Elizabeth had been the one person whose opinion, other than Patchett’s own, Patchett had the slightest regard for. On those occasions when Kinneson needed to get his hired man into gear, he’d say, “Liz told me we should cut the north hayfield today.” Or, “Liz said this forenoon would be a good time to start tapping up back.” Up back was the maple orchard on the ridge above the barn. So far as Kinneson knew, Patchett himself had never been married. Forty years ago he’d appeared at Kinneson’s door out of a blizzard, sudden as a revenant, a young man with an old man’s face. Elizabeth had fed him supper and he’d stayed on. In time he’d bought a third-hand Airstream and set up housekeeping in it between the farmhouse and the hardtop road at the foot of the lane. A month after Patchett had quartered himself on them, Kinneson asked him a question. Was Patchett his first or last name? Patchett had given him a long, slow, wondering look, and neither of them had broached the topic again.
Patchett might have known what to do about the wind towers himself. Now an old man with a young man’s face, Patchett knew how to fix things. Given time enough, and someone to hand him tools and listen to him complain, Patchett could fix anything, from a broken flywheel on Kinneson’s ancient Oliver tractor to the hard drive of the desktop computer Elizabeth kept the farm accounts on. Quite possibly, Patchett could have fixed the wind towers. Fixed them, in some subtle and untraceable way, so that they’d never generate a single kilowatt of green power again. But a few weeks after Liz passed, Patchett had hooked his Airstream behind his pickup and lit out for Big Sky Country.
What had caused Patchett to jump ship? Montpelier’d made him take down his sign beside the hardtop road, claiming that it violated Vermont’s anti-billboard legislation. Patchett had written to Montpelier asking how a square of cardboard from a Mason shoebox with “Fish Worms for Sale” and a hand-drawn arrow pointing up at his Airstream could qualify as a billboard. Montpelier did not reply so Patchett, seeing the handwriting on the wall, hit the high dusty, leaving the offending cardboard sign duct-taped to Kinneson’s door with the message “Gone Fishing” printed just below the arrow. Patchett being Patchett, he had not troubled himself to say where he had gone fishing. Ten days later, Kinneson received a postcard from Gulch, Montana, depicting a range of snowcapped mountains that dwarfed Vermont’s tallest peaks. It read, “I’m here. Patchett.”
Kinneson had a grown son in Boston and a grown daughter in New York. After Elizabeth passed and Patchett pulled up stakes and went west, they urged him to unload the farm and move closer to them. Kinneson abided his adult children, as they did him, and enjoyed his grandkids, but if there was one place he detested more than Boston, it was New York, and vice versa. His was the last working farm in the township of Kingdom Common, and at eighty he couldn’t keep up with the twice-a-day regimen of milking one hundred and fifty cows alone. Therefore, he hired two hardworking Mexican brothers to help run his outfit. Mexicans were already running most of the remaining farms in Kingdom County and, as nearly as Kinneson could tell, running them more efficiently than they had ever been run before. In Kinneson’s estimation, the recent influx of Mexican workers was the best thing to happen to the Kingdom since his great, great grandfather, James Kinneson I, and a like-minded handful of James’s neighbors, had declared its independence from Vermont and the United States and governed it as a free-standing republic for thirty years.
A few weeks after Kinneson hired on the Sanchez brothers, the leach field below his farmhouse failed. Juan and Luis could have put in a perfectly serviceable new one for the cost of several truckloads of sand and gravel, a few hundred feet of PVC piping, and the rental of a backhoe for half a day. Before they could get started someone, Kinneson suspected it was old man Potts from over behind, reported the failure of his septic system to the state authorities. In waltzed Montpelier again, this time in the person of a spindling little know-all scarcely out of his teens, who called himself a sanitation hydrologist. Empowered by an abrupt letter from some official or other, the hydrologist made Kinneson install, to the tune of $18,500, a new, state-of-the art septic system thirty feet long, twelve feet wide, and ten feet high, which in Kinneson’s estimation could have accommodated half of the waste of the village of Kingdom Common. To pay for it, he’d been constrained to cash in a whole-life insurance policy whose proceeds, now that Elizabeth was gone, he’d intended to leave in trust with his son and daughter for his grandchildren.
