There was a small note on the bulletin board at the Virgin River Presbyterian Church.Apple harvest to begin at Cavanaugh Orchard. Apply in person.
Virgin River newcomer, Nora Crane, studied the board regularly and when she saw the notice asked Reverend Kincaid what he knew about the job. “Very little,” he answered. “It’s a fairly long harvesting season and the Cavanaugh’s like to add a few full-time workers to their staff. Not many, though. I hear they pay pretty well, it’s very demanding work and it’s all over in a few months.”
The words that stuck were pays pretty well. She was holding her two-year-old daughter’s hand and carried nine-month-old Fay in her backpack.
“Can you give me directions to the orchard?” she asked.
He wrinkled his brow. “Nora, it’s a few miles away. You don’t have a car.”
“I’ll have to go there, find out what the pay and hours are. If it’s a good job with good pay, I bet I can afford Day Care at the new school. That would be so good for Berry,” she said of her two year old. “She’s almost never with other children and needs socialization. She’s so shy. And I’m not afraid of walking. I’m not afraid to hitch a ride around here, either — people are generous. And a few miles — that’s really nothing. I’ll get some exercise.”
Noah Kincaid’s frown just deepened. “Walking home could be tough after a long day of physical labor. Picking apples is hard work.”
“So is being broke,” she said with a smile. “I bet Adie would love a little babysitting money to add to her budget. She barely squeaks by. And she’s so wonderful with the girls.” Adie Clemens was Nora’s neighbor and friend. Although Adie was elderly, she managed the girls very well because two-year-old Berry was so well behaved and Fay didn’t get around much yet. Fay had just started crawling. Adie loved taking care of them, even though she couldn’t take them on full time.
“What about your job at the clinic?” Noah asked.
“I think Mel gave me that job more out of kindness than necessity, but of course I’ll talk to her. Noah, there isn’t that much work available. I have to try anything that comes along. Are you going to tell me how to get there?”
“I’m going to drive you,” he said. “We’re going to log the miles and get an accurate distance reading. I’m not sure this is a good idea.”
“How long has that notice been up?” Nora asked.
“Tom Cavanaugh put it up this morning.”
“Oh good! That means not too many people have seen it!”
“Nora, think of the little girls,” he said. “You don’t want to be too tired to take care of them.”
“Oh, thanks, Noah. It’s nice of you to be concerned. I’m going to go ask Adie if she can watch them for a little while so I can go to the orchard to apply. She always says yes, she loves them so much. I’ll be back in ten minutes. If you’re sure you don’t mind giving me a lift… I don’t want to take advantage.”
He just shook his head and chuckled. “Bound and determined, aren’t you? You remind me of someone…”
“Someone just as unstoppable as you. I fell in love with her on the spot, I think.”
“Ellie?” she asked. “Mrs. Kincaid?”
“Yes, Mrs. Kincaid,” he said with a laugh. “You have no idea how much you two have in common. But we’ll save that for another time — hurry up and check in with Adie and I’ll take you to the Cavanaugh’s.”
“Thanks!” she said with a wide smile, dashing out of the church and down the street as quickly as she could.
It would never occur to Nora that she had anything in common with the pastor’s wife. Ellie Kincaid was so beautiful, so confident and clearly the kindest person she’d ever known. And by the way Noah looked at his wife, he adored her. It was kind of fun to see the preacher was a regular man; he gazed at his wife with hunger in his eyes, as if he couldn’t wait to get her alone. They weren’t just a handsome couple, but also obviously a man and woman very deeply in love.
Nora went straight to Adie Clemens’s door.
“Just bring me some diapers and formula,” Adie said. “And good luck.”
“If I get the job and have to work full time, do you think can help me out a little bit?”
“I’ll do whatever I can,” Adie said. “Maybe between me, Martha Hutchkins and other neighbors, we can get you covered.”
