Roxanne Wexworth was less than thrilled with Tad’s request for a ride to the cherry orchard. When she pointed out that it was a two-hour drive, Tad was delighted it was so close. When Roxanne suggested she take the bus as far as Polson, and Uber from there to the orchard, Tad explained she couldn’t part with the cash. When Roxanne gripped the edge of her desk and asked with a grit-toothed smile, “Why don’t you thumb a ride on the side of the highway?” Tad replied, “I guess I will!” and, slinging her pack over her shoulder, cheerfully exited the offices of Harper and Duff Legal.
Afraid what her senior partners would say if the heir to an estate they managed turned up murdered, Roxanne grabbed her car keys and followed.
Tad Lee requested only one stop along the way. That was a hardware store, where she procured a small but bold black and orange sign proclaiming FOR SALE BY OWNER.
At a glance, Tad recognized Flathead as a large glacial lake; the hill before the town of Polson was clearly an ancient moraine, the detritus the glacier had pushed up at its southern terminus. To the west, the lake was held in by gently rolling mountains. To the east, a high range ran straight as an arrow north to south. Tad’s eyes glittered with the thought of trails unexplored. Roxanne followed a highway that threaded between the eastern mountains and the shore. On occasion, the terrain plummeted from the peaks to the water, the road hugging the mountainsides. At other times, the landscape widened, giving space to thick Ponderosa forest and little homes and cherry orchards. Lots and lots of cherry orchards.
Tad had spent plenty of days under hot summer suns picking fruit alongside migrant workers, saving up money for the next adventure, getting to know other people from other places. These fruit trees weren’t far different from others she’d come to know: Carefully spaced in rows, surprisingly short and scraggly, a colony of overgrown shrubs with grandiose dreams of being something bigger, if only their keepers didn’t keep trimming them back so they’d channel their energy into their fruit. Shanties lined the highway with broad, open windows and large signs that said CHERRIES in bright red paint. At other orchards, boards tacked to trees read U PICK.
At length, Roxanne pulled off the highway and through an opening in a barbed wire fence. A timber arch spanning the drive announced that they had arrived at Curiosity Farm. The lawn, dotted with cherry trees, sloped toward the lake, the grass grown tall between the rows. Small outbuildings were scattered around the yard, dominated by a large shed to the left of the drive, its sliding doors crosshatched with X’s, its red paint peeling. To the right stood a gabled, two-story house, its narrow wood siding a matching cracked red, its sagging front porch a distressed white. The windows were dusty and cobwebbed. A rusted pickup, circa 1950’s, sat up to its windshield in grass and overgrown weeds.
“Well!” said Tad, exiting the car, “this place is real quaint! It’s like Thomas Kinkade and Norman Rockwell met in a picture frame salvaged from a junkyard.”
Roxanne endeavored to talk Tad into returning with her to Polson, where Tad could find a cheap motel, but Tad declined, insisting that the moon-windowed outhouse was more luxury than she was used to. She removed her gear and her FOR SALE sign from Roxanne’s back seat, then, like a proper host, followed her guest’s car to the end of the drive, where she stood waving and leaning against a wooden fencepost. When Roxanne’s car was gone, Tad slapped her FOR SALE sign onto the fencepost, securing it with a stray loop of barbed wire, then checked the small red mailbox. Inside should be the copy of the will.
Instead, the mailbox was completely empty.
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