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After an old hat and a storm leave modern girl, Tessa Hensen, trapped in a past century and living in the hobbit-like house of a homesteader’s family on the Oklahoma Territory prairie, she is forced to accept help from an infuriating farm boy to get back to her real life.
Tessa lives as twelve-year-old Agnes Campbell while Judd Howard helps her solve the mystery of the hat. Sparks fly between the two of them as his old world and her new world collide. He does everything possible to get rid of her; she longs to escape him and his grumpy, old-fashioned ideas about everything.
Gradually, her unwanted family’s everyday struggle for survival draws Tessa into the past. When Elizabeth—a Kiowa Indian girl—befriends her, the hardships finally seem bearable.
The two girls face a terrifying encounter with an outlaw and an old Christian man sacrifices his life for theirs, forcing Tessa to ask herself the question: Does she really want to leave behind the past…and Judd?
“Tessa?” Mama shouted from the horse barn. “Have you unloaded those boxes, yet? There’s a cloud blowing up in the south. It’ll be storming soon.”
Mama had been to another old farm auction. As usual, she had stuffed the inside of the van so full of boxes of junk they nearly exploded out the back of the van.
I sighed and pulled the first humongous box toward me. It nearly spilled over with dusty books, a tea pot, a yellow cigar box, and a straw hat with faded green ribbons.
“That’s what I’m doing,” I yelled back, fairly sure I was the only kid on earth who had a mother obsessed by old stuff.
I lifted the blue and white china teapot from the box. Pretty, but it had a chipped spout…and a dead spider inside. Gross.
I replaced the pot then picked up a book. Farming on the Plains, A History. Oh, brother. Only Mama would read something like that.
I tossed back the book and reached for the hat. It smelled musty and the brittle straw had aged to the color of honey. I tried it on. Surprisingly, it fit.
The hat’s brim shaded my face from the Oklahoma sun beating down, hot and muggy for April. I tied the ribbons beneath my chin then hoisted the box—it weighed a ton. I staggered toward our brick house. My older brother, Andy, always called me spaghetti arms, but he lifted weights so he had arms like fence posts. I frowned. He was always calling me names. Like this morning when he yelled at me. So what if I drank the last glass of milk? He did it all the time…
I nearly fell through the back door when the knob turned. The box crashed to the floor, but the teapot didn’t break, thank goodness. I glanced at the clock on the wall—four o’clock.
“Jamie,” I yelled to my fourteen-year-old sister, two years older than me. She was probably just lying on her bed, talking on the phone while I unloaded the entire van by myself. “Come help. You never do anything.”
I stomped down the hall to the room we shared—empty. I sighed. She had probably gone to her friend’s house. One of the hat streamers brushed my arm. I’d forgotten I still wore it. I crossed to the mirror over the dresser.
Then I scrambled backward with a shriek.
A girl in a straw hat with green ribbon streamers stared back at me, but she was barefoot and wore a long, faded pink dress with an apron of coarse ivory cloth.
I took a slow step back from the mirror. The girl’s long, brown braids, pixie face, and big, gray-green eyes full of disbelief were mine, but… I looked down.
I still wore my tee shirt, jeans, and my cowgirl boots with pink tops.
The backdoor slammed.
“Tessa, get to the storm cellar right now,” my mother shouted. “Run!”
Overhead, a roar like a fighter jet drowned out my mother’s urgent voice. The hardwood floor vibrated, shimmering the mirror glass. The room began to spin, slow at first then faster and faster, like the spin cycle on our washing machine.
I grabbed for something to hold. A terrific force sucked the air from my lungs. My feet lifted from the floor.
“Mama!” I screamed.
Then I whirled away into blackness.
A dog barked in the distance. The smell of rain-soaked earth filled my nose and the sun’s heat steamed my back through my sopping wet clothes. I stirred cautiously. Stiff grass poked my cheek. I slowly sat up, shaking my head to clear it. None of my bones seemed broken, at least.
The barking got closer. A dog leaped at me, snarling in my face. I screeched, throwing up my hands to protect myself.
Sun-browned ankles and bare, muddy feet stepped into my line of vision.
“I told Mother you were only hiding from work,” said a girl’s voice, “and I was right…Jasper what’s wrong with you? It’s just Agnes. Sit.”
The dog stopped barking. I peeked between my fingers at a black shepherd of some kind with brown ears and feet. It sat, staring at me and whining. I raised my eyes. A small, pretty girl of about fifteen stood over me. She had blonde braids and wore a calf-length, flowered dress with an apron.
