The Aldens of Fair Meadow Farm
By Patricia MacLachlan, Robert Dunn
ALBERT WHITMAN & Company Copyright © 2012 Patricia MacLachlan
All rights reserved.
Henry stood in the doorway of the barn and looked out over the farm.
"I can smell spring," he said.
His younger sister Jessie leaned her pitchfork against the barn wall and stood next to him. There had been a spring snow in the night, but she could see grass. A thin layer of snow sat on the top of the Fair Meadow Farm sign that stood in their yard.
Jessie raised her head and sniffed.
"You look like Betty," he said.
Betty was one of their two cows. There was also Boots, who was mostly black and sweet and silent. But it was Betty who always stretched her neck out and put her nose in the air before she mooed. Papa called Betty "talkative."
"It is spring," she said. "And I have my spring list."
Jessie took a piece of paper and a small hammer out of her pocket. She nailed the list to the wall.
Henry read over her shoulder.
"One: Make barn hideaway."
There was no number two.
"That's it?" asked Henry, grinning.
Usually Jessie's lists were longer.
"I've just started," said Jessie.
"What is a barn hideaway?" he asked.
"I'll show you," said Jessie. "Come."
Henry followed her to the ladder that went up to a loft. They climbed up. Bales of hay were stored there, in neat stacks.
Next to the hay was a small room with a door. The room was swept clean. There were two benches. There was a table with a vase with no flowers. A small, round window looked out over the next farm.
"A barn hideaway," said Jessie.
"It is," said Henry.
"Violet and Benny will like it," said Jessie.
"Violet can do her sewing and painting up here. We can read books to Benny."
"And Benny can fall out the door and down the ladder," said Henry with a small smile. "We'll have to build a gate for Benny."
"But he'll love it," she said.
"I need more things for my list," she said.
They heard the sound of Papa's old gray car in the driveway.
Jessie and Henry climbed down the ladder and watched Papa walk up to the barn, carrying a cloth sack of nails and some boards for the stalls.
"Almost done?" he asked them.
"Just have to carry water for the cows," said Jessie.
Papa stood next to them.
"What are you looking at?"
"Spring," said Jessie and Henry together.
Their papa laughed.
"You're hopeful," he said. "There will be another good snowstorm before it is really spring. This is March!"
"Any news from town?" asked Jessie.
"Bad news. People losing their jobs and houses. Trying to find other places to make a living. Many people leaving. Hard times."
"You're lucky to have your job," said Henry.
"And Mama's baking for the market. It doesn't look like hard times here."
"I'm afraid you'll see hard times soon, Henry," said Papa.
"I don't want to see hard times," said Jessie.
"I don't want to, either," said Henry.
"No one does. We are lucky to have paying jobs, but it means more chores for you, though," said Papa, "being the oldest."
"And me," said Jessie.
"And you," Papa said.
"Everyone works at our house," said Jessie.
And that was true. Violet, who was ten, helped with the laundry and set and cleared the table at dinnertime. And Benny? Benny was just five and he made everyone smile.
"That's Benny's job," Mama had said, "to brighten our days."
The door to the house opened suddenly and Violet and little Benny ran out into the snow, followed by Mama.
Benny lay down in the snow, making a snow angel, and Violet started rolling spring snow for a snowman. Mama looked up at the barn and waved.
"Come play!" called Violet to Jessie and Henry.
Papa touched Henry.
"Go on," he said. "I'll finish here."
Henry and Jessie ran whooping down the hill, slipping and sliding in the snow.
"Watch out!" called Papa. "Mama has a snowball!"
In the paddock Betty stretched out her neck and mooed loudly.
"Moo," called Jessie.
"Moo," called Henry.
"Moo," said Benny, pointing at Betty.
Behind them, in the barn doorway, their papa smiled.
It was nighttime. Henry was reading a book in bed, the lamplight falling across the pages.
Jessie stood in the doorway.
Henry put the book down on the bedside table.
"I'm worried about what Papa said. Hard times."
