Coming in Fall 2020, Sunset at Catoctin Creek is the first in my Catoctin Creek trilogy. These books are very special to me! As you might know, I’ve been writing about Florida for a long time. I have lived most of my life in Florida, after all.
What you might not know is that I am originally from Maryland, and for years as a child I traveled back and forth between Florida and western Maryland frequently…and even lived there for a brief period when I was in high school!
When I was looking for something to take my mind off the four walls of my living room in March 2020, I decided to write about a place very special to me: the farms and mountains of Frederick and Washington Counties, Maryland.
Catoctin Creek is a real creek, but my village is fictional. If I had to put it on a map, I’d place it very close to Woodsboro, where I lived as a teenager…but closer to the mountains!
In this excerpt, get to know Rosemary Brunner, who has lived on her family’s farm alone for the past five years. She’s going to meet Stephen Beckett, who is just passing through – he’s only in Catoctin Creek to settle his father’s affairs, and then it’s back to Manhattan for him. But Rosemary
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Chapter One: Rosemary
Everyone said Catoctin Creek was prettiest at sunset.
Maybe it was the way the sun poured through the notch between those two smooth curves in the mellow, tree-covered chain of the Catoctin Mountains, flooding the rolling foothills and farmer’s fields below with a rich light like molten gold.
Or, maybe it was the way the burbling creeks and brooks around the little town of Catoctin Creek caught the last lingering flickers of the sunset’s afterglow on their rippling surfaces, gleaming brightly even as the sky overhead slowly faded from yellow, to blue, to black.
It might even have been the way the white siding on the old buildings lining Main Street turned pink when leisurely clouds drifting across the rural Maryland valley reflected the sunset’s most blushing hues.
Rosemary Brunner thought her hometown’s gorgeous sunsets were due to all of those things, plus one simple fact: Catoctin Creek was the loveliest spot in the world, a perfect slice of heaven on earth, and nowhere else in Maryland, or the Appalachians, or indeed North America, was as perfect a piece of heaven.
What was more, Rosemary knew with certainty that in all of Catoctin Creek, there was no lovelier spot than her own little farm.
Notch Gap Farm, the Brunner family homestead, had sat in a tree-lined little cup of a hollow in the foothills below Notch Gap for generations. As farms go, it was postcard-perfect: an old brick farmhouse built with German stoicism, a two-story bank barn with a faded red upper level and a fieldstone-flanked lower section, a tiny farmyard of split-rail fence surrounding its front doors, and a green front lawn flanked with venerable oaks and maples of wide girth and hand-sized leaves.
The farmhouse’s stacked front porches faced eastward, and when drivers emerged from the little thicket of forest separating the farm from the winding country road, the house was framed perfectly by the mountains behind it. The view was so striking, Rosemary often had to stop her truck and just breathe it all in for a moment, and she had lived here for her every single one of her twenty-seven years.
The front lawn was bordered by the rushing waters of Catoctin Creek, just after the chilly little mountain stream of Notch Gap Run joined it in a noisy confluence within a dark patch of forest between Rosemary’s farm and the neighboring property. Catoctin Creek, emboldened after gobbling up Notch Gap Run, chattered through stone-lined banks right into the center of its namesake town, some two miles away. By the time it reached town, it was wide and almost sedate in certain sections, but Rosemary’s creek was a wild, rushing, ice-cold cataract.
The creek was never silent; day and night, the waters burbled away through their business, cutting vigorously into the clay banks and providing a bubbly little lullaby which was better than any white noise machine. Rosemary loved cool nights when she could sleep with her window open, and summer days with the living room windows pulled high, the creek talking endlessly, a ready friend in her lonelier moments.
This was the farm of her ancestors. Rosemary Brunner’s great-great-grandfather had walked back to Notch Gap Farm after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, still wearing rags of tattered blue, to find Rosemary’s great-great-grandmother waiting on the front porch. A great-great-great-someone (Rosemary had lost track of how many greats back he was) had first built a cabin here shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War. All those great wars over the years had left notches in her family tree—and that of everyone in Catoctin Creek, because this was not a place people left, nor a place very many people moved to—yet the overwhelming feeling here was of peace, gentleness, and a love for the simple pattern of changing seasons.
Rosemary wasn’t thinking about peace just now, though, nor of gentleness, nor of the simple pattern of the changing seasons. She was thinking rebelliously of the dying January light and longing for summer, for long evenings which let her dawdle over her chores and play with her animals. She was pushing all of her emotion into being angry about the short days of late winter, because if she stopped to think about the dark, lonely night awaiting her on the other side of evening chores, she’d have to brush away tears from her cheeks while she was watering the horses.
And it was simply too cold for that kind of nonsense tonight.
