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       Aly's House, p.19

           Leila Meacham
 
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  Satisfied that none had invaded, Nathan hung up the lantern and opened the stall gate. Daisy ambled out and went directly to her feed trough, where she would eat her breakfast while Nathan milked. He first brushed the cow’s sides of hair and dirt that might fall into the milk, then removed the bucket from the sack and began to clean her teats with the towel. Finally he stuck the bucket under the cow’s bulging udder, Zak sitting expectantly beside him, alert for the first squirt of warm milk to relieve the cow’s discomfort.

  Daisy allowed only Nathan to milk her. She refused to cooperate with any other member of the family. Nathan would press his hand to her right flank, and the cow would obligingly move her leg back for him to set to his task. With his father and siblings, she’d keep her feet planted, and one of them would have to force her leg back while she bawled and trembled and waggled her head, no matter that her udder was being emptied. “You alone got the touch,” his father would say to him.

  That was all right by Nathan and with his brother and sister as well, two and three years behind him, respectively. They got to sleep later and did not have to hike to the barn in inclement weather before the sun was up, but Nathan liked this time alone. The scents of hay and the warmth of the animals, especially in winter, set him at ease for the day.

  The milk collected, Nathan put the lid on the bucket and set it high out of Zak’s reach while he fed and watered the horses and led the cow to the pasture gate to turn her out for grazing. The sun was rising, casting a golden glow over the brown acres of the Barrows homestead that would soon be awash with the first growth of spring wheat. It was still referred to as the Barrows farm, named for the line of men to whom it had been handed down since 1840. Liam Barrows, his mother’s father, was the last heir to bear the name. Liam’s two sons had died before they could inherit, and the land had gone to his daughter, Millicent Holloway. Nathan was aware that someday the place would belong to him. His younger brother, Randolph, was destined for bigger and better things, he being the smarter, and his sister, Lily, would marry, she being beautiful and already sought after by sons of the well-to-do in Gainesville and Montague and Denton, even from towns across the border in the Indian Territory. “I won’t be living out my life in a calico dress and kitchen apron” was a statement the family often heard from his sister, the princess.

  That was all fine by Nathan, too. He got along well with his siblings, but he was not one of them. His brother and sister were close, almost like twins. They had the same dreams—to be rich and become somebody—and were focused on the same goal: to get off the farm. At nearly twenty, Nathan had already decided that to be rich was to be happy where you were, doing the things you liked, and wanting for nothing more.

  So it was that that morning, when he left the barn with milk bucket in hand, his thoughts were on nothing more than the hot onions and bacon and buttered biscuits that awaited him before he set out to repair the fence in the south pasture after breakfast. His family was already taking their seats at the table when he entered the kitchen. Like always, his siblings took chairs that flanked his mother’s place at one end of the table while he seated himself next to his father’s at the other. The family arrangement had been such as long as Nathan could remember: Randolph and Lily and his mother in one group, he and his father in another. Like a lot of things, it was something he’d been aware of but never noticed until the stranger appeared in the late afternoon.

  Chapter Two

  The sun was behind him and sinking fast when Nathan stowed hammer and saw and nails and started homeward, carrying his toolbox and lunch pail. The sandwiches his mother had prepared with the extra bacon and onions and packed in the pail with pickles, tomato, and boiled egg had long disappeared, and he was hungry for his supper. It would be waiting when he returned, but it would be a while before he sat down to the evening meal. He had Daisy to milk. His siblings would have fed the horses and pigs and chickens before sundown, so he’d have only the cow to tend before he washed up and joined the family at the table.