"Sometimes things happen we can't do anything about," said Henry.
"Maybe we have to find a way to do something," said Jessie. "I need a longer list. I need something exciting to add to it."
"Maybe something will happen," Henry said.
"It's too peaceful here," said Jessie. "Every day is like every other day."
As it turned out, something would happen.
Something not at all peaceful. Something Jessie and Henry could never have imagined.
It would happen the very next day.
Papa had been right about snow. It was still winter. It had snowed all night and was still snowing. There was no sun.
"You were right," Jessie told Papa. "Right about winter."
"I'm right about lots of things," said Papa, making Mama laugh.
"No school for sure," said Mama.
"No one on the roads, either," said Papa. "Can't take bakery goods to market."
"That means a day off," Mama said happily.
Violet stirred oatmeal on the big stove.
"When I grow up I'm going to be a baker, like Mama," she said.
"You can be anything," said Mama. "Anything at all."
"Cow!" said Benny, making everyone laugh.
"I don't think Violet will be a cow," said Mama.
Henry put on his boots and coat and hat and went to the barn for chores. He put down new bedding in Betty's stall. Boots was still outside, but Betty liked the barn in winter. Henry could see his own breath in the air. He could see Betty's breath, too.
"Henry!" Jessie called from outside. She carried a pail of water for the cows. The wind took her hat, and her long hair blew around her face.
Henry ran down the hill and caught her hat, then followed her to the barn.
"I'm tired of winter," said Jessie.
Henry put her wool hat on her head.
"Remember how we loved the first snow?" he asked.
"I'll love this snow if it is the last one," said Jessie.
She carried the water into Betty's stall. She leaned against Betty.
"How can Betty be so warm?" she asked.
Henry leaned against Betty's other side. Betty rubbed her head against him.
"Get ready," said Henry.
They laughed. They knew Betty would moo in a minute.
Papa came into the barn, carrying a second pail of water.
That was when Betty mooed, the sound filling the barn.
"Hello, Miss Betty," said Papa. He went to the grain barrel and poured a scoopful of grain into Betty's bin. Boots came into the barn, snow-covered, her hooves clattering on the old wood floors. Papa scooped her some grain, too, and brushed snow off her.
Papa looked at the paper nailed to the wall.
"This must be a Jessie list," he said. "Where is this barn hideaway?"
Before Jessie could answer, Papa lifted his head.
"Sounded like a car," said Henry.
"A car? No car can drive in these snowdrifts," said Papa.
He went to the barn door and looked out.
"Help! Help me, please!" It was a man's voice calling.
A car was stuck in the driveway snowdrift. The man was carrying a child.
Papa started running to the car.
"Henry, come with me! Jessie, tell Mama we'll need blankets!"
Jessie ran to the house, sliding in the snow.
She opened the door, pushing it shut against the wind.
"Mama! People coming! We need blankets!" Mama turned from the stove and didn't stop to ask questions. She hurried to the bedroom and came out with blankets and bedcovers.
The door opened and there was a boy and girl, the girl carried by her father. Their mother looked frightened. In her arms was a small dog.
Mama took the mother's arm and pulled her to the wood stove in the kitchen. The dog jumped down.
"Is he all right here?" the woman asked Mama.
"Of course," said Mama.
She pulled a chair close to the stove.
"Here. Bring the child here."
"She's so cold," said the woman.
"Our car started to break down," said the man. "No heater. I've been looking for a house."
Mama smiled at them.
"You found one. I'll make some tea. Jessie, can you make hot chocolate for the children? Violet, get the cups, please. And a bowl of water for the dog."
"The dog is Joe," said the woman. "He won't be trouble."
Violet pulled a chair over to the counter and climbed up to get cups.
"Thank you," said the man. "I'm Jake Clark. This is my wife, Sarah. We lost our home and we were on our way to my sister's in New Hampshire. But the car ..."
Jake Clark couldn't talk anymore. He was too upset.
"I'm Kate Alden," said Mama. "You met my husband, Ben, and son Henry. I think they're tending to your car. This is Jessie, Violet, and Benny."
