Tumbleweedsby Leila Meacham
Recently orphaned, eleven-year-old Cathy Benson feels she has been dropped into a cultural and intellectual wasteland when she is forced to move from her academically privileged life in California to the small town of Kersey in the Texas Panhandle where the sport of football reigns supreme. She is quickly taken under the unlikely wings of up-and-coming gridiron… See more details below
Recently orphaned, eleven-year-old Cathy Benson feels she has been dropped into a cultural and intellectual wasteland when she is forced to move from her academically privileged life in California to the small town of Kersey in the Texas Panhandle where the sport of football reigns supreme. She is quickly taken under the unlikely wings of up-and-coming gridiron stars and classmates John Caldwell and Trey Don Hall, orphans like herself, with whom she forms a friendship and eventual love triangle that will determine the course of the rest of their lives. Taking the three friends through their growing up years until their high school graduations when several tragic events uproot and break them apart, the novel expands to follow their careers and futures until they reunite in Kersey at forty years of age. Told with all of Meacham's signature drama, unforgettable characters, and plot twists, readers will be turning the pages, desperate to learn how it all plays out.
As large, romantic, and American a tale as Texas itself."Booklist"
An enthralling stunner....A compelling saga with echoes of Gone with the
It's been almost 30 years since the heyday of giant epics...but Meacham's debut might bring them back. Readers who like an old-fashioned saga will devour this sprawling novel of passion and revenge."Library Journal
- Grand Central Publishing
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Read an Excerpt
By Meacham, Leila
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2012 Meacham, Leila
All right reserved.
The call he’d been expecting for twenty-two years came at midnight when he was working late at his desk. He had a second’s start, the kind of stab he’d experienced often in the first years when the telephone rang in the early hours, but with the passage of time the duties of his office had accustomed him to its ring in the middle of the night.
The name of the caller appeared in the identification screen, and his heart did a flip-flop. He plucked the receiver from its holder before a second ring could disturb the household. “Hello?”
A chuckle, dry and mocking. “The same. You up?”
“I am now. Where are you calling from?”
“I’ll get to that in a minute. How are you, Tiger?”
“Surprised. It’s been a long time.”
“Not so long that you didn’t recognize my voice. I find that kind of comforting. I’m coming home, John.”
John drew up in his chair. “You are? After all this time? What for?”
“I have a few loose ends to tidy up.”
“Don’t you think it’s a little late for that?”
Another chuckle, devoid of mirth. “Still the same old John—guardian of my conscience.”
“I seem to have failed miserably.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”
John waited, refusing to rise to the lure the loaded tone invited. After a probing pause, Trey added, “The Tysons are interested in buying my aunt’s house. I told Deke I’d come to Kersey and we could talk about it. I’ve got to do something about Aunt Mabel’s things anyway, arrange for their disposal.”
“The Tysons? I thought they’d moved to Amarillo and Deke had bought a home security business there.”
“They did, but Deke’s retiring and wants to come back to Kersey to live. His wife’s always had an eye on my aunt’s house. A surprising turn of events, wouldn’t you say?”
“Not as surprising as some I’ve known. Where are you?”
“In Dallas. A connecting flight would have gotten me into Amarillo too late for my indigestion. I’ll fly in there in the morning, pick up a car, and meet the Tysons at Aunt Mabel’s around eleven o’clock.”
“As long as my business takes. A couple of days is my guess.”
John asked after a guarded silence, “Where are you staying?”
“Why, I was hoping you would put me up.”
Shocked, John asked, “Here? You want to stay here at Harbison House?”
Another dry laugh. “Why not? I don’t mind a bunch of runny-nosed kids. The Harbisons still with you?”
John answered warily, repulsed at the thought of Trey Don Hall sleeping under the Harbisons’ roof. “Yes… Lou and Betty are still here. They help me run the place.”
“That must be nice for you,” Trey said. “I’ll drive out after I’ve met with the Tysons. That should be in time for lunch. We’ll break a little bread together, and maybe I’ll have the good padre hear my confession.”
“I didn’t think you were planning on staying that long.”
Another chuckle, this one familiar. “Spoken like my man. It will be good to see you, John.”
“Same here,” John said, realizing with an ambush of feeling that he meant it.
“Don’t bet on it, Tiger.”
The line went dead, Trey’s last words raising a tickling sensation along John’s nape. Slowly he replaced the receiver and rose from his desk, aware that he’d broken into a mild sweat. He went to stand before a framed picture on the wall. It was an official shot of Kersey High School’s 1985 uniformed football team. Below was the caption DISTRICT CHAMPS. John had been a wide receiver on the team that had made it all the way to win the state championship, and in the picture he stood beside the tall, grinning quarterback and his onetime best friend, Trey Don Hall. Even then, Trey had been called “TD” Hall, a sports announcer’s moniker that had stuck all through his dazzling college playing days and his subsequent career as a quarterback in the National Football League. There were three other group photos of the team lined along the wall, each representing the Kersey Bobcats’ victories in the following play-off games, but the district contest against Delton High School was the one John remembered the most clearly. It was to that group picture that he most often turned his gaze.
What could be bringing Trey back home after twenty-two years? John didn’t believe for a minute that it had to do with selling his aunt’s house. The place had stood locked up and vacant for the two years since Mabel Church had died and left her nephew the home where he’d grown up, everything still in it but the food perishables and pet parakeet. Trey had no sentimental attachment to his aunt’s things or the handsome brick house where the three of them—he and Trey and Cathy—had hung out all the years of their childhood. He had people who could sell it and dispose of its belongings long-distance. What then? Was he seeking reconciliation and forgiveness? Absolution? Atonement? John might have considered those possibilities had Trey’s tone suggested them, but on the contrary, it had sounded mocking and mysterious. He knew his former friend and football teammate well. TD Hall was coming home for some other purpose, one that most likely would not bode well for anyone. He must warn Cathy.
On the night of January first, 1979, two hours into the New Year, Emma Benson saw a cross on the moon. Wrapped in her old flannel robe, awakened by a strange disquiet, she stepped outside her clapboard house in the town where she’d lived all her life, deep in the Texas Panhandle, and stared up at the unearthly sight, disturbed by a sense the cross was an omen meant personally for her.
The next day, she was informed that her last surviving child and his wife had been killed in a car accident coming home from a New Year’s Eve party. The caller identified himself as Dr. Rhinelander, a neighbor and close friend of Sonny and her daughter-in-law. He and his wife would keep the couple’s eleven-year-old daughter, Cathy, with them, he said, until the courts or whoever was in charge decided what to do with her.
“What do you mean—the courts?” Emma asked.
She heard a painful sigh. “I’m speaking of foster care, Mrs. Benson.”
Foster care. Her granddaughter, blood of her blood, growing up under the roof of strangers?
But who else was there to take her? Where else could she go? There were no family members left. Emma’s daughter-in-law had been an only child, adopted by a couple long past childbearing years and now deceased. Her other son, Buddy, had been killed in Vietnam. She was the only surviving blood connection to the child, but she was someone the little girl had met only once and had probably forgotten, since Emma suspected her name and family place were rarely, if ever, mentioned in her son’s household.
But she heard herself say, “If you’ll allow Catherine Ann to stay with you until I arrive, Dr. Rhinelander, I will bring her home with me.”
Emma, who had never flown in an airplane and had ridden the train only twice in her youth, booked a flight from Amarillo to Santa Cruz, California, and in the confining six hours in the middle seat of her row—cotton inserted into her ears to block the petulant whining and fractious misbehavior of the four-year-old boy behind her—worried to what extent her second son’s genes had infected his daughter. Her observation had been that, nine times out of ten, first daughters took after their fathers, not only in physiological structure and temperament but also in character, whereas firstborn sons echoed their mothers’. Her first son, Buddy, had proved no exception.
But Sonny, coming along later, hadn’t a drip of sap from the family tree running in him. Vain, materialistic, self-entitled, with a capacity for empathy no bigger than the eye of a needle, he had felt designed for a more exalted plane than the one on which he’d been born. “I was cut out for something better than this,” Emma could remember him stating, wounding her profoundly, and at the first opportunity he had taken off to correct the mistake that nature had made. He had rarely come home again, and after his marriage to a woman who shared his temporal values, only once. He said he’d come to introduce Emma to his wife and daughter, but he had come to borrow his brother’s life insurance money paid to her when he was killed. She’d refused. Sonny’s disaffection for her continued, abetted by his stylish wife who had barely been able to conceal a sniff at the surroundings in which her husband had grown up. Emma had read her disdain to mean that hell would freeze before she exposed her daughter to the place of her father’s birth and the stern, no-nonsense woman who had raised him. And as Emma had correctly interpreted, they’d never come again, nor invited her to their home in California. But she remembered well the delicate, feminine, startlingly pretty little four-year-old who almost from Emma’s hello had crawled into the safety of her daddy’s lap and refused to have anything to do with her.
