“It sounds simple,” Dad commented, as he glanced through the text book on land management that we'd brought home. “But this is one heck of a big book. Maybe it's not as simple as it sounds?” He looked up at me, over the wire rims of his reading glasses.
We were sitting around the living room after dark, sipping chamomile tea and eating the butterspice cookies Susanna had made12. The soft glow of kerosene lamps lit the room from a table near Mom's spinning wheel, and from the table next to Dad. I felt sleepier and more relaxed than I had for days. It was so good to be home.
“I think it's difficult to lay out hard and fast rules on how it works,” I answered. “Every piece of land is different, and ultimately you have to watch the land and occasionally adjust your herd numbers and rotation. That's the part I'm still not sure about, but I think Jeremy can help us figure that out.”
Dad put the book aside, on top of a stack of books already sitting on the table next to him. “It looks like we're going to need some electric fencing, or herd dogs,” he said, removing his glasses. “What's your plan?”
“Oh, we forgot to mention that,” Ramona answered, as she bent over to refill Dad's cup with tea. “You tell him, Will, I have to go back to the kitchen.” She glanced at me and I nodded.
“Yeah, Dad, I checked online from Molly's computer over the weekend and found a used electric fence set-up for a hundred bucks. Some guy down on the Rio Grande had it, and it looks practically new. It will be enough to set up two paddocks at a time, which should be big enough for my six cows.”
“Do you have an opinion on where I should start with the planned grazing?” Dad asked me as he leaned down to pick up a ball of yarn. He tossed it back to Anna. Mom's spinning wheel made a soft whirr-whirr-whirring noise as she worked the pedal and drafted the fluffy wool into a thin flow of fibers that resulted in a fine but sturdy thread. The spool grew fatter and fatter as the wheel turned.
I thought about Dad's question for a couple of minutes, knowing he wouldn't mind the delay. Susanna was sitting close beside me, weaving a rug on a small lap loom I'd built for her last birthday. She was going to need a bigger one soon. Her weaving was so good the little rugs she'd made could be used to make bags and purses that anyone would be proud to carry. She glanced up at me, checking to see if I was watching her.
“You're doing really good,” I said. She smiled happily, lifting her shoulders in a little shrug. Anna sat at her feet, laboriously winding up the ball of yarn that she'd accidentally knocked out of the basket and across the room. She smiled up at me too, thinking I'd been talking to her. Her face was rosy pink like the wool in her hands.
“I'm doing a good job,” Anna agreed, and Susanna giggled.
“Anywhere, Dad,” I answered at last, looking across the room. “The funny thing about planned grazing is that, to do it effectively, you're probably going to need more cows.”
“Who would have thought!” Mom exclaimed in surprise, looking up from her spinning wheel. “How many can this five hundred acres support, do you think?”
“From what Jeremy said, you'll use more animals as your land recovers. When there is more grass to be eaten down, you'll need more animals. The trick is to keep them moving, never in the same place for long enough to eat the grass down to the roots. Later on, you won't have to move them as often, and you'll probably need more of them to keep the grass eaten down. The exception would be if there is a drought, and then you'll know ahead of time if you should sell a few.”
“That's just amazing,” Dad said, shaking his head. “I'm really glad you guys went.”
“Me too,” Ramona agreed. She sat down on the couch between Dad and Jake, where she began to knit something small and blue that eventually took on the shape of a child's mitten, probably for Anna. Jake was working on a bridle, oiling the leather and replacing the chin strap. There was a smell of Neat's foot oil mixed with the fainter scent of lanolin in the wool Mom was spinning. The odor of burning kerosine from the lanterns blended with sweet smell of the chamomile tea we were drinking. It was not an unpleasant mixture of aromas, all distinctly natural and familiar.
“Jeremy and Molly want to come out in June,” I told Dad, trying to keep my announcement as casual as possible. But everyone in the room, except for Mona, paused in their various activities to look up at me and hear more.
“Jeremy has a lot of experience and will be able to help us set up a herd management plan for both farms,” I explained.
“Both farms?” Jake echoed, cocking his head to one side questioningly. “What other farm?”