The old feed store thermometer on the lower barn’s sliding door read thirty-one degrees. Rosemary slapped her hand underneath it as she passed, feeling the old wood shudder beneath her palm. The lower barn was the basement level of the farm’s traditional bank barn, which had been built against the hillside so that the huge upper level, made for storing hay, grain, and farming implements, opened onto the graveled farm lane above. Down here, facing the burbling creek and the farmyard, the lower barn was built with flinty Maryland fieldstone and filled with four pairs of wooden box stalls facing each other over two narrow aisles. Just eight stalls—not many, but enough for the horses of Notch Gap Farm Sanctuary, and Rosemary’s chosen life work.
Smoke, the barn cat, came curling around her legs, his rough purr rumbling against the leg of her heavy work jeans. Rosemary flicked on the lights, and the old light bulbs in their protective metal cages cast a yellowish glow over the stables. Donors in the past had offered to update the stable, to put in low-cost fluorescent lamps which throw more even lighting and fewer shadows, troublesome pits of darkness which made stalls hard to clean in winter, but Rosemary had resisted. She had always known the barn in this sepia light. Her father had milked cows under this gentle light, and she had braided her pony’s mane under it, waiting out the mud and ice of a Maryland winter, dreaming of summer rides under green trees.
Now, eight horses looked at her expectantly from under the warm bulbs.
“Hello, friends,” Rosemary called, smiling as they greeted her with a raucous chorus of whinnies, neighs, and snorts. “Is everyone ready for their dinners?”
The lower barn was cool in summer, but downright chilly in winter, and the horses were wearing blankets to ward off the chill. They came in all sizes, which made moments like this, with all eight horses staring at her in eager anticipation, pretty funny: Rochester stood seventeen hands high and his ears brushed the low roof; Mighty-mite was twenty-four inches at the withers and Rosemary had cut down his stall door so that he could see out at all.
They’d been in their stalls for an hour already, eating hay. In winter they spent the short daylight hours in the north pasture, which stretched up the hillside behind the barn and into the young woods which had sprung up over the old dairy pastures. Because some of the horses had been malnourished in the past and now had sensitive digestive systems, Rosemary made sure they ate plenty of hay to cushion their stomachs against the grain they’d eat for dinner. She liked to give them a nice long break to work through their roughage.
They all thought this was torture. It was dark, so it was past time for dinner, andthey wanted her to know, pawing and circling and neighing to share their concerns.
Rochester kicked his door with a sound like a bass drum.
“Rochester!” Rosemary snapped, and the big horse stepped backwards, his expression almost, but not quite, ashamed. “I can’t have you tearing down my barn, monster. You’re too big to be kicking like that.”
Rochester wasn’t just the biggest horse in her barn, he was the biggest horse she’d ever seen. The lofty black Percheron gelding barely fit under the low rafters of the stable. He used this to his advantage; in midsummer, when Rosemary started buying hay for the winter and filled the echoing upper level of the barn with fragrant first-cutting bales, Rochester would lift his nose up the gaps between the boards and nibble at the blades of hay which found their way through the rafters. He had his own personal buffet as long as there was hay above his head.
Rochester’s stall was always messiest in the months between January and April when the hay supply was waning, and Rosemary was always thankful when the longer hours of springtime turn-out arrived, just to get a break from his constant mess. It had taken her almost an hour to clean his stall earlier in the day. She peered in now and sighed. “How can you be so messy when you have a nice hay-pile?”
He blinked down at her, then whinnied again. Food, please!
Rochester was a giant, but the other horses she’d rescued over the past few years ran the full spectrum of available equine sizes. On the larger end was Bongo, a chestnut Belgian cross Rosemary had gotten from the same auction as Rochester; on the smaller end was Mighty-mite, a black-and-white pinto miniature horse who had come from a foreclosed farm down in the Tuscarora valley, and who now served as Rosemary’s rescue ambassador at community events. In between there were Rosita, Talon, Miracle, Dumplin, and Kiki—all average-sized Standardbreds or Thoroughbreds who had spent time racing, pulling Amish carts, or both, and then fallen on hard times. None of them had to work for a living at Notch Gap Farm—Rosemary promised them that when she pulled them from their miserable former living conditions. They didn’t owe anyone anything, these horses. They’d done more than enough for humans, twice over.
Rosemary thought humans were over-rated, anyway.
“Be quiet, boys and girls,” she told the hungry horses lightly, her heart lifted from its winter doldrums by simply being in their presence, and she went down the passage between the stalls and the sliding barn doors to an ancient wooden door set into the wall. She opened it up and stepped down four wooden stairs into the old, stone-walled dairy.
The wooden steps groaned beneath her feet, the whisper of mouse feet went pattering away at her approach—“Smoke, you’re slacking, buddy,”—and where fresh milk had once been stored in cool repose under the hillside, Rosemary lifted small plastic buckets from the deep shelves lining the wall and turned to the steel trash cans where she stored horse feed. The little dairy was her feed room and tack room now, although the damp was hard on leather, meaning her saddles and bridles needed constant attention with soap and oil. Above the feed cans, a bulletin board scattered with old newspaper clippings and photos remained from the dairy’s previous incarnation, a relic of her father’s days. She glanced over them absently as she opened the cans and began scooping out measures of grain.