Emma had thought her lamentably spoiled. You had only to look at the expensive clothes and toys, to hear the cooing and baby talk, to observe how her parents stood at the ready to grant her every wish and desire, to know that when she grew up she’d have the substance of a cube of sugar. Still, she was an enchanting little thing with her father’s curly blond hair and big blue eyes, gazing—shyly or coyly, Emma couldn’t tell—from beneath long lashes that in sleep lay like downy feathers on the sweet, creamy curve of her cheeks. Emma had a picture of her from that time displayed on her bedside table.
Catherine Ann was now eleven years old, perhaps a legatee of the chemical unit that carried hereditary characteristics from parent to child, her attitudes already formed by her upbringing and the ways and lifestyle of her native state. How did you transplant such a child from palm trees and ocean and permissive parenting to prairie and scrub brush and the care of a grandmother who still maintained that children should be raised to understand they were precious but not the center of the universe? That little boy in the seat behind her was a good example of the new child rearing. Heaven forbid that, despite his confinement, he should be expected to respect the eardrums of those around him.
There were bound to be fundamental conflicts, perhaps never overcome, but Emma understood her duty and, at sixty-two, was prepared to put her heart at risk for the loss of yet another child.
Here we are, Catherine Ann,” Emma Benson said, striking a light tone as she drew into the garage of her house in Kersey, Texas. “It won’t take long to get the house warm, but we’ll hurry it along with a cup of hot chocolate. Would you like that?”
As had been the case since their meeting in Santa Cruz, her granddaughter’s answer was an inscrutable stare, but Emma could guess what was going on behind those blue eyes now that Catherine Ann had gotten her first glimpse of her new home. “I’ll take that as a yes,” Emma said, and hurried to unlock the kitchen door before the child was too long exposed to the freezing temperature in a coat too thin for Panhandle winters. “Oh blast!” Emma said. The key would not turn—another blow to first impressions—and now she’d have to go out into the wind and sleet to the front door to let them in.
Her granddaughter stood shivering beside her, silent, stoic, expressionless as she’d been all week. Selective mutism, Dr. Rhinelander had termed her condition, claiming to be only a pediatrician and no child psychiatrist, but Catherine Ann demonstrated every one of its symptoms. “It’s usually a temporary disorder associated with anxiety or trauma and is characterized by an inability to speak in certain settings,” he’d explained. “Right now Cathy is mute to all but those she knows and trusts.” He’d given Emma’s six-foot, unadorned, rawboned figure a quick, clinical glance. “I mean no offense, Mrs. Benson, but you look a formidable woman, and Cathy has gone mute in your presence because she doesn’t feel safe with you. You are a stranger to her. She chooses to remain silent because, considering everything that’s happened, she finds safety in silence. She’ll speak when she trusts you.”
Emma gave the key another try. “The darn key won’t work. I don’t know when I last locked this door. Not in years, I reckon. In this town, we don’t lock doors.” She gave up the effort and turned to Cathy. “Tell you what. You get back in the car to stay warm until I go through the front of the house to open the door from inside. Okay?”
Resolutely the little girl stepped to a shelf in front of the garage and stood on tiptoe to take down a can of motor oil. She brought it to Emma. Try that, she said with her eyes, her tool of communication in the last seven days. Emma took the can, heartened at even this small exchange. “Aren’t you the clever one!” she said. “Why didn’t I think of this?”
A little dab on the key and they were inside the kitchen within seconds. Emma bustled about to turn on the stove and a wall panel heater while the little girl stood motionless, rigid from the cold, the knot of her balled hands visible in her coat pockets. She probably thinks she’s been dropped into a rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland, Emma thought, feeling the child’s bewildered gaze inspect her outdated kitchen. The Santa Cruz kitchen, like the rest of the house, had been large and sunny and as state-of-the-art as the latest layout in Better Homes and Gardens.
“Would you like to go into the den and sit while I make us that cocoa?” she asked. “You’ll be more comfortable in there once the room warms up.”
The child replied with a brief nod and Emma led her into a comfortably shabby room where she watched television, read, and did her needlework. The child flinched at the sudden whoosh and flash of fire behind the grill when Emma turned on the wall heater. Cathy’s home in California boasted central heating, of course.
“Would you like to watch TV?” Emma asked.
A head shake, also barely perceptible. The child, still in her coat, sat in a chair close to the heater and turned around to inspect Emma’s book collection that occupied an entire wall. A librarian by profession, she had organized the books according to interest rather than by author. Catherine Ann removed The Little Prince from the shelf of young people’s books. Her gaze returned to Emma. May I?
“Of course. You’ve never read that book before?”
Her granddaughter held up two fingers. Twice.
“Oh, you’ve read the book two times? The Little Prince is certainly worth reading more than once. It’s always good to return to familiar things. They can remind us of happy times.”
It was the wrong thing to say. Emma saw a flicker deep in the blue eyes as if a memory had surfaced, and a veil of sadness fell over the child’s delicate face. She returned the book to the shelf. “Well, then,” Emma said, swallowing quickly, “I’ll just get that cocoa.”
In the kitchen, she slumped against the counter, giving in to a feeling of overwhelming helplessness. She’d thought she was adequate for the task at hand, but how was it possible, considering all that her granddaughter had lost and what little Emma had to give, to fill the gap left in that little girl’s life? How could she ever be a substitute for her parents? How could the schools in Kersey, with their emphasis on football and other sports, provide her the quality of education and cultural advantages she’d known? How would this little girl with her air of refinement fit in with the countrified ways of her classmates? And how in the world could she be happy here in Emma’s modest house when she’d been growing up in a luxuriously furnished home with her own TV set and stereo record player—and, shining in one corner of the living room, a baby grand piano!—and a backyard outfitted with swimming pool and playhouse and every conceivable object on which to slide and jump and climb?
How could Emma rescue what was left of her childhood?
“Give her time,” Dr. Rhinelander had told Emma. “Children are so resilient, Cathy more than most. She’ll come around.”
Was the man insane? In the course of a week, Catherine Ann’s parents had been killed and her home gone on sale. She’d been parted from her best friend, her piano, the progressive private school she’d attended since kindergarten, the pretty town she’d lived in all her life—from everyone and everything dear and familiar to her—to go live in the Texas Panhandle with a grandmother she did not know.
And today the region had never looked bleaker. When Emma had turned onto Highway 40 out of Amarillo toward Kersey, the child’s eyes had dilated, speaking louder than words her panic that she’d been carted to the end of the earth. Emma could hardly disagree with her impression. The prairie in winter offered nothing to crow about. It stretched dead and brown into a vast, endless nothingness, broken now and then only by a distant farmhouse or a knot of cows huddled miserably against the wind-driven sleet. The little towns they passed through off the interstate looked especially dismal this gray Sunday afternoon with their main streets deserted and store windows dark and forlorn Christmas decorations still strung from lampposts, beaten about by the wind.
To coax the child from her despondency, Emma had described the prairie in spring, how it looked like a never-ending carpet of wildflowers—“the most beautiful, transformed sight you’d ever want to see,” she declared, when her enthusiasm was interrupted by the awestruck pointing of the child’s finger.
“Oh, my God,” Emma said.
A mass of gray tumbleweeds barreled toward them off the prairie, dozens of dried uprooted Russian thistles propelled by the wind and looking like a band of malevolent ghosts set on attacking the car. Emma could not pull to a stop before the horde was upon them, clawing at Catherine Ann’s side of the Ford. Her granddaughter squealed, tucked her elbows close to her sides, and covered her head with her hands.
“It’s okay, Catherine Ann,” Emma said, stopping the car to enfold her granddaughter’s tightly compressed body into her arms. The tumbleweeds had scattered and scuttled off, those that had not broken apart from the assault on the Ford. “They’re only dried plants, a weed,” she explained gently. “You’ll find them throughout the Southwest. In winter when they’ve matured, the parts aboveground break off from the root and tumble away in the wind. That’s why they’re called tumbleweeds. Sometimes a whole colony takes off together and forms the phenomenon we just saw. They’re scary as all get out, but they’re not harmful.”
She could feel the terrified pounding of the child’s heart through the fabric of her coat. Most children, seeing such a spectacle, would have flown to safety in the arms of the nearest adult, but Catherine Ann had not. She’d looked to herself for protection. The observation had left Emma with a well-remembered feeling of rejection.
“Cathy is very self-sufficient, despite the doting of her parents,” Beth, the wife of Dr. Rhinelander, had told Emma.
Self-sufficient. Emma pried the lid off a box of Nestlé’s Quik. Was that another word for indifference to parental love and instruction she’d endured from the child’s father?
At their reintroduction, Catherine Ann’s cool, blue-eyed gaze had reminded Emma so much of Sonny’s that a chill had gripped her, and she’d instantly felt the conflict of love and revulsion that had plagued her feelings for him. In the hectic week of arranging for the funeral, getting the house ready for sale, packing boxes to be shipped to Kersey and luggage for the plane—all without hearing a word leave the child’s lips—Emma had looked for genetic indicators that pegged Catherine Ann as Sonny’s daughter. Other than the fine features and coloring of her handsome father, Emma had found none, but they were hard to spot behind a wall of silence.
