nothing from Sam or anyone?”

Rosa shook her head and sipped her coffee. “No, and Sam is usually up on all the latest news. Men say women gossip, but I think that’s just their cover-up.”

“Well, I suspect that Rick Tanner and Greg Snider have been trying to keep this thing under their hats, but I’m on my way out to interview Mr. Westerly this afternoon—”

“Old Arnold Westerly? I can hardly believe that man is still alive—he must be about a hundred by now.”

“I don’t know about his age, but I do know he owns a couple hundred acres of prime farmland—”

“Right between the Tanners and the old Snider place,” injected Rosa, her brow lifting with suspicion.

Maggie nodded. “Anyway, I’ve learned that Greg and Rick are buying that property and planning some big real estate development out there.”

Rosa slapped her hand on the table and laughed sarcastically. “Now if that doesn’t beat all. The antidevelopment boys are out there scheming up their own little land deals and trying to keep everything hush-hush. Well, good for you, Maggie. I hope you blow this thing wide open.”

“The only problem is…” Maggie’s brow furrowed. “I feel bad about Cherise. She’s been so sweet to me at the fitness center, and I just hate to see her get hurt by my story.”

“Cherise is a big girl and stronger than many think. Besides, Maggie, the truth is the truth. Right?”

Maggie set down her spoon. “Yes. And I’ve already sat on this news for too long—mostly to protect Cherise because she’s the one who gave me the initial information. But I can’t be silent about something like this forever.”

Rosa frowned. “I hope Greg and Rick aren’t taking advantage of poor Arnold. He’s a sweet old guy. And all alone.”

“He sounded nice on the phone, and very sharp if he’s as old as you say. Plus he seemed eager to talk. But I’m afraid he thinks I’m interviewing him for our Bit of History section.” She broke off a chunk of crusty bread and dipped it into her soup. “In fact, I think I will schedule Scott to do a history piece on him. No doubt this Mr. Westerly has some interesting stories to tell.” The bell on the door jingled and Maggie looked up to see Buckie and Kate walk in. “Looks like you’ve got customers, Rosa.” Maggie waved as the couple approached the counter.

“Thank goodness for the regulars.” Rosa stood and straightened her apron. “Nice catching up with you. And good luck with that story.”

Maggie finished her soup, then she went over to greet Buckie and Kate on her way out. They seemed such a perfect couple now that it made her wonder how any of them had ever missed that potential from the start. “How’s business?” she asked Buckie with a friendly smile.

He frowned. “Actually, it’s pretty slow this week.”

“But this is a great time to do some long-term planning,” piped in the ever-optimistic Kate. “I’ve been encouraging Buckie to have some of his better prints reproduced into note cards and postcards and such, plus I’ve been checking into some mail-order outfits that I think he could get into, not to mention setting up a Blue Moose website. You know Northwest art is pretty popular these days.”

Buckie reached over and patted Kate’s arm with open admiration. “Kate’s such a whiz when it comes to ideas and marketing and all that stuff. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

With mixed feelings Maggie remembered how invaluable Kate had been to Jed’s business with that same sort of perspective—and then how suddenly that had all changed, mostly due to her. She smiled at Kate. “Well, if you ever get bored just working for Buckie, you might consider starting up your own marketing consultation service. I’m sure a lot of businesses in town would find your ideas very helpful.”

“Hey, watch it, Maggie!” warned Buckie. “Don’t you go luring my right-hand girl away from me.”

Kate laughed. “Don’t worry, Buckie, I’m not that easy to get rid of. But Maggie does have a good point. A consulting business might be something I could do on the side—and drawing in more customers at other places wouldn’t hurt your business a single bit.”

“You know, Kate,” said Maggie, “I’ve had some thoughts of my own about how the newspaper could help promote businesses. And you’re always so full of great ideas—maybe we should get together and discuss them sometime.”

“I’d love to,” said Kate with a smile that could’ve been used for a toothpaste ad.

For the first time since their original conflict over Jed, Maggie wondered if she and Kate might actually become friends one day. “Great,” she said. “I’ll give you a call soon. With business so slow right now, it might be the perfect time to start making some plans for the tourist traffic that will come with the upcoming ski season.”

“You mean, if we ever get any snow,” said Buckie sullenly.

“It’ll come,” Kate reassured him. “It always does sooner or later.”