I didn’t recognize the dog, or her.
“Who are you?” I said. “Where am I?”
“You and your pretending. You didn’t do as Mother said, did you?”
I gave her a blank stare.
The girl impatiently tossed her braids. “I probably won’t have enough for the supper fire.” She strode away, her skirt swishing through the wet grass.
The dog trotted after her.
I stared after them with my mouth hanging open in confusion. “What?” I shouted after her.
She ignored me and disappeared over the grassy hill I was sitting on. I stared frantically around. To my right, storm clouds still rumbled with thunder, but overhead and to the left, the sky had cleared. In the distance, a wiry boy in overalls worked to unhitch something with two handles from behind a gray mule.
Where was I? At the living history farm? How could that be? The history farm was miles away, and…where was the town around it?
What was going on?
I must have hit my head or something. I reached up to check for a bump on my head, but I was still wearing the hat—
I remembered now…I had unloaded the box from the van, and then I went inside to get Jamie. In the bedroom, I looked into the mirror—
I bolted to my feet, staring down at myself. My own clothes were gone. I was wearing a dress and apron and I was barefoot, too. Just like that blonde girl.
My heart raced out of control. Whimpering, I made a full turn, desperately searching for something familiar. A line of hills shimmered hazily in the far distance. A few miles away, trees made a dark streak against the prairie grass, probably growing along a creek. Three small buildings and a pen with some livestock in it huddled at the foot of the hill. Nothing else broke the endless stretch of waving, rustling prairie grass. None of it seemed familiar at all.
I had no idea where I was.
The boy in overalls followed the mule toward the buildings. A thin woman in a long, gray dress stepped into view at the bottom of the hill, shading her eyes. She spotted me.
“Agnes,” she shouted. “Come do your chores.”
I ran down the hill toward her. Maybe she could help me.
“I’m not Agnes, but can you help me? I’m lost. Which way is it to Rocky?”
She stared at me with large, unsmiling gray eyes. “Rocky? Are you all right, dear? Did you get hurt in the storm?”
“I’m fine, but if you could just point me—”
“Agnes, I’m too tired for your play-acting right now. Did you get the buffalo chips gathered before the rain as I told you?”
I stared at her in confusion. Why had she called me Agnes again? And buffalo chips? I had never even eaten one, let alone gathered them.
She shook her head and sighed. “Well, it’s too late, now. They’re all wet. Let’s hope Lilly gathered enough earlier. Go help her with supper. Your father and Judd will be in shortly.”
She turned away, but then stopped and met my gaze. I recognized that look. My mother got it when she was sick of me acting like a drama queen.
“You really must stop play-acting and learn to take your responsibilities seriously, Agnes. You’ve just turned twelve…you’re a young lady, now.” She walked away.
I stared after her with my mouth hanging open. Maybe I did tend toward drama and an over-active imagination, but this was too weird, even for me. Why was she acting like I was her daughter? And wearing those old fashioned clothes? Could I somehow have stumbled on a super realistic reenactment at a living history farm?
I didn’t know what else to do, so I followed her around the bottom of the grassy knoll. She opened a door in a wall made of blocks of dirt with grass still growing from them and went inside the hill.
I stopped. Had I imagined myself into a world of Hobbits?
The dirt wall had a small window with no glass. Beneath it, a wooden barrel of water sat next to a crude bench with a basin and a rough gunnysack towel on top. Smoke curled from the grass at the top of the knoll.
I followed the woman inside and then stood blinking in the cave-like room with dirt walls, wood beams crisscrossing a dirt ceiling, and a dirt floor. Across the room from me, the blonde girl stood in front of a fireplace stirring something in a pot. A table with benches sat under the window to my left, and beyond that, a curtain stretched across the room. To my right sat another bench, some shelves, a rocking chair and a spinning wheel. The place smelled like damp earth, smoke, and frying meat. The woman disappeared behind the curtain.
The blonde girl glanced over her shoulder. “Agnes, if I don’t have enough chips to finish supper, you’ve only yourself to blame. You know how unappetizing half-cooked rabbit is.”
Half-cooked rabbit did sound unappetizing. Gross, even.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “There seems to be a mistake. I’m not Agnes and if you’ll tell me where Rocky is, I’ll be going.”
The girl whirled, scowling fiercely at me. Then she marched across the room and reached to grab my ear. She gave it a hard twist and poked her face right into mine.
“Now, you listen to me,” she said in a terrifying whisper. “If you upset Mother again tonight I promise I’ll tell Da.”