Most of the information she’d learned of Catherine Ann had come from Beth. “She’s very bright, curious, often treated younger than she is because she’s small for her age. But you learn fast enough who you’re dealing with. She’s been so good for our shy daughter, Laura. She’s given her confidence she wouldn’t have otherwise.”
When Emma had gone to collect Catherine Ann’s school records from Winchester Academy, an institution founded exclusively for gifted children, the principal had confirmed Beth’s impression of her granddaughter’s intelligence. “You do know what Cathy aspires to be when she grows up?” he’d asked.
Emma had to say she’d no idea.
“A doctor. Most children toss that notion about with no more strength behind it than crepe paper in the rain, but I wouldn’t put the goal past Cathy.”
Emma peeked into the TV room to find her granddaughter sitting where she’d left her, hands folded on her lap, feet crossed, body still, the look of an abandoned child on her face but the self-containment of her father evident in every line of her posture. A wave of despair washed over Emma. She’d shouldered a lot of sadness in her life—her husband’s railroad accident early in their marriage that had left her a widow and her sons fatherless, her firstborn’s death in Vietnam, his brother’s years-long alienation from her, and now his eternal loss without hope of their reconciliation—but how could she bear Catherine Ann’s refusal to accept the love she was heartsick to offer? How could she withstand the extension of her son’s indifference in his little automaton of a daughter?
Emma brought in the cups of cocoa. “Here we go—,” she started to say, but her voice broke, and she could not go on. Grief blocked her throat, grief for her boys she would never see again, for the son lost to her in war and the other from his birth, the one she’d loved the best. Tears began to slide down her cheeks, and then, to her astonishment, the little automaton rose and stood stiffly in front of her, her smooth brow puckered—what’s wrong?—and an empathetic cast in her eyes. Don’t be sad.
Inside her, the little seed of hope sprouted that now Emma realized Beth Rhinelander had meant to implant as they’d said their good-byes. “Cathy is her own person,” she’d whispered into her ear. Emma was still holding the hot cups, and as her granddaughter came between them she bent down to receive the child’s arms around her neck and the tender pat of a small hand on her back.
Through the kitchen window overlooking her backyard, Mabel Church watched her eleven-year-old nephew, Trey Don Hall, and John Caldwell, his best friend, toss a football to each other in the last light of the winter afternoon. Trey’s face still held a trace of petulance in contrast to John’s good-humored expression, and Mabel heard him say, “Oh, come on, TD. We just have to look after her for a week or so, and then our indenture will be over!”
Indenture. One of the words on the boy’s sixth-grade vocabulary list. Trey insisted on using double negatives as a way of sounding macho, but both of them enjoyed flinging about new words in their conversations with each other, a practice Mabel hoped would impress Catherine Ann Benson. Regrettably, Emma’s granddaughter sounded too smart for her own good—certainly for Kersey Elementary School, one of the reasons Emma had requested Mabel to ask the boys to look after her for a couple of weeks after she enrolled. The other was even more off-putting in a primary school setting. Emma’s granddaughter suffered from “selective mutism,” but only temporarily, Mabel’s old friend had explained, “until Catherine Ann can adjust to her new surroundings.”
Emma had the idea that Catherine Ann’s transition into Kersey Elementary School would be made easier if Trey and John, the undisputed leaders of the sixth grade, were to set the example of how she should be treated—with courtesy and respect. “Appeal to their male vanity,” she’d suggested. “Tell them that since they’re the kingpins of their class, the others will take their cue from them, follow their lead.” Emma was convinced that no one would dare make fun of Catherine Ann if the boys took her under their protective wing.
Mabel had broached the subject that afternoon as the boys were doing their homework around her kitchen table. As she’d expected, her nephew’s face had screwed up as if he were eating turnips when she explained what looking after Catherine Ann entailed.
“Forget it, Aunt Mabel. We’re not babysitting a mute, sitting with her in the cafeteria, sticking with her on the playground. How would that make John and me look? We sit at the jock table at lunch and play football during recess.”
“She’s not a mute,” Mabel had attempted to explain. “She’s simply lost the will to speak for a while. It’s a condition brought on from the shock of her parents’ sudden deaths and her whole world being turned upside down in a matter of days. She’s been hauled away from everything and everyone she knows to an unfamiliar place of strangers. She’s been totally orphaned. No wonder she’s lost her voice. You can understand that, can’t you, Trey Don?”
John had spoken up. “Of course he understands it. We both do.” He looked at Trey. “Think about it, TD. The girl’s parents just died. She’s an orphan. We know what that’s like. Miss Emma’s right. The other kids will make fun of her if we don’t protect her. You know how mean Cissie Jane and her group can be.”
Mabel’s heart had warmed toward him. She loved that he called her aunt. John Caldwell was not her nephew, but she felt as much akin to him as she did to her sister’s child. It was times like these that Mabel saw the clear results of family heredity, a subject she and Emma often discussed and on which they agreed. The generous blood of John’s mother, God rest her soul, flowed in John, while Trey Don’s veins ran with her selfish baby sister’s. But John’s reference to orphan had grazed a nerve in her nephew. His parents were alive. They just didn’t know where. Trey’s father had disappeared before he was born, and his mother had taken off with who knew what sort of trash after she’d deposited her four-year-old son with Mabel and her husband “for only a few days.”
They never saw her again.
Trey had asked reluctantly, “What does she look like?” his dark eyes hopeful that Catherine Ann did not favor Miss Emma.
“Well, I’m glad you asked that,” Mabel said, brightening. “Emma says she’s very pretty. A blue-eyed blonde. She’s small in size, but independent and gutsy, not clingy at all.”
“It doesn’t matter what she looks like,” John said. “We’ll do it, Aunt Mabel. Count us in. When do we meet her?”
“Not until next Monday. I suggested that you children meet beforehand, but Emma doesn’t think that’s a good idea because of the speech problem.”
Trey had fumed and argued, but John’s reference to orphan had taken the wind out of his objections. He’d gotten in the last word by saying, “Don’t expect us to carry her books!”
It was too cold for them to be outside, but Mabel observed them for a few more minutes before attempting to call them in. It was easy to see why they were the princes of the sixth grade. Already, at eleven, burgeoning athletes, they were tall and well formed and handsome—heartbreakers in the making. They were intelligent, too, and interested in their studies and making good grades. No slouches, either one, but what would Emma’s cultured granddaughter think of them—and they of her? The child could read and speak French, had studied art, had taken ballet since she was six, and excelled at the piano—“and here I am with no piano to offer her,” Emma had called to lament.
Mabel recalled Sonny Benson well. He had broken Emma’s heart. God help her oldest and dearest friend if daughter was like father, and God help Catherine Ann if she took his snobbish ways into Kersey Elementary School.
SIX DAYS LATER, on a late Sunday afternoon, Trey left John’s house and made a detour. Usually when leaving John’s, he went straight on down the block to Aunt Mabel’s home on the corner, but on this particular afternoon Trey decided to walk over to the next street where Miss Emma lived, despite his hatred of the cold and wind and snow.
He’d never dreaded anything more than the adjustment in his life coming tomorrow morning when he and John had to act as Catherine Ann Benson’s bodyguards. He’d made John promise they’d be enslaved for only a week. There had been daily bulletins of the new girl’s progress in adjusting to her “culture shock” (his aunt’s term), telephoned in by Miss Emma, but he still had no idea what he and John were in for.
The girl was finally starting to speak a little, and Miss Emma had taken her to Penney’s in Amarillo to buy her a warmer coat and shoes and jeans and flannel shirts, the type of clothes the sixth-grade girls wore in Kersey Elementary School. He’d been relieved to hear that. How embarrassing if she’d shown up in the kinds of things they wore in her private school back in California—uniforms and knee socks, so Miss Emma had told Aunt Mabel. Imagine, knee socks!
Miss Emma had tried to keep Catherine Ann occupied with things like baking cookies to take to the nursing home, looking at photo albums of her father as a boy, and searching for soil breaks in the flower beds that meant the daffodils would soon be up. How those activities could fill anybody’s time Trey didn’t know, but he guessed they were the kinds of things girls liked. He and John had wondered how Miss Emma’s granddaughter would react to Sampson, the old turtle that lived in her backyard and looked like a prehistoric monster. Trey had bet she’d faint right on the spot when Sampson crawled out of his hole on his powerful, reptilian legs and made a beeline for the treat in Miss Emma’s pocket like a military tank on the attack. To Trey’s surprise, the two had cottoned to each other right away, and the new girl took over the job of feeding him. The day before, after the night’s big snowfall, Miss Emma had helped her to build a snowman or, rather, a snow queen. Miss Emma had gone on and on telling his aunt how creative Catherine Ann was in choosing a fluted fruit bowl for a crown, a barbeque fork for a scepter, and a portion of red oilcloth for a sash. It was the first time the new girl had ever seen snow.