Maggie hadn’t planned to stop by Jed’s shop today as she knew that Leah had invited him for dinner at the house tonight. But seeing Kate and hearing how Buckie was reaping the benefits of that new relationship made Maggie feel worried for Jed. Leah had mentioned just that morning at breakfast how business had been terribly slow for Whitewater Works this week, and although it seemed sort of silly, Maggie felt responsible.

“Hello?” she called as she entered the familiar shop, sniffing the air for the pungent aroma of cedar. “Anyone here?”

“In the back,” called Leah. “I’m coming.”

“How’s it going?” Maggie asked as Leah emerged from the back room, a cardboard box in one hand and a packing slip in the other.

“Still pretty quiet.” Leah brushed a dark strand of hair from her eyes. “You’re the first one to walk through the front door all day.”

Maggie frowned. “Is Jed around?”

“No, he just left. He’s working at home this afternoon.”

“Well, that’s probably good. How’s he doing?”

Leah’s brows lifted. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, I guess I was feeling a little concerned about him from a business standpoint. I just ran into Kate, and you know how she’s so involved at the Blue Moose now, and she has all these great plans about how to market Buckie’s work—and well, I suppose I feel a little guilty, like it’s my fault that Kate’s not here—”

“But I’m here.” Leah stuck out her chin defensively.

Maggie smiled. “Of course, I know that. And Jed couldn’t be happier—”

“But you don’t think that’s enough.”

“That’s not what I meant, Leah.”

Leah set the box on the floor and folded her arms. “I’m working really hard for Jed, Maggie. I told him he doesn’t even have to come into the shop at all if he needs to work on his projects at home. I know this isn’t an easy business, especially this time of year, but I’m here for him. Isn’t that enough?”

Maggie placed a soothing hand on Leah’s arm. “It’s more than enough, honey. Really. Jed wouldn’t trade you for a hundred Kates. And I’m sure in time you’ll have this whole business completely figured out, and then you and Jed will be the busiest shop in town.”

Leah frowned. “I don’t think either of us want that.”

Maggie blinked, feeling somewhat chastised. “Well, you know what I mean. I’m sure everything’s going to be just fine. I’m sorry if what I said didn’t come out quite the way I meant it.” She looked Leah in the eyes. “Are we still okay?”

Leah’s dark eyes looked misty, but she nodded. “Yes, of course. I guess maybe I’m a little worried about Jed’s business too. There’s so much to learn right now. I want to be a help and not a hindrance, but I hate asking Jed questions all the time. Sometimes I feel like I’m nothing but a nuisance.”

“I know Jed doesn’t think that at all. He loves having you around, Leah. But if you’re worried about the business aspects, maybe you could ask Kate to stop by and give you some tips.”

Leah pressed her lips together. “I don’t really like Kate very much.”

“Oh.” Maggie thought a moment. “I used to feel like that too, but I’m trying to be more open. And I’m finding there’s more to her than meets the eye.”

“Maybe. But I think I’d rather try to figure things out for myself around here. I learned a lot just working for Buckie. In many ways these businesses aren’t all that much different.”

“You’re probably right.” Maggie glanced at her watch. “Okay, then, I’ll see you tonight. Is Jed still coming for dinner?”

Leah’s eyes lit up. “Yes. And I’m still cooking. He gave me a venison roast from a deer he shot on his property. Audrey promised to give me a hand with it.”

“I’m looking forward to it.”

Maggie walked slowly back to the Pine Cone to pick up her briefcase before her interview with Mr. Westerly. Something in the tone of her conversation with Leah bothered her a little. Why was Leah becoming so defensive? Maggie hadn’t meant to infer that Leah’s help in the shop was inadequate in any way. It was only that she felt worried about Jed’s business without Kate’s experienced hand. It was no secret that Kate had been an integral ingredient in Jed’s past success. But why should that threaten Leah? Good grief, Leah was only eighteen years old—no one expected her to replace Kate. But maybe this wasn’t about Kate and Leah, reasoned Maggie. Maybe this was about Maggie and Leah… and Jed.