Catoctin Creek Farmer Takes Top Prize at State Fair
In the photo: Rosemary’s father, smiling and young and as-yet unmarried, black hair slicked back stiffly, standing next to a spotted sow of astonishing proportions.
Notch Gap Farm Spared in Flood “For The Ages”
In the photo: the twin creeks merged into a vast river and sprawling across the hollow, their waters drowning the farmyard, lapping at the front doors of the barn and licking at the porch steps of the farmhouse, all made more dramatic by the grainy black-and-white print. Her mother stood on the porch, posing with one hand on the railing and one hand planted defiantly on her hip, her knee-length floral dress one Rosemary remembered from long-ago church Sundays.
Catoctin Creek Rescue Takes in First Horse
In the photo: Rosemary, four years younger than tonight, but not noticeably different, with her curly dark hair springing around her shoulders and her pale, thin face wearing the weakest of smiles, lurked half-hidden behind a small dark horse. Her first acquisition for the rescue had been Rosita, a Standardbred mare she’d brought home from a Pennsylvania auction, kicking the trailer walls all the way. Her friend Nikki had insisted on the press coverage, calling the local Union Sun-Register to tell them the little town’s native daughter and recent orphan was turning historic Notch Gap Farm into a rescue for abused horses.
“No one is going to give you money if they don’t know you’re here,” Nikki had told Rosemary, waving away her protests. “And you’re going to need all of their money.”
Some things never changed, Rosemary thought, shaking her head as she replaced the trash can lids. Even though Nikki was busy all of the time these days—when her aunt retired, Nikki had taken over the venerable old Blue Plate Diner up on Main Street, and her life now consisted of chasing around a revolving door of high school girls who waitressed for a few weeks before getting bored and quitting—Nikki still found time to come out to Notch Gap Farm once or twice a week, a wrapped dinner in hand, so she could boss Rosemary around for a little while.
“Telling me how to live my life is the highlight of your week,” Rosemary had once told her, grinning, in a way shy Rosemary Brunner never grinned at anyone else.
“Yours too,” Nikki had replied with a grimace and a shrug. “I’m the only human you ever talk to.”
This was essentially true, but Nikki never wanted to hear the truth from her on this front: the fact that Rosemary didn’t want to talk to people made no sense to extroverted, bossy Nikki. By the time she’d turned twenty-three, the last people left who Rosemary had wanted to talk to, with the exception of Nikki and her next-door neighbors, were her parents.
And they were gone.
There were newspaper clippings from that, too, but they weren’t on the bulletin board. Rosemary didn’t even know where they’d gotten to; shoved into a closet somewhere in the house, no doubt. She didn’t need reminders. She knew she was alone in the world.
That was why she had the horses.
“Here you are, Smoke,” she told the gray cat, who had followed her into the feed room and was currently twirling around her legs with some urgency. She gave him a handful of Meow Mix from the bag she kept on a shelf too high for him to reach. Old-timers would tell you the key to a useful barn cat was to keep them just a little hungry, or they wouldn’t be good ratters. Rosemary was too soft-hearted to short Smoke at meals, so Notch Gap Farm probably had more mice than any other farm in Maryland.
Still, he was such a nice, fluffy cat, with a purr like an outboard engine. Rosemary dropped a pat on his head as he dove into his food.
“You’re worthless, you beautiful thing, you.”
She stacked the horses’ feed buckets carefully and went back up into the barn. Dropping grain into each feed bin and listening to the horses dig into their meals always put Rosemary into a good mood. Despite the darkness outside her little stable, despite the empty house waiting for her just across the dry winter grass, Rosemary sighed with contentment once everyone was eating up.
All in all, Rosemary was mostly happy. She knew the rest of Catoctin Creek generally thought she was pretty strange, and getting stranger, living up here alone at the ripe old age of twenty-seven, taking in horses like some sort of overgrown crazy cat lady—and maybe they were right, she didn’t know. The fact was, Rosemary had never struck anyone as particularly normal, and her school contemporaries would have described her as a total weirdo, given to pointless blushes and stammering sentences. So how could she make a solid judgement now?
Rosemary could never explain her anxiety around most of the human race, or why she found speaking to strangers unbearable and to acquaintances not much better. She just knew she’d never felt true peace anywhere but at this farm, amongst trees and crops and animals, and although life alone here was often lonely, sometimes painfully so, she could accept this to be her lot in life. Call it shy, call it introversion, call it a crippling fear of conversation: Rosemary didn’t know if her anxiety had a name, but she knew it had a cure, and that cure was staying snug at home, on Notch Gap Farm.
If she had to live here alone forever, so be it.
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Sunset at Catoctin Creek will be on sale in September 29, 2020. Subscribe to my newsletter to get the release announcement!