I dusted off my hands as I finished stacking the last of the potting soil. The huge bags were heavy, but I loved doing the outdoor work early in the mornings, when the sun was still at a sharp angle that cast long shadows of Christmas trees from the surrounding tree farm, covering the greenhouse area.
My next chore was splitting some wood we were going to sell for firewood, and I wanted to get that done before the midday sun hit, but Brodie, my boss, had told me that he wanted to talk to me after I finished with the soil, so I decided to make the trek across the greenhouses to see him.
Working in the ten greenhouses and the huge Christmas tree farm, Fisher Greenhouses & Tree Farm, was one of the best jobs you could have in Holly Well Springs. Brodie Fisher treated me like a member of his family, and caring for all the plants and trees at the top of this mountain was something I loved to do.
I walked up to his house on the property. While it looked like a rustic country cabin on the outside, inside it was modern and impressive. His grandparents had lived there, and they left it to him because he was the one taking over the greenhouses and tree farm business.
As I approached, I saw Brodie and his fiancée, Hannah, laughing about something and holding hands. Those two were always doing that, ever since Hannah had come to town as a writer doing a story for a food magazine. They’d hit it off right away, and they’d been inseparable ever since.
I was glad Brodie had found someone as special as Hannah. A broad smile came to my face as I thought of them getting married in December. It was going to be quite a celebration, and everyone in town would attend. My mind imagined the possibilities. Tracy would have to come home then, wouldn’t she? After all, she was his only sister. Surely, she wouldn’t miss her big brother’s wedding.
As I thought of Tracy, I could feel my mood lowering and my expression changing. Our relationship had taken a bad turn when she went away to the big city, and she’d been gone a long time now. I knew that she had a sort of calling to go to New York. It was something in her heart that she needed to do. That was why I had said goodbye to her, but every day after that had felt like my own heart was torn to shreds.
I could have followed her, and most people with any sense may have done just that, but I knew that deep in my soul, I could only survive in a small-town atmosphere. That was just my nature. A big city would have swallowed me whole.
I knew she was dating someone else now, but I still held out a little hope that she had feelings for me. The last time I saw her, we spoke about it, and I came to terms with their relationship. It made sense in my head, but not in my heart.
Brodie had a huge smile on his face while he looked at Hannah. It was clear just how happy and content he was with their relationship. I wondered right then if there would ever be a time when someone would smile at me the way he was smiling at her. More importantly, I thought, would someone’s face ever light up when she smiled at me, like Hannah’s was lit up now?
They were so involved with laughing and smiling that they didn’t notice me until I was almost on Brodie’s doorstep. Hannah noticed me first. “Hey, Ben. You look a little too serious. Come up and join us for a glass of tea.”
“Thanks, Hannah, but I still have some things to check on before it gets too late.” I turned to Brodie. “You wanted to see me?”
“Yes,” said Brodie. “Sit down and let’s discuss this situation we find ourselves in right now.”
I knew better than to refuse that invitation, so I climbed the stairs and pulled a chair across the pine decking. I gave a little half-smile at the memory of helping Brodie rebuild his deck. It had been a bit worn down when his grandparents left the property to him, so Brodie and I, along with his younger brother, Evan, milled logs into boards and expanded the existing deck. It had been a lot of work, but the finished product was a work of art, and we had spent that night celebrating a job well done.
I sat down in the chair just as Hannah placed an ice-cold glass of tea in my hand.
“This conference couldn’t come at a worse time,” Hannah said.
Brodie took her hand and gave it a squeeze. “I know I don’t have to go,” he said, more to Hannah than me, “but I am not trusting your safety in LA to anyone but me.”
I noticed that Hannah just smiled and squeezed his hand back.
“Anyway, with the patent for the plant formula being approved, we’re presenting it at the Agriculture Commission National Conference,” Brodie said. “We’re leaving tomorrow and will be back Monday before the June Jamboree begins here in town on Wednesday morning.”
“That’s not a problem,” I said. “I’ve got everything handled here.”
He shook his head. “Well, there is one thing. The Forestry Commission is sending an inspector tomorrow from the US Forestry Service to check out the proposed expansion we submitted a few months ago. Everything Dad drew out and Hannah proposed was perfect. The only problem, according to a letter we received yesterday, is that they suspect this area of our land has Indian artifacts buried under it.”
“Indian artifacts?” I asked in surprise.
“Yes,” he said. “It seems that many years ago the Assiniboine Indians claimed that edge of our land as part of theirs. They were called Stoneys because their name means ‘those who cook with stones.’”
“They used a technique called stone boiling,” explained Hannah. “They boiled water using hot rocks.”