Early one evening that summer Kinneson looked out his kitchen window over the top of the Indian burial mound, as he’d come to think of the new septic system, and saw four coyotes chasing a deer across the water meadow along the river. Before he could load his rifle, they ran her down and tore her to pieces. The next morning a this-year’s fawn, still in its spots, tottered into his barnyard. Kinneson put the orphaned animal into an empty stall, where the coyotes couldn’t get at it, and drove into the Common and bought a baby bottle. He coaxed the fawn into lapping a little warm milk off his fingers, then drinking from the bottle.
Against the advice of the Sanchez brothers, who had recently moved themselves and their families into two brand-new doublewides near the former site of Patchett’s Airstream, Kinneson called the local game warden to report the killing of the doe and his discovery of the fawn. Over the phone line he heard a sound like a person sucking in air between his teeth. “I wish you hadn’t told me that, Zeke,” the warden said. The warden called his supervisor in St. Johnsbury, who called the head warden in Montpelier, who showed up at Kinneson’s place the next morning with his two subordinates and ordered Kinneson to release the fawn back into the wild and let nature run its course. This Kinneson refused to do. The coyotes, who lived on the ridge up back, were nearly as large as the timber wolves their ancestors had interbred with, and fully as ferocious, and would snap up an unattended fawn within hours. The head warden shrugged and told his employees to get the deer out of the barn and let it go in the alders beside the river where, the following day, Kinneson came across its bloody hide and partially eaten hooves. Nature had run its course.
Above Kinneson’s maple sugar orchard, along the ridge-line marking the west boundary of his property, a faint, north-and-south-running trace cut through the woods, now mostly overgrown with hobblebush, grey birch, and striped maple. Nearby, at the top of the maple orchard, Kinneson and Elizabeth had placed a granite marker inscribed with their names and birth dates. Here their ashes would be buried in a single urn now containing Elizabeth’s, which Kinneson kept in the pie safe in her former pantry. The trace, which was known as the Canada Post Road, and was owned by the township of Kingdom Common, had been built in 1812 by Kinneson’s great, great, great grandfather, Charles Kinneson I, whose aim it was to attack Canada and annex it to Kingdom County. In the event, Charles and his militia of would-be invaders were driven back across the border by a dozen angry Quebecois habitants armed with pitchforks and squirrel guns.
One afternoon Kinneson walked up through his maple trees to check on the grave marker. The stone stood where he’d left it, facing out over a prospect of most of the Kingdom. It was a beautiful place, but from just down the Post Road, Kinneson heard voices. Through the underbrush, he made out two men in white hardhats, coming his way with surveying instruments.
“Hello, old-timer,” one of the surveyors called out. “What brings you up here?”
“My grandfather’s great grandfather built this road,” Kinneson said. “What brings you up here?”
The surveyor handed Kinneson a business card with the words “Northern New England Green Power” printed on it. He told Kinneson that his company planned to buy the Post Road from the township and erect twenty-one wind towers on it. There would be an information meeting at the town hall in Kingdom Common the following Thursday evening.
When Kinneson did not favor him with a reply, the surveyor said, “Well, no rest for the wicked,” and made a small, dismissive gesture with the back of his hand, as if to shoo Kinneson off his own property. Kinneson’s grandfather would have wrested the surveyor’s transit out of his hands and given him a severe drubbing with it. His father, who made it a practice never to leave his house unarmed, would have run off the interlopers at gunpoint. This was a different era. As a rule, Kinneson did not believe in taking the law into his own hands.
“Yes, sir, gentlemen,” he said, and started back down the slope toward the farmhouse.
In general, Ezekiel Kinneson regarded meetings, including Vermont’s fabled, grass-roots town meetings, as a waste of time. In his view, the sole purpose of meetings was to find reasons not to get things done. Patchett had disapproved of meetings, too. It was one of the few things they’d agreed on. Therefore, Kinneson’s neighbors were surprised to see him at Thursday’s information meeting. “When did you make bail, Z?” old man Potts brayed out at him as he entered the hall.