She’d only returned from California a week ago, yet in that short time it seemed things had changed between her and Leah. But with so much going on, she hadn’t given it much thought. Until now. Since last week’s harvest party,

Leah, like everyone else, had become well aware that Maggie and Jed might be entering into a new phase of their relationship. But so far, that relationship seemed to be developing slowly, which was perfectly fine with Maggie. She had only seen Jed once since the party, and that was when they’d met for lunch a couple of days ago. Even then, the warm look in his eyes had convinced her that nothing between them had changed a bit. She felt content to allow all the time necessary for them to become better acquainted with each other. Plus, she reasoned, they were both busy people with many responsibilities. There seemed no need to hurry anything along.

“Hey there, Maggie,” called Clyde as she approached the front porch of the newspaper office. “I think I can feel snow in my bones.”

“Really?” she smiled. “The forecast is for a light dusting.”

He adjusted the ear flaps on his plaid wool hunting cap. “Wouldn’t be surprised if we got us several inches by tomorrow.”

“Well, that’d be welcome, wouldn’t it? Say, Clyde, I’m sure you know Arnold Westerly…”

“You bet I do. Arnold and I go way back. But I haven’t seen the old guy in a coon’s age. Why’re you asking?”

“I’m on my way to see him right now. I’m about to blow open what could be a fairly big story.”

Clyde rubbed his hands together with enthusiasm. “A big story? About old Arnold? Can’t imagine what that could possibly be, Maggie girl.”

She glanced around to see if anyone was within earshot, and then quickly explained about Greg and Rick’s land scheme. “Want to join me for this interview?”

“Oh boy, would I love to! But I’ve got to meet an old buddy of mine today. He came over from the valley to spend the weekend at my cabin and do some pheasant hunting. But you better get to the bottom of this, Maggie. Arnold’s a good guy, and I don’t like the idea of anyone, and especially not the likes of Greg Snider, taking advantage of the old feller.” Clyde clenched his fists and growled. “And after all that anti-development nonsense Snider put us through last summer! Well, all I can say is you better nail this story good and we’ll blast it all across the front page in next week’s edition.”

She grinned. “You can count on it. Have a good weekend hunting with your buddy, Clyde.”

“Yep. But I want to hear all about Arnold first thing come Monday morning.”

“Yes, sir.” She tossed him a mock salute.

“That’s my girl.” His face softened. “Sure good to have you back, Maggie. You had me fretting something fierce while you were gone off in California all that time. Feared you might change your mind about us and not come back.”

“Don’t worry, Clyde. I’ve finally figured out where my home is.”

“And don’t you go off and forget it none, either!”

Chapter 2

Maggie had never been in the area where the Westerly farm was located. But now she understood why Greg and Rick had been so eager to get their hands on it as she admired the lovely, pastoral piece of land with a stream cutting through the middle. Although much larger than her property, it was similar with its wide-open spaces and ponderosa pine forest along the boundaries. It lacked the full mountain views that she so enjoyed on her place, but all in all it was a gorgeous piece of carefully tended farmland. The rich, dark soil of recently tilled fields and the old-fashioned barn with silo with farm machinery parked nearby indicated it was still a working farm. And there, nestled beneath several old willow trees, was a charmingly old, single-story farmhouse with a wide, if slightly sagging, covered porch. She parked in the gravel driveway and walked up to the front door to be greeted by the friendly barks of a black-and-white dog, its tail wagging happily.

“You must be Maggie Carpenter,” called a raspy voice from around the side of the porch. An elderly man in clean but faded overalls removed his felt hat and approached her, extending a work-worn hand in her direction.

“Yes, and you must be Mr. Westerly.” She shook his hand and was surprised at the wiry strength beneath the wrinkled exterior.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance.” His eyes were warm and friendly and his smile seemed sincere. “I see you’ve met my Lizzie.” He smiled down on the dog. “Good girl, Lizzie.”

“Is she a Border collie?” Maggie stroked the dog’s smooth head, noticing that one of her eyes was murky and gray, probably the result of age and cataracts.

“Purebred.” He grinned proudly. “I owned her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother. But she’s the last one for me.”

Maggie nodded with understanding, suspecting that Mr. Westerly was afraid he wouldn’t last long enough to own another dog. “Well, she seems like a very well-mannered girl.”

“That she is. Please excuse me for keeping you waiting on the porch, especially when it’s getting so cold outside. I think we’ve got some snow on the way. Come inside. You’ll find I’m not much of a housekeeper—that was always Nellie’s territory, God rest her soul.” He led her into a dimly lit parlor with furnishings that appeared as if they hadn’t been changed or moved for more than fifty years. “Excuse the dust and have a seat,” he said. “I’ve made us some fresh coffee. That is, unless you would rather have tea. My Nellie always preferred tea.”