“I hate to ask everyone around here to take care of me…” But hate it or not, she didn’t have many choices. She’d landed here with the girls and hardly any belongings right before last Christmas — just one old couch, a mattress that sat on the floor and the clothes on their backs. It was Adie who alerted Reverend Kincaid that Nora and her family were in need, and the first gesture of help came in the form of a Christmas food basket. Through the generosity of her neighbors and the town, a few necessary items had been added to their household — an old refrigerator, a rug for the floor, sheets and towels, clothes for the children. The church had regular rummage sales and Mrs. Kincaid skimmed the used clothing to help dress Nora as well. Her neighbor three doors down, Leslie, invited Nora to use her washer and dryer while she was at work and Martha offered her laundry as well. She’d never be able to repay all these kindnesses, but at least she could work to make her own way.
Picking apples? Well, as she’d told Noah, she’d do just about anything.
Noah drove a beat up old pickup truck that Nora thought might be older than she was, and it definitely didn’t have much in the way of shocks. As they bounced along the road out to highway 36, Nora had the thought that walking probably wouldn’t be as hard on her spine. But as they trundled along, she became increasingly intimidated by the distance, further than she expected. She wasn’t sure how long it might take to walk it. She’d have to get the mile count from Noah once they arrived. If the odometer actually worked in this old heap of tin.
They turned off 36 and drove down a road, through a gate that stood open and down a tree lined lane. Nora became distracted by the sheer beauty. There was something so pure and homespun about row after row of perfectly spaced apple trees, the fruit in various stages of ripening hung from the boughs, some still small apple green while others wore a slight blush of red. And at the end of what seemed a long driveway through the orchard stood a big house — a white fairy tale house with red shutters and a red front door and a wonderful wrap-around porch with chairs separated by small tables. She couldn’t even imagine the luxury of relaxing on such a porch at the end of a long day. At wide spaces in the road there were large bins, probably for collecting apples. They passed by a fork lift tucked into a row of trees and a bit further down the road, a tractor.
As the house grew closer Nora noticed that there were two large buildings behind it — either barns or very large storage sheds or… Ah, the housing for machinery and farm equipment, she realized, looking into some large open doors. One of the buildings bore the sign Cavanaugh Apples.
For a girl who grew up in a small house on a busy street in Berkeley, she looked at this house, land and operation in both fascination and envy. A person would be very lucky to grow up in such a place.
There was a collection of pickup trucks and four men standing outside a door at the end of one of the buildings.
She turned toward Reverend Kincaid’s voice.
“You probably should get going. While you go talk to Tom Cavanaugh, I’m going to pay a visit to Maxie, the lady of the house. She’s almost always in the kitchen or on the porch.”
“Where should I go?” she asked, suddenly far less sure of herself.
He pointed toward the short line of men. “Looks like that’s the place.”
“Right,” she said. She got out of the truck, jumped down, but before she closed the door she peered back inside. “Reverend Kincaid, if I need a recommendation, will you give me one?”
She saw him frown again; she knew he was worried about how in the world she’d manage a job like this. Then his frown melted into a smile and he said, “Of course, Nora.”
Noah pulled away from her to park on the drive near the house and she went to stand with the men. “Are you applying for the picking job?” she asked.
All four turned toward her. Only one nodded. Feeling a sense of competition, she assessed them. One was an old guy, and old was relative — he was balding, what was left of his hair was wispy and thin, but he stood straight and tall and appeared to have wide, strong shoulders. One was a teenager, around sixteen years old, good looking and buff. One was a short Mexican man in his twenties, healthy and hearty, and the fourth looked as if he could be his father. “Am I in the right place to apply?”
The older man frowned, the teenager grinned, the older Mexican man looked her up and down and gave her the impression he was merely judging her ability by her size, which was small. And the man who could be his son said, “This is the place. You ever pick before?”
She shook her head.
“Want some advice? Maybe you should tell him you have.”
“Why? Is it hard to learn?”
The men chuckled together. “Hard to do,” the teenager said. “I’ll show you the ropes if you get hired.” Then he looked her over from her head to her feet, but his appraisal was a little more personal. “You sure you’re up to it?”
She sucked in a breath. She’d do anything to take care of her girls. Mel Sheridan and Reverend Kincaid had helped her get some county subsistence — food stamps and Medicaid — but that wasn’t enough to live on. She’d been getting by on that plus part time jobs at the clinic and the new school’s summer program, but it was very part time, given her small children.
