The barley was in. The stubble of it lay bent-broke in the fields as far as the eye could see, rows of golden soldiers, endlessly falling, from the river to the blacktop road. On a clear evening, with the harvesting done, you could see both river and road from the farmhouse porch: every acre, lined in sunset light, of Roadstead Farm.
So I was the first to see him. Everyone claimed a sighting in the stories that grew up later: a dark man, with a dark walk, striding bravely through the dying grainfields. But it wasn’t like that. I was the first to see the stranger when he came to the lakelands, and he stumped up the road like a scarecrow stuffed with stones. Marthe’s chimney smoke drifted to meet him, a thin taste of home fires. He caught its scent, his head tilted into the breeze, and hesitated at the weathered signpost where our farm began.
It can’t be, I thought, breathless, and then he straightened—and strode up the gravel path to our door.
For a moment I forgot the argument Marthe and I had just had: every vicious thing I’d said to my sister. I leaned forward, fingers wrapped around the porch rail, and squinted at the silhouette ghosting through our fields: The fields Thom and I had planted together before the men marched off to war. The fields I’d harvested alone—and was still working alone, plowing them under for the winter, when I wasn’t having pointless, nasty arguments with Marthe over nothing more than a heel of bread.
No, I told myself. It was about more than the stupid bread.
It was about . . . everything.
I’d known right away that asking was a mistake. Marthe had been wrestling with the autumn canning since sunrise, as behind on our winter stores as I was on the woodpile, and the second the word bread came out of my mouth, her face fell into put-upon fatigue. And suddenly I couldn’t bear to hear her tell me for the thousandth time—like I was a slow child and not half owner of Roadstead Farm—“Hallie, I need you to try harder.”
One more chore before I could taste a bite of supper, because Thom was gone and the war had killed half our harvest. Because of the November wind outside, the woodpile that wouldn’t get us past January, the snarled hole in the chicken coop that let the foxes in. Every time she said it, I could see the disappointment in her eyes: self-centered, childish, useless Hallie. Hallie, not strong enough.
“I’m trying, okay?” I pleaded, exhausted, hungry, cold. Marthe stared down at me, sweat-smeared and impatient; no mud on her boots and no sympathy in her eyes. She doesn’t understand, I realized, and then it hit me: She doesn’t care.
“It’s easy for you to say,” I shouted, wild with hurt. “It’s not you out there, working yourself dead.”
Marthe stiffened. Put down her cheesecloth, slow. She didn’t say anything; she didn’t have to. She was just in the kitchen working herself dead, seven months round with Thom Clarlund’s child. The doorway stood deadly quiet between us, as wide as the wound of Thom’s missingness. And then my sister did something she never had in the six years since Papa’s funeral: she shut the door in my face.
I stared at that door a full minute before it sank in: You’ve finally gone too far.
It had been eight years since the fight that ended things between Papa and Uncle Matthias; eight years since my uncle went his lonely way. Marthe and I—at this rate we wouldn’t even make it to my seventeenth birthday.
But none of that—none of it—mattered if Thom was finally home.
The wind stirred my hair, stirred the edges of that ragged silhouette in the broken barley fields. Please, I thought, be Thom. Not some man two inches too tall who walked all wrong, who didn’t wave to me—
I let myself believe it for thirty delicious seconds before I let the truth in: It wasn’t Thom. Just another veteran coming up the road, with a family who was waiting and wouldn’t have to wait much longer. Just another stranger.
The man set down his pack five feet from the porch rail, in the soft gravel and dust. He was full-grown, but not long to it: twenty-three or four and long with muscle, his brown forearms three shades paler than Thom ever got. He huddled before me in a red-checked flannel work shirt worn threadbare, useless against the chill November breeze. My breath puffed out. It was plain what he wanted. He had a soldier’s sleevebuttons, and his boots were in ribbons.
“We’ve nothing to spare,” I muttered, too distracted to say it louder. He wasn’t Thom, Marthe was still furious, and I was still in trouble. I stared into the dirt at his feet: Please, please go away. “You might try the Masons down the road.”
He neglected to pick up his pack immediately, turn around, and never be seen again.
Instead, he took off his cap. There was a shock of black hair under it, pulled back in a cattleman’s tail. “Thank you,” he said, quiet for such a big-shouldered man, “but I’m actually hoping to hire on.”
I blinked. The barley was in. Anyone could see that.
“I’m quick with my fingers,” he kept on. He had an accent more suited to the wild country northward than our lakeland farmsteads and ruins. “And I don’t eat much.”
My hands tightened on the rail. “You’re come from the war.”
The man tucked his chin with a passable country respect.
“You by any chance pass a man on the road, shorter than you by a few inches?” I worked to keep my voice casual. “Twenty-seven, dark skin, brown eyes, name of Thomas Clarlund?”
The stranger pressed his lips together, a hair’s-width, no farther. “I’m afraid I’ve not passed any travelers in some weeks.”
A tiny shudder moved through me, from the rib cage down. I shut my eyes against it: against the empty road and the ruin I’d made of the farm Thom, Marthe, and I had built up together.
“We don’t take on help past harvest,” I said hollowly. His starved face emptied like a water bucket. All I could see inside it was some black-haired mother or sister pacing behind wood walls, weeks north, her door left unlatched past midnight in case he arrived before dawn. “Look, I can spare some apples. I’ll give you apples if you just go home.” Frustration beat hollow fists against my temples. Thom, if you’ve hired on somewhere—“Your people don’t know if you’re alive or dead. You can’t do that to them.”
His smile twisted like a scar. “Don’t worry,” he said crisply. “No one’s waiting for me to turn life normal again.”
I flinched. That wasn’t why I wanted Thom home. That wasn’t it at all.
Something in his...