A big panel truck with ACE PLUMBING written on the door was parked on his side of the street across from Miss Emma’s house. He stopped beside it, his feet beginning to tingle inside his boots from the cold. The snow queen was in the front yard. It had black bottle caps for eyes, a funnel for a nose, and red buttons arched into a smiling mouth. The look was actually pretty neat.
The front door opened and Catherine Ann Benson ran out. Hatless, mittenless, her coat unbuttoned, she rushed to the snow queen, her cheeks flushing red almost immediately, her hair dancing in the wind, her small white hands like butterflies fluttering with the sash, the funnel, an awry button. Then she flew back up the steps and closed the door behind her.
Trey stood stock-still on the sidewalk. As he was hidden by the truck, she had not seen him. A feeling he’d never known before took command of him. He felt unable to move, as if he’d been captured in the beam of a spaceship. He could not feel the cold and wind. His hands and feet did not exist. He felt only the shock of having glimpsed an angel drop to earth, then disappear, the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen. Slowly, when he could get his feet to obey, he turned homeward, the snow like magic dust beneath his boots. He would keep his brief glance of Catherine Ann Benson to himself, a secret he would not share even with John, until tomorrow morning when he would introduce himself to her and become her protector for the rest of her life.
Bowing into icy wind that felt like splinters hammered into her face, Cathy Benson ran with her grandmother from the Ford to the entrance of Kersey Elementary School. Butterflies batted about madly in her stomach, increasing her queasiness, and she wanted to cry, Don’t leave me here! Let me go back with you!
Cathy was certain they’d turn around and head for the car the instant she said it, but the trouble was, she couldn’t say it. It had taken her almost a week to unthaw her tongue to speak to the woman who called herself her grandmother, but now it had frozen again, and she’d gone back into that silent place where her parents lived and all was warm and safe and familiar.
“Now, Catherine Ann, you know the number to call if you want to come home,” her grandmother told her for the tenth time once they were inside the door. “There’s no shame in calling me to come get you.”
But there would be shame. The woman didn’t want her to suffer, but Cathy sensed Emma would want her to stick it out—be a big girl. She suddenly recalled a memory of her father saying angrily, “That damn woman and her spine of steel!”
That damn woman, Cathy realized, had been his mother, this tall woman who was her grandmother. She’d want her to have a spine of steel.
She pressed the woman’s hand. I’ll be all right, and her grandmother rewarded her with a proud beam in her eye.
A heavyset man in a business suit and tie hurried toward them, a fold of flesh resting on the neck of his too-tight collar. The hard shine of the hall floor stretched cold and unwelcoming behind him, and Cathy could hear student chatter behind the closed doors. Homeroom—the first class of the day, she’d been told—had begun. Everyone would have already been seated when she walked in. Against her struggle to be brave, her ears plugged like they did in an airplane when it descended.
“Weldon, this is my granddaughter whom I’ve told you about,” she heard through the blockage in her ears. “Catherine Ann, this is Mr. Favor, the principal.”
No, no, my name is Cathy, Cathy wished to correct her. It was all right for her to call her Catherine Ann in her house, but in school she wished to be called Cathy.
“Hello there, Catherine Ann,” the principal said, shaking her hand. His hearty manner reminded Cathy of the men who worked for her father at the Jaguar dealership he managed. “Welcome to Kersey Elementary School. My goodness, what a pretty girl you are, and plenty smart, so I hear.” He turned his wide smile to her grandmother. “Now, don’t you worry one bit, Miss Emma. We’ll take good care of her.”
“See that you do,” her grandmother said in a tone crisp as lettuce—proper for the president of the school board, Cathy supposed. The woman turned to her. “There’s a lunch inside your satchel, Catherine Ann. You have a nice day, and I’ll be waiting for you right here by the door when school lets out. Okay?”
Cathy swallowed and nodded. Okay.
The woman bent down and peered into her face. “Have you gone silent again, sweetheart?”
Cathy shook her head emphatically. No!
“Oh, dear.” Her grandmother lifted a concerned glance to the principal and elevated her brows.
Mr. Favor threw up large palms. “Now, like I said, Miss Emma. Not to worry. The boys will take care of her. They’ll see that nobody teases her.”
Alarmed, Cathy tugged at the woman’s sleeve. What boys?
Her grandmother sighed and explained. “Mabel Church, my best friend, has a nephew who lives with her like you live with me. His name is Trey Don Hall. I thought I would ask him and his best friend, John Caldwell, to look after you this first week to help with your orientation. Mr. Favor here thought it a good idea, too. You’ll be glad to have them by your side. They’re the leaders of the sixth-grade class. Isn’t that so, Mr. Favor?”
The principal said with an aggrieved roll of his eyes, “I’m afraid that’s so.”
Cathy didn’t want any boy by her side. All the boys she knew at Winchester wore glasses and were either scrawny or fat and ran around in little groups. She and her friends called them the Nerd Herd. Why couldn’t her grandmother have recruited girls?
“Okay, young lady, let’s go take a look at your locker,” the principal said, and offered his hand, but Cathy gripped the handle of her satchel with both of hers—why did people insist on treating her like a kindergartner!—and walked beside him without a backward look at her grandmother, but her heart clutched when she heard the push of the handlebar and the door slammed shut by the wind.
“Your books are already in your locker,” the principal said. “Your grandmother returned them so you wouldn’t have to lug a heavy load around the first part of the day.”
For the last two days Cathy had memorized her schedule and thumbed through her textbooks, thinking the material awfully simple. She was especially disappointed to learn that science was not taught in the sixth grade but rather geography, and she would have to wait until her sophomore year to take biology. At Winchester, her class was already studying anatomy and the digestive system. Next year the students would begin dissecting frogs. Her grandmother, knowing Cathy wanted to become a doctor and seeing her disappointment, had told her not to worry. She would send away for home-schooling materials dealing with subjects in the medical field and Cathy could learn from those.
Principal Favor explained that her first period was homeroom, a class where roll was taken and announcements made and students did their homework. Cathy thought the last part strange. At Winchester, homework was done at home. He stopped in the middle of a row of metal storage compartments lined along a wall, quite different from the polished wood cabinets in her former school. “Miss Emma requested a top locker located between Trey Don Hall and John Caldwell,” he said, his grin spreading wide. “Most of the little girls in your class would kill to have it.”
There were those names again. Why would any girl kill to have a locker between two boys? Cathy watched the principal demonstrate how to open the locker by turning the dial of a combination lock. She learned the numbers immediately, but he repeated them several times and insisted she write them down on her schedule and practice dialing her combination. Then she followed him to the closed door of a classroom through which could be heard loud laughing and talking.
Mr. Favor’s face turned an explosive pink. “Miss Whitby needs to take her homeroom in hand,” he said as if he owed Cathy an explanation. “I don’t know how many times I’ve told her.” He mustered a smile. “Well, young lady, are you ready?”
Dumbly Cathy nodded, and the principal opened the door.
Instantly all chatter ceased. Everyone’s attention swiveled to their entrance. Several students who were out of their seats lowered themselves back into them, mesmerized with curiosity. The teacher who must be Miss Whitby froze in the act of writing on the board, a flash of panic in her startled stare.
The butterflies swarmed up to Cathy’s throat and choked off her breath. The arrested faces dimmed like stars behind clouds. Only one shone through, glowing like the moon. It belonged to a handsome boy in the back row whose head and shoulders rose above everyone else’s except for the blurred figure of another boy two seats over.
Miss Whitby recovered and came forward with a strained smile. She was very pretty and looked too young to teach. “You must be Catherine Ann Benson. I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow. Thank you, Mr. Favor. I’ll take over from here.”
Mr. Favor spoke in an undertone from behind his hand, “As I hope you will your students, Miss Whitby, and I told you she’d be here today.” He dropped his hand and addressed the class. “Boys and girls, this is Catherine Ann Benson, Miss Emma’s granddaughter. She’s from California. I don’t want to hear of anybody not being nice to her, understand?” He ran a stern eye around the room. “You know what’ll happen if you do.” To Cathy he said, “Don’t hesitate to call me if you need me, Catherine Ann.”
Cathy. My name is Cathy! she wanted to cry, feeling her insides dissolve in embarrassment at her introduction. The principal had threatened the students and now, on top of everything else different about her, they would hate her for that reason alone.
She dropped her eyes to escape their stares and heard a voice call from the back of the room, “Let her sit here, Miss Whitby.” Cathy sneaked a peek from under her lashes and saw that the command had come from the handsome boy in the last row. He was pointing to a desk between him and the other tall boy. There were giggles and girls covered their mouths with their hands, but the speaker did not laugh. Perfectly serious, he dragged his book satchel out of the aisle as if expecting to be obeyed.
“All right, Trey Don,” Miss Whitby said after a pause. “We’ll try it for a little while. Catherine Ann, you may take your seat.”
In the complete silence, Cathy walked down the aisle and slipped into the desk seat, conscious of every eye following her, curiosity mixed with surprise and excitement. Rigidly she focused her gaze on unzipping a compartment of her satchel to withdraw paper and pen to write down the material from the board. Her movements held the fascinated attention of the class, as if they were expecting her to perform tricks.