Benny went over to sit next to Joe, who was drinking water. In a moment, Joe finished and looked at Benny.
"You're a beautiful dog," said Benny softly, patting Joe. "The most beautiful dog in the whole world."
Joe climbed up on Benny's lap, making Benny grin.
Sarah smiled at Benny. Then she spoke softly to Mama.
"I don't know what is going to happen to us," she whispered.
Mama poured tea and hot chocolate.
"You will stay with us," she said with a smile. "We'll make room for you until your car can be fixed. The children—what are your names?"
"I'm Meg," said the girl.
"William," said the boy.
"Well, Meg and William, you can share a room with Benny, Violet, Jessie, and Henry."
"We can hang blankets up on clotheslines," said Jessie excitedly. "Boys on one side, girls on the other."
"And Joe," said Benny.
"And Joe," said Jessie.
"That's a good idea, Jessie," said Mama.
"Jessie is our organizer."
Meg, as cold as she was, smiled.
"You can go to school with us and you can help us with chores. We have cows to feed and stalls to clean. It will be fine," said Jessie.
"We'll have fun, Mr. and Mrs. Clark. You'll see."
Jake Clark smiled.
"I think you should call us Jake and Sarah," he said, "since we're going to be family for a while.
"Our family will be bigger than it was," said Mama, reaching over and taking Sarah's hand.
"Just a little bigger," Mama said softly.
When Henry came in with Papa after chores, he looked at Jessie, and they both knew that Papa had been right about things other than snow: They would see hard times.
"So this is how hard times look," whispered Jessie to Henry.
"And something has happened to add to your list," said Henry.
Jessie put her hand in her pocket and felt the paper list.
"Yes, it has happened," she said. "It has. The Clarks have come from far away in the middle of a storm."
"In the middle of hard times," said Henry. "Nowhere for them to go. No home."
"Except Fair Meadow Farm," said Jessie.
She smiled at Henry.
The Best Family of All
Ice and sleet came after the snow, making it hard to walk. Papa and Henry and Jake chopped out a path to the barn to feed and water the cows. Henry found a tarpaulin to put over Jake's car so it wouldn't ice up.
There was no school for two days, so most everyone stayed inside, listening to the wind and ice pellets on the windows and roof.
The children shared one large bedroom, hanging blankets on a clothesline across the room—the boys on one side, the girls on the other. Joe divided his time between the two, always ending up curled close to Benny.
"This is fun," said Meg.
"Were there other people on the road?" asked Henry.
William shook his head.
"In the city where we live, there were long lines of people standing in lines for soup and bread. There were old people and young people. Some babies were wrapped in blankets."
"I've never been to a city," said Jessie. "Are there tall buildings?"
"Very tall," said Meg. "And many, many people. There aren't any fields like here. There are no cows."
"When we left the city and drove into the country, most of the people who left their homes must have found shelter. Or maybe they drove on through the snow ahead of us," said William.
"It was scary," said Meg. "And sad. It was like we were all alone in the world."
"Well, you're not," said Jessie. "And we'll do things so you won't be sad."
She took her list out of her pocket.
"What's that?" asked Meg.
"My list of things to do," said Jessie.
2. Fix up bedrooms. Put up pictures.
3. Show Meg and William the hideaway.
4. Sew curtains for the hideaway.
"What's a hideaway?" asked Meg.
"You'll see tomorrow," said Jessie. "And we'll add lots of things to do to the list."
"I can sew curtains," said Meg.
"Me, too!" said Violet happily.
"Will you read to us, William?" asked Benny.
William was a great reader and was happy to see all their books.
"I left most of my books at home," he said.
He read them fairy tales and dog stories and stories of heroes and horses with wings until Mama and Sarah came in to make sure the lights were off, and it was time for sleeping.
"I like the heroes," said Jessie.
"I like the horses with wings," said Violet.
"I like the dogs!" said Benny, Joe on his lap.
"I like the adventures," Henry said wistfully. "I'd like an adventure."