The girl might have been smaller than me and pretty, but she was strong and she was hurting me. I whimpered.
“You keep your mouth closed and your imagination in control.” She took another twist on my ear, her blue eyes boring into mine. “Understand?”
“Yes,” I cried out in pain.
“Set the table, then.” She let go and went back to the fireplace.
I rubbed my ear while I looked desperately around for the dishes. I spotted them on a shelf, just a small stack of blue and white speckled metal plates and some eating utensils in a broken-rimmed crock. I didn’t even know how many people lived here, so I set all of them on the table. I couldn’t find any glasses, only some metal mugs. I set them on the table, too.
The thin woman came into the room from behind the curtain. She had changed her wet dress and combed her blonde hair, braiding it into a light, shining crown around her head. She went to the fireplace.
“Mother, sit down and rest,” the girl said. Her gaze on the woman seemed worried. “I’ll finish this.”
“Thank you, but I’m better today, Lilly.”
The girl gently pushed her mother toward the wooden rocker. The woman sank into it with a sigh and leaned back her head. She was really pretty, with delicate features. How had she ended up living in a dirt house?
The girl, Lilly, looked at me. “Put some more chips on the fire.”
I didn’t want her grabbing my ear again, so I hurried across the room to a wooden box beside the fireplace. I figured maybe it had wood chips in it, but…no. A few frisbees of dried poop lay in the bottom. The buffalo chips.
I glanced at Lilly. Seriously? She expected me to touch poop?
Her frown made it clear she did.
I almost gagged as I picked up a ‘chip’ with the tips of my fingers and tossed it into the fire. Ashes puffed everywhere. Lilly glared at me. She opened her mouth, but after a quick glance at her mom, she snapped it shut and just gave me a nasty look. I’d gotten that look before, too—from my sister, Jamie.
Outside the room a deep voice rumbled. A younger male voice answered. Water splashed. A few moments later, the door opened and a tall, lean man with a huge, reddish mustache and a black hat entered the room. The boy in overalls followed.
Lilly shoved a plate of fried meat into my hands. I carried it to the table, but I could hardly take my eyes off the boy as he sat down. He was probably about fourteen and really cute in an Almanzo Wilder, Farmer Boy sort of way. He wore his black hair slicked down in an old-fashioned, part-in-the-middle bowl cut, and he had long eyelashes around dark, unsmiling eyes. And he paid absolutely no attention to me.
The man hung his hat on a peg stuck between two sod bricks. His hair gleamed in the light from the window, a shade lighter than his mustache. He gave the woman a worried glance from the bluest eyes I had ever seen, and then he sat wearily at the head of the table. A few minutes later, I settled in the empty spot next to Lilly. The man said grace over the meal. He talked funny, like he came from somewhere else. Maybe even another country.
Lilly must have had enough buffalo chips, because the rabbit she had fried tasted good, and so did the square of cornbread baked in an iron skillet. I’d normally have turned up my nose at rabbit, but I was hungry. We all ate like we were starved, except the mom, who only ate half her meal. Nobody spoke.
My thoughts raced around like a hamster running a wheel. What was going on here? These people were too real for actors at a living history farm. Could I have fallen in with some religious sect? Maybe Amish? I glanced around the table…the family didn’t really seem like Amish. The man needed a shave, but he didn’t have a beard and the women weren’t wearing head coverings, either.
I gasped, struck by a sudden thought. Maybe they were doing a reality show for tv! I stared excitedly around the room.
I couldn’t spot any cameras, but maybe they were well hidden.
“So where’s the camera?” I asked, breaking the silence.
Everybody at the table stopped chewing. They all stared at me. Lilly’s eyes narrowed.
“Um…never mind,” I mumbled hastily. I stuffed another bite of cornbread into my mouth.
I glanced at the man. Maybe after supper I could convince him I wasn’t Agnes. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be as mean as Lilly, but…he hadn’t smiled once, or even spoken, aside from saying grace.
A few minutes later, he finished his meal. He looked right at me. “When y’ do the milkin’, rub goose grease on Brownie’s bag, lass.”
I struggled to translate the sentence then I choked on a piece of rabbit. Milking? A cow?
I opened my mouth to tell him I didn’t know how to milk a cow, but another flash from Lilly’s eyes shut me up.
“Yes, sir,” I mumbled, even though I had no idea what I had just agreed to do.
After supper, Lilly poured water from a kettle over the fire into a big pan and everyone else left the room. I cleared the table and carried the dishes to her, just like I had to do at home.