She wanted to earn her own money. There just hadn’t been much opportunity.
“I’m stronger than I look,” she informed him. “I am. I can’t lie about my experience, though. I have this…” This deal I made with God, she thought dismally. Nora was trying so hard to rectify past mistakes, she wasn’t about to make more along the way. “When I make a commitment, I’m good for it. I’ll take any advice I can get, though. Did you guys see the notice in the church?”
“We pick every year,” the teenager said. “I’ve been picking since junior high, Jerome has been picking for a hundred years,” he said, indicating the older man. “Eduardo and Juan live down the valley and the apples here pay better than the vegetables. Juan’s wife has her own little business — they’re doing pretty good these days, right Juan?”
The older Mexican gentleman nodded solemnly. Proudly.
“Tom usually works around the grove; it’s usually Mrs. Cavanaugh and her foreman, Junior, who handle the hiring.” The boy put out his hand. “I’m Buddy Holson, by the way.”
She took the hand with a smile. “Nora,” she said. “Nice to meet you.”
The latch to the door finally unlocked, the door opened a crack Jerome went in first. He came out just a moment later and then Eduardo and Juan entered together. They were out in a second.
“We’ve all worked here before,” Buddy explained. “Everything is on file for the regulars. Good luck.”
“Thanks,” she said. “Hope to see you around.”
“You bet, me too,” he said, giving his hat a little touch. And Nora realized, he probably thought she was much younger than she was. It would never occur to him she was actually a single mother. “You must live around here.”
“Virgin River,” she said.
“I’m in Clear River. I better go in — see you around.” And he disappeared inside, but was back out in just seconds, slipping a piece of paper into his pocket. With a handsome parting smile and another touch to his hat, he headed for the last pickup parked there.
Nora took a deep breath and pulled open the door. The man behind the desk looked up at her and she was momentarily frozen. For no particular reason, she’d been expecting a much older man — the husband of the Mrs. Cavanaugh who usually managed the hiring. But this was a young man. And so handsome that he almost took her breath away. He had wide shoulders, a tanned face, brown hair, expressive brows and the kind of dark brown eyes that would glitter in the sun. His features might be ordinary, but put together so perfectly, he was a hunk. A hunk with that dangerous wholesome look about him — the look that had trapped her in the past. Her face probably flushed before going completely pale. She had bad luck with such men and had no reason to assume her luck had changed.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“I’m here about the job. The apple picking job.”
“You have experience with apple harvesting?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I’m a very fast learner and I’m strong. I have tons of energy. And I need a job like this.”
“Really? What about this job seems right for you?”
“Reverend Kincaid says it pays pretty well and is kind of short. I’m a single mother and I can probably get help with the kids for a while, then I have two part time jobs in Virgin River to fall back on when the harvest is over. Sounds perfect for someone like me.”
“Well, it might be longer than you think. The end of August to almost December, most years. So I guess it wouldn’t be right for—”
“I might be able to do it — there’s a new Day Care and pre-school in town, if I can afford it.”
“How old are you?” he asked.
He shook his head. “Already a divorced mother at twenty-three?” he asked.
The surprise showed on her face for less than a moment. She stood as straight as possible. “There are some questions you’re not allowed to ask me,” she informed him. “It’s the law. If they don’t pertain to the job…”
“It’s irrelevant. I’m afraid I’ve already hired my max — all people with experience. I’m sorry.”
That took the starch out of her. Her chin dropped and she briefly looked at the ground. Then she lifted her eyes to his. “Is there any chance something might become available? Because there aren’t many job openings around here.”
“Listen… Your name?” he asked, standing from behind his messy desk proving that he was taller than she even guessed.
“I’m Nora Crane.”
“Listen, Nora, it can be back breaking labor and I mean no offense when I say, you don’t appear to be strong enough for a job like this. We generally hire very muscled men and women. We haven’t ever hired kids or slight women — it’s just too frustrating for them.”