“No, coffee is perfect. And you shouldn’t have gone to such trouble—”

“It’s no trouble.” He waved his hand and left.

Maggie sat on the plum-colored sofa, running her hand along the stiff camel-hair fabric, still scratchy after all these years. On one side of the sofa sat a platform rocker and on the opposite side, a tufted armchair covered in a faded cabbage-rose fabric. In the far corner stood a dark upright piano with a painted porcelain lamp centered on the top, its shade a faded pink with silk tassels all around. Numerous decorative porcelain figures posed on tables and shelves throughout the room. They’d probably belonged to the wife—Nellie. All of the figurines were of children and animals—quite a nice collection actually. Maggie glanced with interest at a tall and completely filled bookshelf by the door. It seemed someone was a reader.

“Here we go,” said Mr. Westerly as he set a neatly arranged tray onto the low table in front of the couch. Some of the coffee had sloshed out of the dainty cup and into the saucer, but Maggie discreetly dabbed the excess with a small paper napkin, then sipped her coffee, expecting it to taste like the powdery, tasteless instant her grandmother had always used. To her surprise it wasn’t half bad.

“Good coffee,” she said, pulling out her notepad and tape recorder in preparation for the interview.

“It’s Folgers. I don’t drink anything but Folgers. Haven’t for years.” He looked at the recorder. “What’s that little thing?”

“It’s a miniature tape recorder. We reporters often use these to get our facts straight. Do you mind if I record our conversation?”

He grinned. “Not at all. Is this like being on the radio or TV?”

She smiled. “Sort of.” She turned on the recorder and said the date and location. “Mr. Westerly, for today I’d planned to mostly ask questions about the future of your farm, but it has occurred to me that you might also have some interesting historical stories to tell—”

“Well, after living for ninety-two years, I just might have a tale or two.”

She laughed. “That’s what I figured. But since Scott Galloway handles our historical column, I’d like him to schedule that interview for another time—if that’s okay with you.”

“Galloway? Is he one of Jack Galloway’s boys?”

“Actually, Jack is Scott’s grandfather. Scott’s dad is Sam Galloway.”

“Young Sam Galloway has a grown-up son?” Mr. Westerly scratched his nearly bald head. “Don’t know how so many years went by so fast and I didn’t even notice. But sure, I’d like to talk to this young Galloway man.”

“Good. You can be thinking about what stories you’d like to tell, and maybe get together some photographs or other memorabilia. Now, I have some questions about your farm. First, how long have you owned it?”

“My pa came out here with my ma in the spring of 1901. He came from a farm family back in Virginia. But there were six sons and not enough land to go around, so my pa, being the most adventuresome of the bunch, decided to come out to Oregon. He bought the land for ten dollars an acre.” Mr. Westerly laughed. “I know that sounds dirt cheap now, but back then it was no small thing to come up with $2,000.”

“But what a good investment for your father.”

“Sure was. I was born a few years later. Then my sister came along, and another brother. All deceased now. Seems a mite strange that I’m the oldest and the only one alive.”

“You must be living right.” She looked into his eyes. “Do you have any descendants?”

He sipped his coffee, and then nodded. “My son, Wilmar, lives down in New Mexico. He’s retired now. Wilmar has two daughters, Jeanette and Linda. They used to come out here every summer to visit. And oh, how my Nellie enjoyed those two. Wilmar’s girls are both in their forties now, with nearly grown kids of their own. Jeanette has two boys, both in high school. And Linda has a daughter just starting college. I’ve only seen Linda’s girl a couple times. But Jeanette’s been out here with the boys quite a bit, although not for the last year or two—the boys are busy now with sports and whatnot.”

“Do you have any other children? Or just the one son.”

“We had a daughter. Pretty little thing—looked just like her mother. But we lost her in the winter of ‘38. Saddest day of my life.” He shook his head and set down his cup. “Grief just about killed my Nellie.” His gaze swept over the glass figurines. “That’s when I started buying her those little glass doo-dads. They seemed to help her get over losing our little Annie somehow…”

“I had been admiring that collection.” She glanced to her notes and continued. “You mentioned that you had a brother and sister who’ve both passed on. Do you have any nieces or nephews?”