Green Power had hired a Burlington law firm specializing in litigating environmental issues. The firm’s senior partner, a meticulous man in his sixties, offered the township of Kingdom Common $750,000 for a two-mile stretch of the Canada Post Road running along the ridge top above Kinneson’s farm. Kinneson, for his part, paid little attention to the attorney as he nattered on, and less attention yet to the speeches that followed, pro and con, from his fellow townspersons. When it was his turn to speak, Kinneson rose and looked around the crowded hall and frowned. “See here,” he said. “My name is Ezekiel Kinneson. I own the last working farm in this town. I milk one hundred and fifty cows, tap a thousand maple trees, fish the brooks that run off that ridge and hunt along the Post Road. I am a seventh-generation Commoner who does not care to be told what to do, or bribed into doing anything, by anyone. For all these reasons, I’m opposed to the towers.”
Less than ten minutes later, the town voted 245-181 in favor of selling the Post Road to the power company. Kinneson went home and wrote a two-page, outraged letter relaying the news to Patchett. Two weeks later he received a reply on one of Patchett’s Big Sky postcards. The message read, “Blow them up, come West.”
Overnight, word spread throughout the Kingdom, emanating from the post office like circles on a trout pond, that Kinneson had thrown in with a cadre of eco-terrorists. Report had it that he had driven to New Hampshire, where you could buy, with no questions asked, anything in the way of ordnance necessary to “live free or die,” and purchased fifty-three cases of dynamite. Patchett himself was said to be posting east, with a posse of mountain men and survivalists, to deal with the as yet nonexistent wind towers. The county prosecutor caught wind of the rumors and wangled an order from the district-court judge to send out the sheriff with Dr. Frannie Lafleur Kinneson, the local GP and three-afternoons-a-week consulting psychiatrist at the county hospital, to examine Kinneson and determine whether he had gone around the bend and become dangerous to himself or others.
Dr. Frannie, as she was universally referred to in the Kingdom, was Kinneson’s great niece by marriage. She had two grown sons herself but was still, in Kinneson’s estimation, as cute as a button. She asked him the day of the week and his date of birth. Then she wanted to know the name of the president. Kinneson winked at her and said Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Frannie gave out a raucous belly laugh and snapped off her recording machine and said she only hoped that she’d be as sharp as Kinneson when she was eighty. The sheriff, John “Uncle Johnny” Kinneson, who detested the projected wind towers because they would destroy his secret deerstand on the Post Road, smiled and drove Dr. Frannie back to the village.
Several months passed. Everyone from Kinneson’s grown children to the local postmistress who’d read Patchett’s postcard and ignited the dynamite rumor had advised Ezekiel not to make any life-altering changes during his first year as a widower. Other than hiring on the Sanchez brothers, which Kinneson regarded as the smartest thing he’d done since marrying Elizabeth, he’d made no changes at all. Juan and Luis subscribed to several dairy-farming periodicals. They brought in agricultural consultants from the state university, and began looking into local vore projects such as beekeeping, cheesemaking, and raising organically fed beef cattle. Their wives enrolled in community college courses, the children were well-mannered and studious. Kinneson enjoyed taking them fishing and playing catch with them. He liked thinking that they were the future face of the Kingdom, and wished he could see the expression on old man Potts’s face when they grew up to be selectpersons and road commissioners, schoolboard members, deputy sheriffs, state legislators, members of Congress and, yes, presidents. One of the boys was a gifted ballplayer. Kinneson envisioned him in pinstripes and a New York Yankees cap, pitching a no-hitter in Fenway Park.
In the late afternoons he sat out on the wraparound porch of the farmhouse, where he’d sat evenings helping Elizabeth shell peas and cut up apples, and watched the towers rising ever higher on the ridge top.
“What do you look at, grandfather?” the Sanchez children inquired.
“Those windmills up on the hill,” Kinneson said.
“Why do you look at them?”
“Because they bear watching,” Kinneson said. “Like you young scamps.”
By August all twenty-one of the towers were in operation. They stood four hundred and sixty feet high. At night their red warning lights blinked on and off. More than half of the time their vast blades were motionless since the higher mountains immediately to the west blocked the prevailing wind. Nor, Kinneson had recently learned, could the antiquated electrical lines leading to and from the Kingdom accommodate more than half of what meager power they generated. Kinneson watched the wind blades not turning. He had never for one minute doubted what the scientists said about climate change, but the stationary blades would do little to combat it.