The boy named Trey Don Hall—now revealed as the nephew of her grandmother’s best friend—leaned over. “Hi. I’m Trey Hall. I’m supposed to look after you. Me and John. That’s John Caldwell over there.”
She turned to the other boy and blinked shyly. Hello.
“Hi,” he said, and smiled at her.
They were different from any other boys she’d ever known. There was nothing nerdy about them. She thought they may have been held back a year, they were so tall for the sixth grade. It would be hard to say who was handsomer. Both had brown eyes and dark hair, though John’s was a little curlier. They were big and strong compared to her, and she felt even smaller sitting between them.
The boy named John said, “You can put your pen and paper away. There’s nothing to write down in here. This is a goof-off period.” He noticed the staring students and irritably waved at them with the backs of his hands as if he were shooing chickens. Immediately, in one movement, every set of shoulders rotated to the front.
Indeed she was sitting between the definite leaders of the sixth grade. Trey Hall leaned over again. “You can call me TD. Everybody does.”
She glanced at him, wanting to speak but held silent by the familiar powerlessness of her tongue.
The boy on the other side of her whispered to him across her desk, “She’s mute, TD. Remember?”
Cathy turned to stare at him in shock. Mute? She wasn’t mute!
“Oh, sorry. I forgot,” Trey said. He smiled at her. “TD stands for ‘touchdown.’ ”
She must make them understand that she could speak. She faced the other boy, but he misunderstood the anguish in her eyes and explained, “Like in football. Trey is our team’s quarterback.”
“Do you like football?” Trey asked.
She swung her gaze back to him blankly. Football? Her father thought football games were for monkeys.
Trey grinned. “Well, that’s okay. And it’s okay to be like you are. We understand, don’t we, John?” He touched her arm. “John and me, we don’t have no parents, either. My old man split before I was born, and my mom left me with my aunt when I was four, and I never saw her again, and John’s mother died when he was seven. His dad—if you can call him that—is around, but we don’t see much of him. So…”—Trey’s grin widened—“we got being orphans in common.”
Orphans… The word pierced through her like an arrow shot from a bow and shattered her secret place. Pain flooded where her parents had been alive and well, blinding her, forcing her to see.
“Catherine Ann, are you okay?” John asked.
Tears welled in her eyes. Her mouth trembled. “Cathy,” she said. “My name is Cathy.”
What did I say to make her cry, John?”
“I think it was the word orphan, TD. Maybe up until you said it, she hadn’t realized her parents were dead. It took a while for me to feel my mother gone, and then one morning, I woke up and it hit me that she was dead and I’d never see her again.”
“I remember that morning,” Trey said. “You ran around like hornets were after you.”
“It’s the most terrible feeling in the world.”
“Ah, jeez, John, I didn’t mean to make her feel like that.”
“Of course you didn’t. She knows it, too.”
“I want to do something nice to make it up to her.”
“Like what? Pick her some flowers?”
“For Pete’s sake, John, where am I going to find flowers to pick in the dead of winter?”
“You could buy them.”
“With what? I’ve already spent my allowance.”
“John! Trey! Stop talking and pay attention!” The order came from Coach Mayer, head coach of the ninth-grade football team. He stood at the blackboard, tapping at diagrams of game plays with a yardstick. John’s and Trey’s school schedules had been arranged for them to attend the physical-education class made up of the players of the junior high football teams, seventh through ninth grade. It was really a bull session designed to give the coaches extra time to tutor their players. In the long history of the school’s successful athletic program, John and Trey were the youngest students and only sixth graders ever assigned to the class. Big things were expected of their respective talents as they got older and moved into the higher ranks—Trey as quarterback and John as a wide receiver.
The boys drew apart and focused their attention on the blackboard, but Trey’s fingers, already long and sinewy, beat out a rapid tap on the surface of his desk, a signal to John that he was in his thinking mode. That could be good, and that could be bad. One thing John knew, Trey had it bad for Catherine Ann—Cathy—Benson. Well, who wouldn’t? She looked like a little angel, all blond curls and blue eyes and sweet dimples when she smiled. Which wasn’t going to happen too often now. After that morning when John realized his mother was gone for good, his world had gone black for a long, long time. It would be a while before he and Trey saw those dimples again.
Trey snapped his fingers. “I know! We can get her a puppy,” he whispered. “Gil Baker told me that Wolf Man’s collie had a litter last week.”
John caught Coach Mayer’s frown in their direction and wrote on his notebook for Trey to read: You think he’ll give us one?
Trey mouthed, Why not?
To their consternation, the coaches did not dismiss the class, the last period of the day, until after the bell rang and Cathy had gone by the time they reached the home economics room to escort her to her locker. Except for athletics, she was in all their classes and shared the same lunch period, and they’d been able to watch her every move for most of the day. She’d looked lonely and lost and kept to herself, speaking to no one and barely to them, but everyone knew of the new girl in school and that he and Trey were looking out for her. When they were finally released, they flew down the hall to waylay her before she could leave, only to catch a glimpse of her blond curls bouncing under her cap as she went out the front door with Miss Emma.
“Catherine Ann!” Trey called, his voice stricken, swallowed up in the end-of-school-day noise.
John felt a pang of sympathy for him. He’d never seen Trey moony-eyed over anybody, and in the cafeteria at noon today John had been embarrassed for Cathy at the attention he gave her. “Is this seat okay, Catherine Ann?” “What do you want to drink? I’ll get it for you.” “You can have my Jell-O, if you want. My cookie, too.”
And to John he’d said afterwards, “Did you see how nicely she ate, John? And did you notice how clean her fingernails were—like little white half-moons.”
Actually, Cathy had eaten very little of the big sandwich Miss Emma had prepared and nothing else she’d packed in her sack, but he agreed she chewed daintily, and her hands were pretty and delicate and didn’t look as if they belonged at the sleeve ends of the flannel shirt she was wearing. Her shirt collar was too big for her little neck, too, and he figured Miss Emma had bought a larger size in case the shirt shrank or maybe she expected Cathy’s body to catch up to it. Miss Emma wasn’t rich like Aunt Mabel and probably couldn’t afford to replace the clothes Cathy grew out of.
Cathy had looked at Trey as if he’d skittered in from a different solar system and for most of the time ignored him. They’d selected a place away from the jock table situated next to the one where Cissie Jane queened it over her silly bunch. Lots of giggles had come from that direction, and John had been pretty sure the cause of the laughs was Cathy.
Trey’s interest was probably temporary, but right now she’d become the moon and stars in his sky. His, too, actually.
“Relax, TD. We’ll see her tomorrow,” he said, placing a consoling hand on Trey’s shoulder.
Trey shrugged it off in an unwillingness to be comforted. “Dadgummit! We could have ridden home in Miss Emma’s car with Catherine Ann if Coach Mayer hadn’t been so long-winded. Okay, let’s go talk to Wolf Man about that pup.”
“Well, now, wait a minute, TD. Maybe she’d like a kitten,” John said, as they made for their lockers. “They’re less trouble than dogs, and I’ll bet Cissie Jane would give us one of hers. Her mama cat had a litter about three weeks ago, and she’s trying to find homes for them.”
Trey whooped. “A kitten! No way! Cats got no soul, man. Dogs do, and it’ll protect Catherine Ann when it grows up.”
“Cathy,” John corrected. “She likes to be called Cathy, TD.”
“I really like the sound of ‘Catherine Ann.’ ”
“Well, her name is Cathy.”
Trey shrugged the point aside. “Here’s a news flash, Tiger. Cissie Jane’s not going to give us no—any—kitten for Catherine Ann.”
“How do you know?”
“Didn’t you see the way Cissie looked at her when we sat with her at lunch? Them green eyes of hers shot fire—I mean those green eyes.”
“Why do you keep correcting yourself? It’s annoying,” John said.
“I’ve got to watch how I talk from now on. It’s not cool to butcher the English language, like my aunt keeps telling me.”
John returned to the discussion. “Cissie Jane’s jealous of her, TD. She’s not the prettiest girl in class anymore.”
“No kidding, and Catherine Ann’s a whole lot smarter and nicer than she is, too. You can tell. I just know she’d really love a puppy. Collies are so warm and cuddly. I bet she’d really like one to hold right now.”
John agreed. A dog would be better than hugging a pillow. He should know, but what if Miss Emma didn’t want a dog in the house? “Don’t you think we ought to ask Miss Emma first if it’s okay to give Cathy a puppy? Collies shed.”
“For goodness’ sakes, John, why do you always have to think that way? If we ask Miss Emma, she’s liable to say no out of hand. If we spring it on her, and Catherine Ann likes it, she has to keep it.”
Trey had a point, but as usual, it was a little shady. “Tell you what,” John said. “Let’s run this idea by your aunt. She knows Miss Emma better than anybody. If she thinks a dog’s okay to give Cathy, we’ll go ask Odell Wolfe for one from his litter.”