“What are you doing, Agnes? Get out there with Judd and get the milking done. What are you forever playing at?”
“I don’t know how—”
“Oh, for goodness sake—” She grabbed a bowl with some yellow, greasy looking stuff in it and a wooden bucket from the bench beside the door and shoved them into my hands. Then she pushed me out the door. “And don’t forget to bring in the eggs and pen up the hens tonight like you didn’t do last night. If coyotes get any more of Mother’s hens I won’t be able to do any baking at all.”
Outside, the sun cast a long shadow from the one scrawny tree in the yard. The dog ran at me, barking.
I loved dogs and they loved me. I leaned over to scratch his ears. “Hey, boy.”
He growled at me.
“Hurry up,” somebody yelled.
I straightened. The boy, Judd, stood near a pile of hay with a pitchfork in his hand. He thrust the fork into the mound and pulled it out loaded with hay. Then he turned and entered the shed to his right. I followed. He deposited the grass in a wooden trough. I stared around at the sod brick walls, like the front wall of the Hobbit house.
“Don’t just stand there like a blasted loon.” His drawl pegged him as a southerner, maybe a Texan—different from the rest of the family. “Let the cow in.”
“The cow?” I sounded scared, even to me.
“What else would you milk? The chickens?”
“I don’t know how to milk a cow.”
“I ain’t puttin’ up with your silly play actin’ tonight. I got a lot of work to do yet before dark.” He went out and opened the gate of the pen beside the shed, muttering something about stupid girls.
He obviously believed I was Agnes, too, and he didn’t like her much.
A brown cow with curved horns hurried out of the pen straight for me. I gave a startled shriek, but she just brushed past me on her way to the feed trough. She grabbed a mouthful of hay in her mouth and started chewing.
I stared at the cow’s udder. I was supposed to get milk from that? Seriously?
Outside, a chicken squawked loudly. I looked out. Judd poked at a hen in the haystack. She flew to the ground and raced across the yard, flapping her wings. He carried some hay to the pen where the mule and a sorrel horse with a blaze face waited.
I turned back to the cow. The only thing I knew about milking was what I’d seen on Little House on the Prairie once and at the ranch rodeo. Gingerly I slid the bucket beneath the cow’s udder then hunkered down beside it. I grabbed a rubbery teat in one hand and squeezed.
I took a stronger grip and squeezed again.
Nothing happened again except the cow switched me in the face with her wire-haired tail. It hurt.
I used both my hands to squeeze. Still nothing. Sweat popped out on me as I clenched my hands with as much strength as I had.
“What’n’all are you doin’, Aggie?”
I stared up at Judd. Aggie? Just when I’d thought it couldn’t get worse.
“I’m done outta patience with y’. I’m fixin’ to tell your pa.”
The dog rushed at me barking as if to say, Yeah, what he said…
This rude boy and his dog thought they were out of patience?
“Shut up, you stupid dog,” I yelled. I glared up at Judd. “Go ahead and tell, but be sure and tell him I’m not Aggie, or Agnes, or whoever you think I am, too, because my name is Tessa and I don’t know where I am, or who you are, or—”
He grabbed up a short, three legged wooden stool from the floor and shoved me out of the way. Then he squatted on the stool and in a moment two alternating ribbons of milk frothed into the pail.
“Yesterday you were actin’ all crazy like Lady MacBeth and today you’re Tessa, whoever she is,” he said. “But it don’t matter how many crazy gals you pretend to be, all y’all are lazy.”
“Then why does this stupid dog keep barking at me like he doesn’t know me? And—” I thrust my bare foot at him—”look at this. Does this look like Agnes’ foot?”
“When’d Jasper turn into a stupid dog?” he asked as he slapped away my foot without looking at it.
I kicked at his leg. “Look at it, goober!”
His dark eyebrows drew down farther. “Where in tarnation d’you come up with this stuff?”
“Just look at my foot.”
The ribbons of milk continued to splash into the pail, but he unwillingly glanced at my foot—muddy, scratched, bruised, and very pale. A pampered foot. Not suntanned and calloused from walking barefoot over stones and sticker weeds.
He stopped milking. A disbelieving expression spread across his face. He slowly looked up to meet my glare.
“Now do you believe me?” I said.
Just then, Lilly hurried into the cow shed with a basket made of sticks over her arm. “What on earth are you two doing?”
“Look at her foot, Lilly,” Judd said quietly. “She ain’t Agnes.”
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- This Is How We Make Books At The Ranch Pen In Southwest Oklahoma (dannimcgriffith.wordpress.com)