  It was always something he looked forward to, going home at the end of the day. His mother was a fine cook and served rib-sticking fare, and he enjoyed the conversation round the table and the company of his family before going to bed. Soon, his siblings would be gone. Randolph, a high school senior, seventeen, had already been accepted at Columbia University in New York City to begin his studies, aiming for law school after college. His sister, sixteen, would no doubt be married within a year or two. How the evenings would trip along when they were gone, he didn’t know. Nathan didn’t contribute much to the gatherings. Like his father, his thoughts on things were seldom asked and almost never offered. He was merely a quiet listener, a fourth at cards and board games (his mother did not play), and a dependable source to bring in extra wood, stoke the fire, and replenish cups of cocoa. Still, he felt a part of the family scene if for the most part ignored, like the indispensable clock over the mantel in the kitchen.

  Zak trotted alongside him unless distracted by a covey of doves to flush, a rabbit to chase. Nathan drew in a deep breath of the cold late-March air, never fresher than at dusk when the day had lost its sun and the wind had subsided, and expelled it with a sense of satisfaction. He’d had a productive day. His father would be pleased that he’d been able to repair the whole south fence and that the expense of extra lumber had been justified. Sometimes they disagreed on what needed to be done for the amount of the expenditure, but his father always listened to his son’s judgment and often let him have his way. More times than not, Nathan had heard his father say to his mother, “The boy’s got a head for what’s essential for the outlay, that’s for sure.” His mother rarely answered unless it was to give a little sniff or utter a humph, but Nathan understood her reticence was to prevent him from getting a big head.

  As if his head would ever swell over anything, he thought, especially when compared to his brother and sister. Nathan considered that everything about him—when he considered himself at all—was as ordinary as a loaf of bread. Except for his height and strong build and odd shade of blue-green eyes, nothing about him was of any remarkable notice. Sometimes, a little ruefully, he thought that when it came to him, he’d stood somewhere in the middle of the line when the good Lord passed out exceptional intellects, talent and abilities, personalities, and looks while Randolph and Lily had been at the head of it. He accepted his lot without rancor, for what good was a handsome face and winning personality for growing wheat and running a farm?

  Nathan was a good thirty yards from the first outbuildings before he noticed a coach and team of two horses tied to the hitching post in front of the white wood-framed house of his home. He could not place the pair of handsome Thoroughbreds and expensive Concord. No one that he knew in Gainesville owned horses and carriage of such distinction. He guessed the owner was a rich new suitor of Lily’s who’d ridden up from Denton or from Montague across the county line. She’d met several such swains a couple of months ago when the wealthiest woman in town, his mother’s godmother, had hosted a little coming-out party for his sister. Nathan puzzled why he’d shown up to court her during the school week at this late hour of the day. His father wouldn’t like that, not that he’d have much say in it. When it came to his sister, his mother had the last word, and she encouraged Lily’s rich suitors.

  Nathan had turned toward the barn when a head appeared above a window of the coach. It belonged to a middle-aged man who, upon seeing Nathan, quickly opened the door and hopped out. “I say there, me young man!” he called to Nathan. “Are ye the lad we’ve come to see?”

  An Irishman, sure enough, and obviously the driver of the carriage, Nathan thought. He automatically glanced behind him as though half expecting the man to have addressed someone else. Turning back his gaze, he called, “Me?”

  “Yes, you.”

  “I’m sure not.”

  “If ye are, ye’d best go inside. He doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

  “Who doesn’t like to be kept waitin
g?”

  “Me employer, Mr. Trevor Waverling.”

  “Never heard of him.” Nathan headed for the barn.

  “Wait! Wait!” the man cried, scrambling after him. “Ye must go inside, lad. Mr. Waverling won’t leave until ye do.” The driver had caught up with Nathan. “I’m cold and… me backside’s shakin’ hands with me belly. I ain’t eaten since breakfast,” he whined.

  Despite the man’s desperation and his natty cutaway coat, striped trousers, and stiff top hat befitting the driver of such a distinctive conveyance, Nathan thought him comical. He was not of particularly short stature, but his legs were not long enough for the rest of him. His rotund stomach seemed to rest on their trunks, no space between, and his ears and Irish red hair stuck out widely beneath the hat like a platform for a stovepipe. He reminded Nathan of a circus clown he’d once seen.