I nodded. “That’s interesting.”
Hannah smiled and refilled her iced tea, offering the pitcher to Brodie. He held up his hand and took the handle, their smiles widening as their fingers touched.
“So, what kind of artifacts do they think are there?” I asked.
Brodie poured more tea in his glass. “The Forestry Commission believes that many of their cooking items are buried throughout that area, which includes part of the western area of our land, right where we want to expand.”
I sighed. “So, I suppose this whole thing is going to slow down our expansion.”
“Unfortunately, yes, it is,” he said.
Brodie and I had been talking about the expansion for a long time, and it was finally looking like we were going to make it happen. The tree farm supplied Christmas trees for everyone in Holly Well Springs, as well as all the Christmas trees we needed throughout the town. That was a high number since we had regular festivals here and celebrated Christmas all year long. Just one festival could require more than a dozen trees in the town square park, plus all the trees that lined Main Street, which was split in the center with a green belt that held a row of trees.
Keeping up with that demand was tough, especially when land was limited. The extra space was much needed, and anything slowing that project down was also slowing down the production of trees, even with the town’s magic, which seemed to give tree growth an extra boost. That part was especially important for the giant Christmas trees that were the focal point of the town square, which had to be replaced regularly to keep the display fresh.
“Well, what’s the bad news?” I asked. “How will they find out if there are any artifacts there or not?”
“They’re sending someone out,” Hannah said. “There’s a lady who’s in charge of this at the US Forestry Service, apparently.”
“So that’s the problem,” Brodie said. “She’ll be showing up here while Hannah and I are away at the conference. We can’t pass this opportunity to show off Hannah’s plant food, so we’re going to have to leave you in charge of the US Forestry Service person.”
I groaned and shook my head, rubbing the bridge of my nose. I could already feel a headache coming on. I wasn’t exactly the kind of guy who could wine and dine someone important. I kind of liked to keep to myself since Tracy had left. I was used to just being alone and showing up to work, maybe helping out a little bit if Brodie or someone in town needed something. But socially, I’d pretty much kept to myself for quite a long time now. How was I going to entertain some US Forestry Service woman who was looking for artifacts? I doubted I’d even know what to say to her.
“She’s going to be landing just as we’re taking off,” said Brodie.
“What?” I asked.
I was hoping Brodie and Hannah would at least be here to greet the woman before I had to deal with her.
“That’s just how it’s working out,” he said. “So, I’ll have to leave this in your hands, Ben, at least for the first four days of it.”
“Four days?” I asked.
My headache was now spreading into a knot in my stomach. Logically, I knew that looking for artifacts in a forest would take a while. But my mind had been hoping she’d snap a few photos and leave the same day.
“How long do you think she’ll be snooping around?” I ask.
Hannah giggled. “It’s not snooping. She’ll be doing her job searching for artifacts. That’s an important job, and she needs to be thorough.”
“I suppose,” I said.
“It would be great if she is gone before we get back,” Brodie said. “But there’s really no way to know until she’s here and gets a look at it.”
I nodded, and this time I rubbed my temples.
“Hopefully, she’ll conclude rather quickly that we have the all-clear to start planting trees and building more greenhouses,” Brodie said.
He looked over at Hannah, and they passed an expression that was a bit more sullen than their laughter and smiles just moments ago.
“Truthfully, I have a bad feeling about this.” Brodie shook his head.
“Yeah, so do I,” I said.
I was talking about much more than the artifacts and the expansion. But I didn’t want to let Brodie and Hannah down.
“Well, don’t worry too much about it,” I said. “As I said, I will handle it until you come back.”
“Thanks, Ben,” said Brodie. “I knew we could count on you.”
“Always,” I said.
I meant it, even though I wasn’t crazy about the idea of babysitting a woman from the US Forestry Service while she snooped all over the land we wanted to use. Brodie had always been there for me, and I didn’t want this to interfere with their conference.
Somehow, Hannah had developed a plant food that was nothing short of a miracle. Even the sickest plants seemed to be revived by whatever the mix was that she was using. She never told me how to make it, and even when she applied it, she was a bit secretive, insisting on being alone in the greenhouse. After a course of several days, I’d see amazing results from the plants she had treated.
“Of course, I will give you some advice to help you handle all this,” said Brodie.
I looked at him quizzically.
He just turned to me with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes and said, “Don’t let your temper get the best of you. Oh, and try to act like there is still life in you.”
Hannah looked at him and shook her head.
I stood up, thanked Hannah for the tea, and looked at Brodie. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
I turned and walked off the deck.