“Buddy’s been working here since junior high…”
“He’s a great big kid. Sometimes you have to carry fifty pounds of apples down a tripod ladder. Our harvesting season is grueling.”
“I can do that,” she said. “I’ve carried my nine month old in a backpack and my two year old in my arms.” She flexed a muscle in her upper arm. “Motherhood isn’t for sissies. Neither is being broke. I can do the work. I want to do the work.”
He stared at her in shock for a moment. “Nine months and two years?”
“Berry will be three before long. They’re beautiful, brilliant and they have a terrible addiction to eating.”
“I’m sorry, Nora. I have all the people I need. Do you want to leave a number in case something comes open?”
“The church,” she said with disappointment. “You can leave a message with anyone at the Virgin River Presbyterian Church. I’ll check in with them every day. Twice a day.”
He gave her a very small smile. “I don’t expect anything to come up, but I know the number if something does.” He wrote down her name and referenced the church phone number beside it. “Thanks for coming out here.”
“Sure. I had to try. And if you hear of anything at all, anywhere at all…”
“Of course,” he said, but she knew he didn’t mean it. He wasn’t going to help her get a job.
She left that little office and went to wait by Noah’s truck, leaning against it. She hoped he had a nice visit with Mrs. Cavanaugh since she had inconvenienced him for no reason. No matter what Tom Cavanaugh had said, she knew he had rejected her as not strong or dependable enough for apple picking.
Life hadn’t always been like this for Nora. Well, it had been mostly difficult, but not like now. She hadn’t grown up poor, for one thing. She’d never been what one could call financially comfortable, but she’d always had enough to eat, a roof over her head, decent if inexpensive clothes to wear. She’d gone to college briefly and during that time had had a part time job, no different from most co-eds. She’d had an unhappy family life, the only child of a bitter single mother. Then she’d found herself to be very susceptible to the flirtations of a hot and sexy minor league baseball player with no earthly clue he’d turn into a hard core drug addict who would dump her and their two children in a tiny mountain town with no money, hardly any means to survive, robbing them of everything but the clothes on their backs so he’d have something to sell for his own, um, recreational use.
Even though times were about as tough as they could get as income went, she’d been lucky to find herself in Virgin River where she had a few good friends and the support of people like Noah Kincaid, Mel Sheridan and her neighbors. It might take a while and a little more luck, but eventually she’d manage to pull it together and give her girls a decent place to grow up.
She heard the slamming of a door — it had the distinct sound of a wooden screen door. There was laughter. When she looked up she saw Noah with an attractive woman with thick white hair cut in a modern, short, blown-out style. She was slightly roundish with a generous bosom and just slightly plump hips; her cheeks were rosy from either makeup or sun and her eyebrows shaped and drawn on with a dark brown pencil. She wore lipstick and laughed, showing a very young, attractive smile. Nora couldn’t guess her age. Fifty-eight? Sixty-four? She looked like she should be hosting a country kitchen cooking show. And then she let go a big laugh, leaning into Noah’s arm as she did so.
Nora straightened, since they were walking toward her. She smiled somewhat timidly, feeling so unsure of herself after being rejected from the job.
“Nora, this is Maxie Cavanaugh. This is her orchard and cider operation.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Nora,” Maxie said, putting out her hand. Nora noticed that she had a bit of arthritis that bent her fingers at the knuckles, but her nails were still manicured in bright red. “So you’re going to pick apples for us?”
“Well, no ma’am,” she said. “Your son said he had enough pickers already and couldn’t use me.”
“Son?” Maxie asked. “Girl, that’s my grandson, Tom, and I raised him. Now what is it Reverend Kincaid told me? You have a couple of little daughters and only part time work at the moment?”
“Yes, ma’am, but I think I’ll go steady in the fall when they need almost full time help at the new school. I’ll get a discount on day care, too. Thing is, it’s a brand new school and still needs all kinds of certification so we won’t get help from the county for a while and I got all excited about a job that could pay pretty well for a couple of… But if there are already enough pickers…”
“I bet there’s room for one more,” she said, smiling. “Wait right here a minute.” And she strode off across the yard to the big barn and its small office.