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==<O>==

Part One: First Plantings


Allan Fitzgerald’s front yard was unusually shallow for a parcel that had once been a working farm. A mere sixty feet separated his front porch from the curb of NY 231. Behind his humble little ranch, his spread extended a quarter mile further eastward, and was almost as wide as it was deep. The previous owner had once operated a moderately successful corn farm there, as had the owner before him, but the viability of so small-scale a farm had come to an end when the massive machines of Lyons-Davis Agricorp rolled into Onteora County.

That didn’t matter to Allan. He’d never been a farmer. The field stood idle. In the barn beside the ranch, the tractor and harvester gathered cobwebs. The old Bellamy farm was merely his retirement home, where he hid more or less comfortably from the world and its reminders of his failures.

Allan didn’t bother much about the field or the barn. When the mood struck him to be outside, he invariably went to sit on the front porch. Traffic on NY 231 was too sparse to annoy him, and the Compton farm across the way was as idle as his own.

That morning, he’d been sitting on his porch for about an hour, musing indifferently over a mediocre fantasy novel, when the girl ambled into view.

Foot traffic on NY 231 was unusual in the extreme. It was a truck route, a bypass for the city of Onteora. It had no sidewalks, and was flanked by no consumer-oriented stores or places of employment. It connected to US 90, forty miles to the west, but those who traveled it eastward were seldom Onteora bound.

At a distance the girl was ordinary-looking: medium height, a broad-shouldered but bosomy build, shoulder-length blonde hair. She appeared to be in her early twenties. She wore a heavy wool sweater, blue jeans, and work boots. A shabby satchel of modest size dangled from her right hand. Her walk was strong but unhurried. A surge of curiosity impelled Allan to lean forward, as he attempted to make out her face.

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