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       Tumbleweeds, p.4

           Leila Meacham
 

  “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.

  “Trey?”

  “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.

  Chapter Seven

  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.”
r />   “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.

  Chapter Eight

  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.”

 
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