“Yep. My brother Howard had three children—two girls and a boy. ‘Course they’re all about retirement age by now.” He chuckled. “Though I never did understand how a man could turn sixty-five and just up and decide to quit working.”

“Maybe that’s why you’ve enjoyed such a long life.”

“Rightly said, I’m sure. Let’s see now. I was telling you about my family. I had a sister too. She never married or had children. Taught school right up until the day she died. Miss Jane Westerly—she was a good woman.”

“And I imagine you’ve got some great-nieces and nephews then.” Maggie glanced at her notes. “They’d be Howard’s grandchildren.”

“I can see you’re listening real careful. Yes, Howard’s children. I think they live in California still. He had a girl and a boy—Clara and Howie. They both got married and had children, but I can’t tell you much about them.”

“I’m amazed at how well you can remember what you do, Mr. Westerly.”

“Nellie always thought family was important. She used to keep up with everyone with letters and birthday cards and whatnot. I’ve tried to continue, but other than Christmas cards…” His voice trailed off.

“I think you’re doing very well to send out Christmas cards. I never sent a single one last year, myself.” She leaned forward and looked into his creased face. “Actually, the main reason I’m curious about your family is because I can’t help but wonder if you’d ever considered leaving your farm to any of your relatives.”

“I’d sure have liked that, but no one ever seemed real interested. Jeanette and Linda always liked coming out as kids, but then they grew up. And although Jeanette used to bring her boys, they’re so busy with their own lives these days…” He reached over and patted Lizzie’s head and smiled sadly. “I guess me and Lizzie here are just the last of our breed.”

“I suppose that explains your willingness to sell the farm then.”

“So the cat’s out of the bag now.” Mr. Westerly leaned back into the chair and exhaled slowly. “Rick asked me to keep all this under my hat for the time being. I’m not real sure why though. Don’t know why anyone would care about an old man selling his farm.”

“What made you decide to sell?”

“Well, I never really planned to do that. I figured to keep it in the family. And at one point I’d hoped to leave it to my granddaughter, Jeanette. Of all the children, she seemed the one to understand this land the best. She really loved everything about the farm. Used to get up early and go out and help me all the time. And her youngest son, Bradley, is a lot like that too.”

“Then why not leave it to her?”

“I offered, but Jeanette said it wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the family.”

“But it sounds like no one else was interested.”

“They weren’t interested in the farm, to be sure. But more’n likely they’d be interested in the money.”

“I see…” She nodded, considering all this. “But what about leaving the farm to Jeanette with a stipulation that if she ever sold the property, the proceeds would be divided fairly among the others?”

Mr. Westerly frowned. “That’s not a bad idea. Don’t know why that never occurred to me before…”

“What made you decide to sell to Rick Tanner and Greg Snider?”

“I’m not selling to Greg Snider,” he corrected her sharply. “I’m selling to Rick. Those Tanners have been good neighbors the last couple of years. First, the dad began helping me out. Then Bill, Rick’s brother, stepped in. After he moved away, Rick started helping me out. Our farms adjoin and young Rick understands and respects the land just like I do. I know he’ll keep this farm running in tip-top shape, and that’s real important to me.”

Maggie was speechless. Did he actually believe that Rick planned to continue farming this land? “Uh, is the sale of your property final yet?” she asked weakly.

“We signed papers last week.”

“Is Rick’s dad involved in the sale too?”

“Not directly. You see, he’s in a nursing home now. He’s quite a bit younger than me, but he’s got that Alzheimer’s sickness where you can’t remember anything—poor old feller went walking out in the snow last winter without a single stitch of clothing on, nearly froze himself to death.”

“I see. And Rick told you that he plans to continue farming—uh, indefinitely?”

Mr. Westerly nodded. “That’s right. You see, Rick’s like me in that regard. Can’t stand to be away from the dirt for more than a day or so.”

“It’s strange,” she began cautiously, unsure of how to best proceed. “I’d heard that Greg Snider was involved in this transaction too.”

Mr. Westerly slapped his knee and laughed. “I don’t know where you got that notion. Looks to me like Greg Snider’s got enough problems on his hands with his own family’s farm. The Snider place is just south of me, but they’ve let it go to wrack and ruin. Hank Snider’s got arthritis real bad, and the youngest son, Billy, was working the farm for a while, but then he just up and left. From what I hear, Greg doesn’t lift a finger to help out. Now there’s a farm that needs to be sold—and soon. I’m just glad Rick is taking my farm over while it’s still in good shape. Nothing worse than seeing what you spent your whole life working on going to pot.”