Trey’s countenance brightened. He threw up his hand, and they high-fived. “Way to go, Tiger!”
Trey called him Tiger mainly when he agreed with his way of doing things. Trey had given John the nickname when they were playing pee wee football and he’d made good on Trey’s pass and carried two tacklers with him across the goal line, Trey yelling, “Thataway to go, Tiger!” John knew that Trey had in mind to sell his aunt on the idea, rather than simply run it by her. He always got his way with her, but maybe this time it was okay. Aunt Mabel had told them that Miss Emma was already insane about her granddaughter and that her heart felt “like a rusty old trunk with its lid pried open.” She might agree to just about anything to make Cathy happy.
No, boys! Absolutely not.” Mabel Church shook her head vigorously to add emphasis to her rare assertion of authority over her nephew. “I cannot permit you to go to Odell Wolfe for a puppy. We don’t know a thing about him, and who knows what would happen to you once you set foot in his house?”
“We won’t set foot,” Trey argued. “He wouldn’t keep his dog in his house, Aunt Mabel. She’s probably laid up in one of his mangy old sheds.”
“Property. I should have said ‘set foot on his property,’ ” Mabel corrected herself. “You’ll have to think of something else to give Catherine Ann.” She shuddered at the thought of two eleven-year-old boys doing business with the recluse who lived at the end of a neglected road in the least desirable section of her neighborhood. Wolf Man, everybody called him, and the moniker fit the man in the most uncharitable light of the species. Dirty and unkempt, red hair and beard a matted mess, he had come from nowhere at least ten years ago and taken up residence in a falling-down house that had lain vacant since its owners had abandoned it in the fifties. Few ever saw him. No one knew anything of his history, how old he was, or how he made his living. It was rumored he wandered about at night, carried a whip, and raised fighting chickens in the ramshackle pens in the backyard. It was Mabel’s policy to have no truck with folks you didn’t know anything about.
“I don’t want to think of something else,” Trey wailed. “Catherine Ann needs a puppy, doesn’t she, John?”
“A puppy would probably be a comfort to her, Aunt Mabel,” John said. “I don’t think Miss Emma will say no to the idea. She’ll want Cathy to be happy.”
Mabel could feel her resistance soften. John’s insights always melted something inside her. Out of the mouths of babes. “It’s not the puppy I’m opposed to, John,” she explained. “It’s the fact that you’ll be dealing with Odell Wolfe. And what makes you think he’d give you one for free anyway?”
“Why wouldn’t he?” Trey said. “He’s just going to kill them anyway. He’d probably be happy for us to take one off his hands.”
“We’ll compromise,” Mabel said. “This weekend, I’ll drive you boys to the pound in Amarillo, and you can get one there for the little girl. We could even take her with us to make the selection, if she’ll go. Meanwhile, we’ll broach the idea to Miss Emma.”
“Aw, Aunty, this weekend will be too late. She needs one tonight, and we want to surprise her with a puppy ourselves!”
“And by taking one of Wolf Man’s, we’d be saving at least one from the litter,” John put in.
As usual in these debates, Mabel had begun to feel helpless. She agreed that a pet might be just the right stroke to help the child work through the trauma of everything that had happened to her. When Mabel had called to find out how Catherine Ann’s first day at school had gone, Emma had said, “Not good. She’s in her bedroom now, curled up in the fetal position, and she won’t speak to me. Something must have gone terribly wrong at school today.”
Yes, Mabel thought, a warm puppy might be the exact thing for Catherine Ann right now, but not at the expense of the boys’ lives or limbs. “I’m sorry,” she told them, “but you’ll just have to wait until Saturday when you’re out of school. Now, I want you both to give me your word that you won’t approach Mr. Wolfe for one of his pups. You’re forbidden to have any contact with him, is that clear?”
Her nephew’s word was of dubious value, she’d learned by now. He got his peculiar brand of dishonesty honestly—from his mother—but if his word was coupled with John’s, he wouldn’t go back on it. John kept him ethical. Their friendship was the darndest thing. The two were like a tandem bike, always together but seats apart, one driving, one pedaling, one in front, the other behind, exchanging positions often. What bound them together was beyond her ken, but ever since she and John’s mother had introduced them at four years old they had been joined—if not by the soul (Lord knew where Trey’s would eventually end up, while John’s was sure to fly to heaven), at least by the heart, for there was no accounting for the attractions of the heart. There were wrangles from time to time, but they didn’t last long. Trey couldn’t go a day without making up. John was the only person in his life he couldn’t seem to live without, the only relationship he minded carefully.
“I give my word,” John said.
“Me, too.” He looked defeated or had suddenly lost interest in the matter, not unusual for him. One minute he was all for something, and then as rapidly as a summer rain shower his enthusiasm could disappear.
Satisfied, Mabel said, “Okay then. Now what are you boys going to do before supper and you get down to your homework?”
Trey spoke up promptly. “Go to John’s. I left my baseball glove at his house.”
“Very well, then,” Mabel said, “but be back by six o’clock. “You know you’re to come, too, John. We’re having beef stew.”
“That sounds mighty good, Aunt Mabel,” John said.
They hurried out without taking time for a snack, and it wasn’t until Mabel entered her nephew’s room to place his freshly washed underwear and pajamas in his bureau that she saw his baseball glove on top.
CATHY LAY WITH HER KNEES drawn up to her chin, a blanket covering her head, her face buried in the pillow. The realization had now sunk in, down to the fatty substance in the cavities of her bones, that her parents were gone from this world and she would never see them again. She would never hear their voices or her mother call her by her nickname, Honey Bun, or her father say each morning, “Rise and shine, sun of my world.” They would not be coming to take her home, back to her pretty room with its bay window lined up next to Laura’s that provided a secret channel of communication. Cathy would never again walk into a classroom at Winchester Academy and sit down with her classmates, be instructed by her wonderful teachers. Everyone and everything she loved had all disappeared the second she’d heard that awful word orphan and now she had to live forever with the old woman who was her grandmother in this worn-out house in a brown, cold place where the sun never shone, and her only friends were two boys she did not know who wore cowboy boots and one talked in double negatives.
There was nothing now inside her but empty space where once her parents had lived.
She heard her grandmother outside her door and knew she listened for sounds that she was awake. Cathy remained quiet as a stick until she heard the sad shuffle of her footsteps move back down the hall to the warmer part of the house, and then she pulled the covers tighter and buried her head deeper into the pillow.
Okay, in case Aunt Mabel’s watching, let’s take off toward your place, John,” Trey said.
John glanced at him sharply. “That is where we’re going.”
“No it isn’t. We’re going to circle back to Wolf Man’s place.”
John stopped. “What? You gave your aunt your word that you wouldn’t go there.”
“Now, Tiger, listen to me,” Trey said. “Remember what she said, and what we said okay to. She asked us to give our word that we wouldn’t approach Mr. Wolfe about one of his pups. Those were her exact words, John. I was listening.”
“So?” John said.
“So we’re not going to approach him. We’re going to snatch one of them—those—pups without ever seeing him.”
John closed his mouth to avoid his teeth freezing. It was fiery cold this time of the afternoon when the sun disappeared and the wind blew out of the north. He longed to be out of it, even if it was to his house that smelled like sour beans. He walked on. “You’re crazy, TD. How are we going to get a pup without Wolf Man catching us?”
Trey hurried after him. “How’s he going to see us? We’ll use the alley and go in the back way. That poor old mama is probably freezing her tits off under one of them—those—outbuildings. We’ll hear her pups, and we’ll just grab one and run.” He pulled at John’s arm and made him stop. “John, if we don’t do it now, tomorrow might be too late. He’ll take an ax to those pups’ heads, sure as shooting.”
“They’re not even weaned yet,” John said. “If a pup’s taken too soon from its mother it could die.”
“John, why do you have to be so stupidly practical? So what? It’s not going to live long enough to be weaned if we don’t rescue it. And we can be its mama, feed it milk from a bottle. Catherine Ann would probably love holding the little thing, feeding it like a baby. It’d give her something to put her feelings on rather than her sadness.”
“That’s so,” John said. Trey had a way of working him with words, which most of the time he didn’t listen to, but this time he made sense. He wished he’d had something to hold and love when his mother had died, but he couldn’t risk his father taking his foot to a dog or cat in the house. This time Trey was right. Seems like, when it came to Trey, he was always torn between what was right and what was almost right. He wanted Cathy to have the puppy more than anything in the world. On the other hand, they had sworn to Aunt Mabel they’d have no dealings with Odell Wolfe and, no matter how Trey worded it, they’d be going back on their promise. “You know how Gil Baker exaggerates,” he said. “How does he know Wolf Man’s collie had pups?”
“Because Gil’s always sneaking around the place trying to find out something to sic the law on him. His mama wants Wolf Man run off, but even though he’s a squatter, Sheriff Tyson won’t do anything unless there’s proof he’s done something wrong.”
“Why can’t we wait until your aunt takes us to the pound?” John asked, gritting his teeth to keep them from chattering.