  “Well, that’s too bad,” Nathan said. “I’ve got to milk the cow.” He hurried on, curious of who Mr. Waverling was and the reason he wished to see him. If so, his father would have sent his farmhand to get him, and he must tend to Daisy.

  The driver ran back to the house and Nathan hurried to the barn. Before he reached it, he heard Randolph giving Daisy a smack. “Stay still, damn you!”

  “What are you doing?” Nathan exclaimed from the open door, surprised to see Randolph and Lily attempting to milk Daisy.

  “What does it look like?” Randolph snapped.

  “Get away from her,” Nathan ordered. “That’s my job.”

  “Let him do it,” Lily pleaded. “I can’t keep holding her leg back.”

  “We can’t,” Randolph said. “Dad said to send him to the house the minute he showed up.”

  His siblings often discussed him in the third person in his presence. Playing cards and board games, they’d talk about him as if he weren’t sitting across the table from them. “Wonder what card he has,” they’d say to each other. “Do you suppose he’ll get my king?”

  “Both of you get away from her,” Nathan commanded. “I’m not going anywhere until I milk Daisy. Easy, old girl,” he said, running a hand over the cow’s quivering flanks. “Nathan is here.”

  Daisy let out a long bawl, and his brother and sister backed away. When it came to farm matters, after their father, Nathan had the top say.

  “Who is Mr. Waverling, and why does he want to see me?” Nathan asked.

  Brother and sister looked at each other. “We don’t know,” they both piped together, Lily adding, “But he’s rich.”

  “We were sent out of the house when the man showed up,” Randolph said, “but Mother and Dad and the man are having a shouting match over you.”

  “Me?” Nathan pulled Daisy’s teats, taken aback. Who would have a shouting match over him? “That’s all you know?” he asked. Zak had come to take his position at his knee and was rewarded with a long arc of milk into his mouth.

  “That’s all we know, but we think… we think he’s come to take you away, Nathan,” Lily said. Small, dainty, she came behind her older brother and put her arms around him, leaning into his back protectively. “I’m worried,” she said in a small voice.

  “Me, too,” Randolph chimed in. “Are you in trouble? You haven’t done anything bad, have you, Nathan?”

  “Not that I know of,” Nathan said. Take him away? What was this?

  “What a silly thing to ask, Randolph,” Lily scolded. “Nathan never does anything bad.”

  “I know that, but I had to ask,” her brother said. “It’s just that the man is important. Mother nearly collapsed when she saw him. Daddy took charge and sent us out of the house immediately. Do you have any idea who he is?”

  “None,” Nathan said, puzzled. “Why should I?”

  “I don’t know. He seemed to know about you. And you look like him… a little.”

  Another presence had entered the barn. They all turned to see their father standing in the doorway. He cleared his throat. “Nathan,” he said, his voice heavy with sadness, “when the milkin’s done, you better come to the house. Randolph, you and Lily stay here.”

  “But I have homework,” Randolph protested.

  “It can wait,” Leon said as he turned to go. “Drink the milk for your supper.”

  The milking completed and Daisy back in her stall, Nathan left the barn, followed by the anxious gazes of his brother and sister. Dusk had completely fallen, cold and biting. His father had stopped halfway to the house to wait for him. Nathan noticed the circus clown had scrambled back into the carriage. “What’s going on, Dad?” he said.

  His father suddenly bent forward and pressed his hands to his face.

  “Dad! What in blazes—?” Was his father crying? “What’s the matter? What’s happened?”

  A tall figure stepped out of the house onto the porch. He paused, then came down the steps toward them, the light from the house at his back. He was richly dressed in an overcoat of fine wool and carried himself with an air of authority. He was a handsome man in a lean, wolfish sort of way, in his forties, Nathan guessed. “I am what’s happened,” he said.

  Nathan looked him up and down. “Who are you?” he demanded, the question bored into the man’s sea-green eyes, so like his own. He would not have dared, but he wanted to put his arm protectively around his father’s bent shoulders.