“Will's,” Mom answered, taking the full spool of yarn off of the spinning wheel. “It'll be a working farm before long. Are Jeremy and Molly a couple?” she asked, looking at Ramona.
“No,” Mona shook her head. “They're just friends and classmates.” She glanced at me, and away again, and I knew she wouldn't say anything if I didn't. I took a deep breath, wondering what to say. Mom was looking at me already with a curious smile around the corners of her eyes.
“Molly's. . .” I hesitated. “Molly's pretty cool. I am interested to see her reaction to farm life, and what you guys think about her,” I said slowly, watching as Susanna began to weave again. She laid down her shuttle and glanced up at me with her mouth open in surprise.
Everyone was quiet for so long that I finally had to look around the room. The whole family was staring at me and I felt my face get hot. Ramona giggled, and ducked her head, knitting faster than ever.
Jake sat forward on the couch and asked, “What? What does that mean? Do you like her? Is she. . . I mean, what does she look like?”
At this, my whole family started laughing, including me. Then the questions started, and everyone had something to say or ask. The various projects involving wool and leather were laid aside and forgotten.
“What does she like to do?” Susanna asked.
“Does she have brothers and sisters?” Anna interrupted.
“Does she have a sense of humor?” Jake asked dubiously.
“How old is she?” Anna asked again, hoping Molly was five years old.
Ramona answered many of the questions and finally Mom asked her seriously,
“Do you like her, Ramona?”
Ramona was quiet for a moment, thinking, and I realized I was holding my breath, waiting for her answer. I remembered our conversation on the drive home, and Mona's comments to me about Molly.
She nodded and said, “Yes, I guess I do. She's a lot like Jake, actually.”
“Like me!” Jake exclaimed in dismay and everyone laughed again.
“Oh, she's not big, ornery, and tough as nails,” Ramona answered, shaking her head. “But she is . . . loud and enthusiastic about everything. She's persistent and a little stubborn. But at the same time, she's tender-hearted and passionate about the things she believes.”
“I'm not tender-hearted!” Jake protested, but he seemed pleased with Ramona's description.
“Ramona's right,” I said to Jake. “You and Molly are a lot a like. I hadn't thought of that.”
“I like her already,” Dad said, smiling.
“I can't wait to see her hair,” Susanna added. “I always wished I had red hair.”
“Molly hates her hair,” Ramona stated flatly. “It's really curly too, and she doesn't know what to do with it.”
“Oh, that's a shame!” Mom said. “Curly and red!”
“I know,” I shook my head. “I wish she'd let it loose. Hair like that should be flaunted.”
Everyone was quiet again, watching me curiously, and I grinned. “You guys just wait,” I told them. “Molly may not be cut out for this kind of life, and I'm not going to marry someone that can't live this way. We'll just have to wait and see what she's made of. Besides, she may decide she doesn't like me at all.”
“Sheesh, nobody's that dumb,” Susanna said, rolling her eyes.
“If she's really like me, she'll want to beat you up every other day,” Jake said. He wore a mischievous grin that defied the suggestion there could be a feminine version of himself.
“And not be able to,” Ramona added, elbowing him. He growled and elbowed her back, and Ramona exclaimed, “Ouch!”
Dad reached across Ramona's shoulders to grip the back of Jake's neck warningly.
“Don't hurt your sisters,” he said quietly. “Girls can hit you, but you can never hit back.”
“Sorry, Ramona,” Jake said, dropping his head in genuine regret. In return, she grinned and kissed him on the cheek.
“Hey!” he protested and moved away. “That's not fair!” But he sat back on the couch right next to her, and I was sure I saw a smile around the corners of his eyes.
“One of these days, Jake. . .” Dad chuckled. “You'll fall in love with a cute little girl of your own, and you won't be able to get enough kisses!”
“What! Don't you get enough kisses, Dad?” Mom asked in mock dismay from behind her spinning wheel. Dad took off his reading glasses and winked at Mom.
“Get a room, you guys,” Jake said with an exaggerated grimace and we all laughed.
“That's a good idea,” Dad nodded, yawning. “Let's hit the sack.”