“Because I want to make up for what I said to Catherine Ann now—tonight! I want to see her face when I hand her the pup.”
That was another Trey thing: Once he thought of a plan, he couldn’t wait to put it into action. He had to have it—or do it—right now. “We’ll need something to wrap it in,” John said.
Trey slapped his shoulder. “You’re my man, John. I’ll put it under my jacket.”
They almost had to hold their noses when they approached the Cyclone fence of Odell Wolfe’s backyard. “Godamighty,” Trey said. “Have you ever smelled such stink?”
“The gate’s padlocked, TD,” John observed. There was also a huge NO TRESPASSING sign attached to the fence.
“We’ll go over it.”
“Only one of us can. The other one has to stay outside and give a leg up.”
The boys’ eyes locked. They could hear the soft, clucking sounds of chickens bedding down for the night. Dusk had fallen, gray and cold as frozen steel, and the wind had died, as if it had been chased away by night, which was fast creeping in. A single light shone in the coop, none in the ramshackle house, though smoke spiraled from the chimney.
“Then I’ll go,” Trey said. “You be ready to catch the pup when I drop it to you.”
John studied the stretch of ground between the alley and a series of lean-to shelters. It was a no-man’s-land of trash and garbage and rusting metal parts of indecipherable origin. In the semi-darkness, heading helter-skelter to the sheds, Trey would never see a broken bottle or the lid of a tinned can just inviting him to step on it. Trey would take no mind to that sort of danger, and probably make a racket to boot, and what if the mama didn’t want to give up her pup?
“I got an idea,” John said. “Let’s do rock, paper, scissors. Whoever wins goes over.” It was a game he nearly always won when he played it with Trey.
“Why not whoever wins stays behind?” Trey suggested.
“I’m going over, TD. I’m quieter than you, and dogs like me.”
“Not on your life, Tiger. I’m going after the pup so I can tell Catherine Ann I got it for her. You helped me, of course, but I got it for her.”
“You’ll just mess it up, and if Wolf Man gets after you, you’re cooked.”
“Don’t worry about me, John,” Trey said quietly. “You’re always worrying about me.”
“You need worrying about,” John said, and made a stirrup of his hands. “Watch where you step, for Pete’s sake.”
“You’re my man, John.”
Trey was over the fence in seconds and landed with a soft thud on the ground. He gave John a thumbs-up and, bending low, headed for the lean-tos. John hooked his fingers through the wire openings of the fence and hoped with held breath that Trey had chosen the right shed as he faded into the shadows. The chickens must have heard him. John listened, horrified, as they started up a disturbed squawking. In less than a second, a light went on in the house that he could see dimly through the dingy kitchen window. John’s heart lurched. Oh, my God.
He called in a loud whisper, “Trey!”
But it was too late. A figure with a bushy beard emerged quietly from the back door, closing it softly. Wolf Man! He carried something in his hand. A gun? Darkness was falling fast, but the man spotted John and ordered, “Just stay right there!” and lifted the object in his hand.
A high-powered beam of light struck John dead in the eyes, blinding him, almost knocking him over. “You just stay right there,” the voice called again.
“Y-y-yessir,” John said.
He heard cautious footsteps approach. “What you doin’ here, boy?”
John put up his hands to shield his eyes from the light. “I—I—”
“Put your hands down so I can see your face.”
“I can’t see.”
“Makes no matter mind to me. I can see you. Why’re you spyin’ through my fence?”
“I wasn’t spying, sir.” John kept his fingers splayed before his eyes, praying that Trey would see what was going on and take off toward the street. He heard a jangle of keys but figured he could escape down the alley before the man could unlock the gate and come after him.
“What have you done to upset my chickens?”
“Nothing,” John said.
“Well, somethin’ must have—” He swung the flashlight around. John, still blinded, had heard nothing, but the man had the ears of a wolf. “Well, well, what have we here?” he said, and John knew Trey had been caught. When John could clear the dazzle from his eyes, he saw, horrified, that Trey stood snared in the beam of light, a bulge under his jacket, and something else: The man held a whip coiled at his side.
“Why’re you in my yard, boy?” Odell Wolfe demanded of Trey. “What kind of mischief did you come in here to do?”
John wanted to shout, Run, Trey! but suspected that Wolf Man could uncoil that whip faster than a rattlesnake could strike and snap Trey’s neck off his shoulders before he could sprint two steps.
“Nothing,” Trey answered. “I didn’t come in here to do mischief.”
“Then why are you in here?”
“We came in here to get one of your puppies,” John answered through the wire. “We heard your collie had a litter and thought that… you wouldn’t miss just one.”
The flashlight swung around to John again, and once more he shielded his eyes from the sudden assault. “And just why did you figure that?” Wolf Man asked.
“It doesn’t matter why,” Trey said. “Take off, John—now!”
“Well… as long as I got one of you for my pot, it don’t matter about the other,” the man drawled, and John, his fingers gripping the wire, felt his bowels churn to butter.
“What do you want with one of my pups?” Wolf Man asked Trey, directing the beam back to his face.
“We want it for Miss Emma’s—Mrs. Benson’s—granddaughter. Both her parents just got killed, and she’s an orphan now. We thought it would cheer her up.”
Trey spoke without moving his jaws. He was shaking visibly from the cold, and John could feel its grip through his shorts. Wolf Man wore a flimsy jacket with the tail ends of his shirt hanging out and moccasins with no socks, like he was part of the night and freezing temperature.
“We’d have gone to the pound in Amarillo to get one,” John volunteered through the Cyclone fence, “but we’d have to wait until Saturday, and Cathy needs one now.”
“Emma Benson,” the man mused, lowering the light. “That pup’s for her granddaughter?”
“Yeah,” Trey said.
“Then why didn’t you just ask instead a stealin’ in here and takin’ one? I don’t reckon Miz Benson would cotton to that.”
“Because my aunt told me to have no dealings with you, that’s why,” Trey said.
“She did, did she? Who’s your aunt?”
“None of your business.”
John’s heart pumped faster as Wolf Man nailed Trey again with the high-powered beam. He rubbed his thigh with the whip, and John could make out his hard grip on the handle. “Hey, I know you,” the man said. “You’re that flashy little quarterback everybody’s setting their hopes on for Kersey in a few years and you”—the light arced back to John—“you’re John Caldwell, his receiver. Well, well.”
“How do you know about us?” Trey demanded.
“I’ve watched you play.” He chuckled. “Mabel Church—that’s who your aunt is. She was plenty right to warn you to stay out of my yard.” He unhooked a ring of keys from his pants and threw the set over the fence to John, who automatically whipped out his hand and caught it. “Good catch,” Wolf Man pronounced. “Now unlock that gate.”
“You mean—you’re going to let Trey out?” John said.
“He’ll hurt the pup if he climbs over.” The man laughed quietly again and shook his head. “You boys must think an awful lot of that girl to risk comin’ around my place on her behalf. Is she pretty?”
“Yeah. Very,” Trey said.
“Is she nice?”
“Yes!” both boys chorused together.
“I’m not surprised, her being Miss Emma’s granddaughter an’ all.” Wolf Man’s lips slid into a sly smile. “Two boys and a pretty girl. Nothing good ever came from that equation. Lob those keys back to me, John Caldwell, and you boys get on home to your suppers. Mind you, feed that critter ’fore you sit down to a bite. Soak the end of a towel in warm milk and let it suck on it. And next time you want something of mine, you better ask.”
John had finally managed to unlock the gate, his hands numb beyond feeling. “We will, sir,” he said, and tossed him the keys, his nerves still at fever pitch that Wolf Man might change his mind and wrap his whip around Trey to keep him penned in.
But Wolf Man allowed Trey to escape, and once outside the gate the boys ran to the end of the alley, Trey’s arms wrapped protectively around the small lump under his jacket. There they stopped to catch their breaths and savor the miracle of their triumph. Panting, John said, “Wolf Man wasn’t so bad. Imagine him seeing us play, and he sounded like he knows Miss Emma.”
“Yeah,” Trey agreed. “He had rigged up an electric heater in the shed for the dogs and left them lots of blankets. What do you suppose he meant by that equation crack?”
“Beats me,” John said.
Mabel Church eyed them with stern disapproval when they stormed through the back door, the heat of the kitchen striking them like a hot shield. “Now, Aunt Mabel, don’t say a word,” Trey said, unzipping his jacket. “I know I’m in trouble, but we got to take care of this puppy first. He has to be fed and kept warm.”
Guiltily John said, “We have to soak the end of a towel into hot milk and let him suck on it, Aunt Mabel.”
“Is that so?” she said, her tone surprisingly mild. She took the shivering, closed-eyed little ball of fur from Trey and wrapped it in a thick bath towel she had ready. She then removed a container of warmed milk from the microwave, filled an eyedropper lying on the counter, and inserted it into the tiny mouth. The boys looked at each other, their surprised gazes asking, How did she know?