  “I am your father,” the man said.

  About the Author

  Leila Meacham is a writer and former teacher who lives in San Antonio, Texas. She is the bestselling author of the novels Roses, Tumbleweeds, Somerset, Titans, and Ryan’s Hand. For more information, you can visit LeilaMeacham.com.

  Also by Leila Meacham

  Roses

  Tumbleweeds

  Somerset

  Titans

  Ryan’s Hand

  ACCLAIM FOR THE NOVELS OF

  LEILA MEACHAM

  TITANS

  “The novel has it all: a wide cast of characters, pitch-perfect period detail, romance, plenty of drama, and skeletons in the closet (literally). Saga fans will be swooning.”

  —Booklist (starred review)

  “It has everything any reader could want in a book…epic storytelling that plunges the reader headfirst into the plot…[Meacham] is a titan herself.”

  —Huffington Post

  “Emotionally resounding…Texas has never seemed grander…Meacham’s easy-to-read prose helps to maintain a pace that you won’t be able to quit, pushing through from chapter to chapter to find the next important nugget of this dramatic family tale. It is best savored over a great steak with a glass of wine and evenings to yourself.”

  —BookReporter

  SOMERSET

  “Bestselling author Meacham is back with a prequel to Roses that stands on its own as a sweeping historical saga, spanning the nineteenth century…[Fans] and new readers alike will find themselves absorbed in the family saga that Meacham has proven—once again—talented in telling.”

  —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  “Entertaining…Meacham skillfully weaves colorful history into her lively tale…Somerset has its charms.”

  —Dallas Morning News

  “Slavery, westward expansion, abolition, the Civil War, love, marriage, friendship, tragedy, and triumph—all the ingredients (and much more) that made so many love Roses so much—are here in abundance.”

  —San Antonio Express-News

  “A story you do not want to miss…[Recommended] to readers of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Somerset has everything a compelling historical epic calls for: love and war, friendship and betrayal, opportunity and loss, and everything in between.”

  —BookPage

  “4½ stars! This prequel to Roses is as addictive as any soap opera…As sprawling and big as Texas itself, Meacham’s epic saga is perfect for readers who long for the ‘big books’ of the past. There are enough adventure, tears, and laughter alongside colorful history to keep readers engrossed and satisfied.”

 
—RT Book Reviews

  TUMBLEWEEDS

  “[An] expansive generational saga…Fans of Friday Night Lights will enjoy a return to the land where high school football boys are kings.”

  —Chicago Tribune

  “Meacham scores a touchdown…You will laugh, cry, and cheer to a plot so thick and a conclusion so surprising, it will leave you wishing for more. Yes, Meacham is really that good. And Tumbleweeds is more than entertaining, it’s addictive.”

  —Examiner.com

  “If you’re going to a beach this summer, or better yet, a windswept prairie, this is definitely a book you’ll want to pack.”

  —Wilkes-Barre Times Leader (PA)

  “[A] sprawling novel as large as Texas itself.”

  —Library Journal

  “Once again, Meacham has proven to be a master storyteller…The pages fly by as the reader becomes engrossed in the tale.”

  —Lubbock-Avalanche Journal (TX)

  ROSES

  “Like Gone with the Wind, as gloriously entertaining as it is vast…Roses transports.”

  —People

  “Meacham’s sweeping, century-encompassing, multigenerational epic is reminiscent of the film Giant, and as large, romantic, and American a tale as Texas itself.”

  —Booklist

  “Enthralling.”

  —Better Homes and Gardens

  “The story of East Texas families in the kind of dynastic gymnastics we all know and love.”

  —Liz Smith

  “Larger-than-life protagonists and a fast-paced, engaging plot…Meacham has succeeded in creating an indelible heroine.”

  —Dallas Morning News

  “[An] enthralling stunner, a good, old-fashioned read.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “A thrilling journey…a treasure…a must-read. Warning: Once you begin reading, you won’t be able to put the book down.”

 
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