"Being here is an adventure for me," said Meg.
Henry smiled at her.
"I guess you're right."
"My mother said that life is a journey," said Meg. "And we're travelers."
On Saturday the weather cleared and Mama went back to baking. In the kitchen she and Sarah were surrounded by bowls of batter, wooden spoons, and trays where buns were laid out. Row after row of buns for market. The children surrounded them, too. They spread the frosting on the buns—even Benny, standing on a chair with his very small paintbrush.
"Not too much!" Mama said, wisps of hair loose from her hair clip. "These are buns with frosting, not frosting with buns!"
Sarah laughed as she took buns out of the oven.
"I think you'll need more sugar soon," she said.
"More sugar for sure," said Mama.
Henry chanted: "Sugar for sure. Sugar for sure."
The rest joined in: "Sugar for sure. Sugar for sure."
"Shigar, shigar, shigar," sang Benny.
Joe, under the table, was a smart dog. He knew something would be dropped, frosting or bun. He waited patiently, moving closer to Benny, who was more likely to drop anything. And sure enough, Benny couldn't wait any longer and took a bite out of a bun.
"Benny!" Jessie said loudly. "Not for eating! For the market!"
Surprised, Benny dropped the whole bun minus one bite. Joe leaped forward, scooped it up, and ran out into the parlor. Benny climbed down from the chair and ran after Joe.
"Benny, that's Joe's bun now. Come and frost another," called Mama.
"That was Benny's bun," he said, making them laugh.
"Let's stop for a bit and have some buns and tea," said Mama. "We've been working a long time."
"I'll cut them into small pieces, Kate," said Sarah. "You need six dozen for market, remember?"
Mama sat down and bushed her hair back out of her eyes.
"I do remember," Mama said wearily.
Sarah poured tea and Violet brought Mama the cup. A little hot water spilled on Violet's hand and she yelped, dropping the teacup on the floor. It broke in several pieces.
"Oh!" said Mama, her hands to her mouth.
Violet began to cry.
"Come, Violet," said Mama, opening up her arms. "It's only a teacup."
"But it was your favorite!" said Jessie.
Mama took Violet on her lap.
"It's only a teacup," she said to Violet. "It's just a thing. Don't forget that, Violet."
"But things are important," said Violet.
"Not as important as family and friends," said Mama. "I can always get another teacup. I can't get another you."
Sarah picked up the pieces of the flowered cup.
"What your mama says is true," said Sarah.
"We had to leave many things we loved behind when we left."
"You brought Joe," said Violet, wiping tears away.
"We did," said Sarah. "Joe was more important than teacups."
"Maybe I can fix the cup," said Violet, getting off Mama's lap.
She wrapped the cup pieces in a handkerchief.
"If I had to leave home, I'd take my sewing bag," said Violet. "I have my own scissors and thread and glue. And sewing needles."
"Violet is our mender and fixer."
"I'd take Joe," said Benny.
"But Joe doesn't belong to you, Benny," said Henry.
"Then I'd take Bear," he said. He held his worn stuffed bear under his arm.
"I took my doll," said Meg. The doll looked like Meg, the two of them with black curly hair. "And a box of crayons."
"I took three books," said William. "Only three," he added in a soft, sad voice. "I read them over and over."
"What would you take if you had to leave?" Jessie asked her mama.
"I'd take you!" said Mama. "All of you. You are the most important. The best family of all!"
Jessie and Henry smiled at each other. They didn't know if they were the best family of all, but they liked Mama saying so.
"Bear says he wants a bun," said Benny.
They laughed for now. They had no way of knowing it, but they were all to remember this talk later. They would remember Mama's words—the best family of all.
And that night, while everyone was sleeping, Violet carefully glued the pieces of her Mama's rose teacup together. She set it on the windowsill in the kitchen.
If she didn't look too closely, it almost looked the way it always had. Almost. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Aldens of Fair Meadow Farm by Patricia MacLachlan, Robert Dunn. Copyright © 2012 Patricia MacLachlan. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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