“So you did have dealings with Odell Wolfe, which I expressly forbade. John, you’re not my responsibility, but Trey Don, you’ll have to be punished.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Trey said as if she’d threatened no more than withholding dessert if he didn’t finish his milk. He tossed a careless explanation to John. “She found my baseball mitt and figured out what we were up to.”
“So, you will stay here while John and I deliver this little fellow,” Mabel said, “and you’ll be happy to know that Miss Emma highly approves of the idea of a puppy for Cathy.”
Trey’s mouth opened so wide John could see his bottom filling. Horrified disbelief filled his eyes. “What?” he cried. “Aunt Mabel, you can’t mean it! I risked my life for that puppy.”
“Exactly. Thank you for admitting it. Now you go to your room without any supper and don’t come out until I get you up in the morning.”
“Aunt Mabel, please… You can punish me some other way.” Heartsickness filled Trey’s eyes, shredded his voice. “Please, Aunt Mabel. You can’t do this to me.”
The bottle finished, Mabel laid the swaddled puppy in a box of bedding she’d prepared. “I’m afraid I have to, Trey. You need to learn that there are consequences for breaking your word. I’m going to give you one more chance to prove that you can keep it. I want you to promise me that you won’t poke your head out or even open that door until breakfast time. I imagine you’ll be pretty hungry by then.”
“Aunt Mabel…” Trey’s plea thinned to a plaintive cry.
“Promise me—right now!”
“Oh, all right. I promise.”
“State your promise before God, John, and me.”
Trey, hanging his head, said, “I won’t open my bedroom door and come out until you call me in the morning.”
John, stiff faced and silent as a totem pole, dared not look at Trey. His glance would have given away what they both knew. Trey would be out his bedroom window and on his way to Miss Emma’s before his aunt turned the ignition key to her Cadillac—and all done without breaking a word of his promise. She was the sweetest woman in town, but how could she be so… well, dumb?
Aunt Mabel slipped on her coat and anchored her handbag over her shoulder. “John,” she said, “I’m guessing you’ll be eating your supper with Miss Emma and her granddaughter tonight. They’re having stew, too.” John still didn’t look at Trey as she picked up the box and deposited it in his unwilling arms. She turned to her nephew. “Trey, go right now to your room and do your homework.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Trey said.
“And don’t you dare slam your door.”
John said, “I’ll be sure and tell Cathy you got the pup for her, Trey.”
“Tell her I hope she likes it,” he said, and shuffled off down the hall. They heard his bedroom door close softly.
John said, straight-faced, “I thought he took that pretty well.”
“Didn’t he though?” Mabel said.
John held the box on his lap while Mabel drove the few blocks to Emma Benson’s house. It would be just a matter of time before Trey showed up and horned in—after his aunt had left Miss Emma’s, of course—but he, John, would be the first to see Cathy’s face when she saw the collie puppy. Next to her, he was the cutest thing John had ever seen. The puppy was asleep now and dreaming, and John could picture the dog’s little pink nose nuzzled against Cathy’s soft cheek and her eyes closed in bliss from the velvety feel of him, like girls do. He felt a pang of betrayal for being glad that Trey wouldn’t have first crack at Cathy’s gratitude and sorrow for Aunt Mabel’s disappointment if she checked on Trey when she got home and found him missing. Maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe her trust in him would protect her.
Emma opened the front door before they could knock. “I told Cathy about the puppy,” she announced, standing back so they could hurry inside. “That got her on her feet fast. I can’t thank you enough, John.”
“It was Trey’s idea to get her a puppy, Miss Emma.”
“He’ll be thanked properly when the time comes. How did he take his punishment, Mabel?”
“Very well, actually. He realized he’d overstepped the line this time. I punished him as you advised—denied him the opportunity to present the puppy in person—and now he’s in his room, where he will remain until the morning.”
“Uh-huh,” Emma said. She patted her friend’s shoulder. “Well, I’m proud of you for standing your ground, Mabel. Now, let’s have you come meet my granddaughter and Cathy her new companion. She’s in the kitchen, stirring the stew. John, you’ll stay for supper, of course.” She whisked off his ski cap and hung it on a hall tree in the foyer. Neither saw Mabel’s lips curve in a small, private smile.
John was sure his hair was standing straight up. Because of the box, he couldn’t comb it back in place with his fingers and hoped by some miracle Cathy wouldn’t notice. She didn’t. She appeared not to see him at all when she turned from the stove, her tender face flushed from heat and the anticipation of what he had brought. She went directly to peer into the box, and John took advantage of the moment to check his reflection in the darkened kitchen window over the sink, nearly choking on his breath when he saw Trey’s face staring in. It dropped from view the second his aunt turned to thump his back.
“You okay, John?”
“Fine, just fine, Aunt Mabel. My windpipe got blocked there for a second.”
“Ohhhh…,”Cathy cooed, lifting the little ball of fur from his bedding and cuddling him under her chin, every detail of her delight perfectly matching the picture John’s imagination had drawn.
Emma looked approvingly at John. “A good move, mister. Pass on my compliments to your sidekick.”
“He’s so soft and warm,” Cathy purred, and kissed the tiny head. “Is he really mine, Grandmother? Mine to keep?”
“Yours to keep,” Emma said.
“I’ve never had a pet before. He’s just… he’s just beautiful.”
“Is it all right that he’s a boy?” John asked, watching her worriedly. “We didn’t know…”
“It’s perfect that he’s a boy.” Her gaze swept up to John curiously, and his heart pinched at the definite impression she’d noticed him for the first time. “Where is your sidekick?”
“He’s doing his homework,” Mabel said, “but I know he’ll be delighted that you like the puppy. I’m Mabel Church, by the way, Trey’s aunt.”
“I’ve heard so many nice things about you,” Cathy said, extending her small hand from beneath the blanket, and John thought how polite and grown-up she was as Aunt Mabel shook it. “It’s lovely to meet you at last. Thank Trey for me, will you? And John—” She turned to him, and he had trouble with his breath again when she looked into his eyes. “Thank you, too, so much. I just love him.”
“Well, on that perfect note, I’ll be on my way,” Mabel said.
Emma followed her to the door, and John stood awkwardly, his glance going from Cathy’s blond head bent over the puppy swaddled in her arms to the kitchen window. John was still holding the box and didn’t know where to set it. Three bowls and spoons had been arranged on the table for supper, along with an extra place mat across from where he supposed he was to sit.
He knew who the place mat was laid for when Emma returned to the kitchen and said, “John, poke your head out and tell Trey Don to come in. We don’t want him to freeze to death out there.”
She was sure once her newness wore off, the boys would forget about her. After all, she was a girl and boys did not play with girls. “How long are Trey and John to look after me?” she asked her grandmother. It was the end of February. The daffodils were up. All their delicate golden heads had broken through the soil, and Rufus had been taught to stay away from them. The boys had helped her train him most afternoons.
“No, no, Rufus!” they would say when they saw him heading for the beds, clapping their hands softly so as not to scare him. “Over here, boy. Over here,” and they would pat a tree or coax him to another spot.
“Why? Are you getting tired of them?” her grandmother asked.
“Oh no. I just wondered when they didn’t have to be with me anymore.”
“If anything was said about a set time, it’s passed, sweetheart. The boys like being with you. They enjoy being your friend.”
She found it odd having two big boys as her friends, but it was also nice. Without Trey and John, she would have missed Laura and her home even more. Her classmates at Kersey Elementary School were friendly enough, but they were shy of her. It didn’t take long for them to notice she was smart. She finished tests before everyone else and read library books when she wasn’t working, and the teachers called on her for answers when nobody else knew them and read her themes before the class as an example of how they should be written. The teachers praised the neatness of her papers and her penmanship while she burned with embarrassment under her classmates’ sidelong gazes, but not enough to make herself one of them by doing sloppy work.
Trey and John were perfectly comfortable with her and didn’t mind that she was “gifted and talented” and wanted to be a doctor and could speak French. They did not think it strange that she sat with her back straight in class and her feet crossed at the ankles. Good posture, she’d been taught, could improve your height.
It was not yet time for baseball season, when the boys would attend practice after school, so they had time on their hands to spend with her. They popped up everywhere, wearing silly grins, trying to make her think they were just passing by and in the neighborhood. It was not unusual to see them stroll into the county library, where her grandmother worked, if the bus dropped Cathy there after school, or in the park where she’d taken Rufus, or at the First Baptist Church, where her grandmother had arranged for her to practice on the piano in the sanctuary. They seemed to manufacture every excuse and invitation to be with her.
“Trey and I need help with math, Cathy. Is it okay if we come to your house after school?”
“Of course, John.”
“My aunt has an attic full of old hunting trophies. Want to see them, Catherine Ann?”
“I’d love to, Trey.”
“Let’s play Frisbees with Rufus after school today. What do you say?”
“Fine with me, boys.”
“Aunt Mabel has a sack of old lettuce for Sampson. Mind if we feed it to him?”
“What a splendid idea.”
She expected they’d be gone by the time the daffodils died, but they were not.
Excerpted from Tumbleweeds by Meacham, Leila Copyright © 2012 by Meacham, Leila. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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