Throughout his life Kinneson had been an avid reader. After Liz passed, he’d had trouble following anything longer than the court news or obituaries in the Kingdom County Monitor. He’d look out the window to check on the wind towers, then return to his book only to realize that he was rereading the page he’d just finished. One afternoon he found himself in the village library again. Ruth Kinneson, the librarian and Kinneson’s second cousin by marriage, was boxing up some outdated westerns for an upcoming book sale.
“Welcome, stranger,” Ruth said. “What do you hear from Mr. Patchett?”
For the briefest moment, Kinneson wasn’t sure who she meant. Ruth was the only person who ever referred to his former hired hand as Mr. Patchett.
“Not much,” Kinneson said. “Since that penny postcard got all over town.”
Ruth smiled. “Mr. Patchett is Mr. Patchett,” she said. “I think he always felt the draw of the West.”
She removed a book from the box: Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. There was Patchett’s name on the check-out card, printed neatly a dozen or so times.
“Mr. Patchett read and reread every one of these books,” Ruth said. “I’m sure you knew that.”
Kinneson had known no such thing. He wondered what else there might be about Patchett that he didn’t know. After that day, many years ago, when he had inquired about Patchett’s name, he had never asked him a personal question. Now, looking at Patchett’s block printing on the library card, he realized that his friend had not been fleeing anything, including Montpelier and its thousand-and-one regulations, when he’d struck out for Montana. Rather, Patchett had been realizing a life-long dream. At that moment, Kinneson knew exactly what he must do.
That evening, he summoned the Sanchez brothers to the farmhouse kitchen. Without preamble, he said that he was prepared to sell them his seven hundred and sixty acres, the barn and livestock, and the machinery at assessed or book value. He would hold the mortgage himself, zero percent interest and no down payment. After his death, the monthly payments would go to his son and daughter. He would retain the farmhouse and two acres for his children and grandchildren to use as a getaway. Juan and Luis thanked him and said they would keep up the place, of which Kinneson had no doubt. He enjoyed thinking of old man Potts’ consternation when he learned that the last working farm in the township was now owned by Mexicans.
The brothers returned to their trailers to share the news with their wives. Immediately, before he had second thoughts, Kinneson began packing. He wouldn’t need much. His fly rod, deer rifle, winter clothing, and boots. He could bunk in with Patchett, he figured, until he found a place of his own. Late that afternoon he’d brought the grave marker from the maple orchard down off the ridge, on a stoneboat behind his Oliver, and gee-hawed it up into the bed of his pickup. He didn’t sleep much that night. Except for a year in Korea when he was in the service, he’d spent only a few nights away from his own bed. Now he was leaving the Kingdom forever. He imagined that he could hear the low, throbbing hum of the windmills. Once he heard Elizabeth say, very distinctly, “A red-and-yellow grasshopper fly, fished wet, is a good bet out there this time of year.”
He was up at first light. He limited himself to one cup of coffee so he wouldn’t have to stop five times before he was out of Vermont. He removed the urn containing Liz’s ashes from the pie safe and wrapped it in his hunting jacket and stashed it in the bottom of the toolbox behind the pickup cab. The rig coughed, ground out, coughed again, and started. He’d have Patchett throw in a rebuilt starter when he arrived.
The river was invisible in the September mist. Higher on the ridge, the clouds had dispersed. In the rising sun, the twenty-one wind towers lit up as red as Armageddon and the fiery blades began to turn like the big and little wheels of Ezekiel’s biblical namesake. Well before he reached the hardtop road where Patchett had started all this with his fish worms sign, Kinneson knew that, for him, Big Sky Country was no solution.
“How was Montana?” Juan called to him a minute later as he pulled back into his dooryard.
“Montana’s all right if you like it,” Kinneson said. “It isn’t the Kingdom.”
Still, Kinneson realized, as he returned Elizabeth’s ashes to the pantry, that it was not his beloved green fields or hundred-year-old sugar bush or six generations of forebears that had changed his mind about leaving the Kingdom. What brought him back was the wind towers. Looking up at their blades, looming high above the county in the mild fall sunlight like so many winged, alabaster idols, Kinneson pursed his lips. As he’d told the Sanchez children, the towers bore watching. It had fallen to him to watch them. That might not be much, but it was the one thing left in his world that he was certain of.
Howard Frank Mosher’s new novel, God’s Kingdom, will be published this October by St. Martin’s Press.
Matthew Gauvin is a book illustrator living and working in Lyndonville, Vermont.