“And where will you live, now that the farm is sold?”

“Right here, of course. From the start Rick said there’d be no need for me to move out of my house. I’ll just continue on as always, puttering around, helping Rick out when I can. It’s no secret that I’m getting on in years. I don’t expect to be around too much longer. ‘Course you never know…”

Maggie swallowed hard as she imagined huge caterpillar tractors tearing up his beautiful farmland to prepare for cheesy condos and golf courses. But certainly Greg and Rick didn’t plan to do all this with poor Mr. Westerly sitting in his little house looking on! She continued to ask more questions. Dates and facts. And she discreetly managed to find out what he’d been paid for the farm and how he planned to divide the sum up between all of his father’s descendants.

“That seems very fair of you, Mr. Westerly.” She closed her notebook. “Now, are you sure you don’t mind me printing up this information—things like the selling price and all that?”

He shook his head. “I don’t have any secrets. Nothing to hide.”

She sighed. Unfortunately, not everyone in this transaction had been so honest. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Westerly.”

He waved his hand in dismissal. “It’s been a real pleasure. I should be thanking you. But honestly, I don’t see how this makes for much of a story. Don’t know why anyone’d care about me selling my farm.”

She looked into his faded eyes. The color reminded her of the sky today—pale shades of gray. “Mr. Westerly,” she began slowly, glancing to see that the recorder was still running. “I want to be completely honest with you, okay?”

“Of course. I’d expect you to be. Is something wrong?”

“I’m not sure. But I’ve heard, and maybe this is just a rumor—I plan to check everything out completely before I write my story—but Greg Snider’s wife told me that Greg and Rick were purchasing your property together… as partners.” She wanted to add “in crime,” but controlled herself.

Mr. Westerly’s face clouded over. “But why would Greg Snider be interested in my farm? He can’t even manage his own.”

“Because, from what I heard, their plan is to develop it.”

“Develop it?” His face grew puzzled. “Develop it into what?”

She drew in a deep breath. “I’ve heard that Greg and Rick plan to turn all three of these farms into a very large community development with condominiums and maybe even a golf course—”

“No!” Mr. Westerly abruptly stood, sending his cup and saucer to the hardwood floor with a loud crash of shattered china.

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Maggie fell to her knees and began picking up the shards of broken porcelain. “And this was such a pretty cup—”

“No,” said Mr. Westerly again, only more quietly this time. “What you’ve heard is not true. It’s just some mean rumor concocted up by Greg Snider’s wife. To be completely honest, those Sniders aren’t the nicest of people. Over the years I’ve tried to be friendly with Hank, but he was always a cantankerous fellow. Still, I’m certain that what you heard is a falsehood, Mrs. Carpenter. You go and speak directly to Rick Tanner and he’ll straighten you out, I’m sure of it.”

She forced a stiff smile to her lips as she set the broken cup and saucer onto the tray and stood. “I really do hope you’re right, Mr. Westerly. I certainly don’t want this to be true. You’ve created a perfectly beautiful farm here, and the best thing I can imagine is for it to continue for many, many years to come.”

He smiled and patted her reassuringly on the arm. “And so it will, my dear. So it will.”

“But if I find out anything different, say, than what you’ve been led to believe—do you mind if I include it in my article?”

“You just print the truth, Mrs. Carpenter. That’s all anyone expects.”

“But what if the truth doesn’t match what you’ve been told?”

“Then let the chips fall where they may.” He frowned. “But don’t you worry about that, because Rick is an honorable man. I trust him like my own flesh and blood, and he knows that.”

She reached out and shook his hand. “It’s been a real pleasure to meet you, Mr. Westerly. Like I said, I’ll have Scott schedule another interview with you for our historical column.”

“Then I’ll get busy and dig up some things. You know, I love to read and I used to be a bit of a writer myself. I wrote in journals and such—’course they wouldn’t be of much interest to anyone now except to an old fool like me.”

“You never know. I’d like to see them.”

“I’ll find them for you, Mrs. Carpenter. And I’ll look forward to seeing this story in the paper next week. Just write the truth, that’s all I ask.”

“You have my word, Mr. Westerly.”

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