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       Aly's House, p.4

           Leila Meacham
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  “None of them have their own paddock. You’d have to go out every day to exercise the horse, and you don’t even know how to ride.”

  “I can learn.”

  “Alyson, I think it is much too dangerous for you to own that horse,” Eleanor interjected, her ivory brow peevishly creased from the grievances of the morning. “This is just a whim of yours that will cause no end of inconvenience. Once the novelty of owning that horse wears off, you’ll wind up selling him anyway. Who will look after him when you go to college?”

  “Mother, how many times must I tell you? I’m not going to college.”

  Lorne, seeing his wife’s feathers about to ruffle, took the subject back to Sampson. “Have you any idea what kind of time is involved in caring for a horse? You’ll have to check on him daily, make sure he’s being fed and watered properly. You’ll have to exercise and groom him. I’m just stating the concerns that will be bothering Marshall. Even if you weren’t a Kingston, he might not want to sell Sampson to you. He will probably prefer to see the horse left with someone like Matt Taylor, who has a financial interest in taking care of him, even if Marshall has to sell him for less than the generous offer I’m sure you’ll make him.”

  “How much of a generous offer?” Lorne Junior wanted to know.

  Aly, ignoring the question, got up and threw down her napkin in a childish gesture, which she realized would not help her cause. But it was all just so overwhelming—Willy leaving, her family’s attitude, and the foreclosure of the most wonderful place on earth. “I’m buying Sampson,” she declared, her bottom lip trembling. “Nobody could take better care of him than I will. I’ll find a place to stable him, just don’t you worry.”

  “Well,” said her father serenely, “I believe I’ll just wait to hear that Marshall will sell you Sampson before I draw up any papers. And when you get out to the Waynes’ this morning,” he added as she headed for the door, “tell Willy that he can expect no reference from me to find another job.”

  Aly stopped short and turned back to stare at her father. She opened her mouth to say something, then clamped it shut. What was the use? Fairness was asking too much of a Kingston.

  On the way out to the farm, vestiges of the dream from which she’d been awakened still clung, provoking poignant memories not so long past. Aly recalled the first time she had ever seen Cedar Hill. She had been six years old, sitting in the backseat of the family Cadillac with Willy at the wheel. In a town of fifteen thousand, Aly and Victoria had the distinction of being the only children driven to and from school by a chauffeur, a fact made indisputably clear by the black-billed hat Eleanor insisted Willy wear on such occasions.

  One Thursday when Victoria had chosen to ride home with Lorne Junior, then a sophomore with his first car, Willy turned left out of the school parking lot rather than right.

  “Where we going, Willy?”

  “Out to Cedar Hill. Your mother wants me to deliver the wash and pick up the ironing every Thursday after school from now on because of the gas shortage.”

  “The farm where Marshall Wayne lives?”

  “Uh-huh. You know him?”

  “Just by sight. He’s a fifth grader.”

  But she knew who he was, all right. Everybody did, and all her friends and even her sister, who was also in the fifth grade, had a crush on him. At ten years old, Marshall was the best-looking boy in elementary school and the quarterback of the pee wee football team. That he kept to himself and rarely smiled—Victoria called him stuck up—didn’t seem to detract from his popularity. Aly kept waiting for him to notice her beautiful sister, but he never did. As she and Willy drove out to the Wayne farm that day, she wondered how long it would take Victoria to snag him.

  It had been the first of May, and the corn was high and beginning to tassel, a month away from picking time. It grew right up to the cyclone fence that ran around the Waynes’ front yard, an area of sparse grass long discouraged by the shade of two giant pecan trees.

  While Willy went inside with the laundry basket, she had stayed in the car and inspected with interest the place where Marshall lived. She decided the name of the farm came from cedars planted as windbreakers along the periphery of the knoll where the house stood. The farmhouse, a clapboard frame, was old, she knew. Her history book had described the style as coming to rural America in the early 1900s. She had visited similar houses and knew that the porch that skirted three sides was screened in the back for a summer parlor. This one featured the usual porch swing as well as a hospitable-looking table placed between two flat-armed porch chairs and pots of pretty red geraniums lining the broad steps. Twin chimneys faced each other from the left and right ends of the house; and in the center, a long, wide hall divided the bedrooms and bath on one side from the front parlor, dining room, and kitchen on the other. It was called a breezeway and served as exactly that in the summer months when the front door with its long oval pane of glass remained open so the air could circulate freely through the center of the structure. The house could have used a new roof and a fresh coat of yellow paint, but unlike most of its kind, whose porches sagged with clutter, and chickens scratched among rusting cans and farm equipment in the yard, the Wayne property had a tidy, well-cared-for look—like Marshall’s patched jeans and worn shoes.

  “Poor dirt farmers,” the Waynes were called by people like her family, and Aly sensed that Marshall minded. She perceived very early that it was pride, not conceit, that kept him aloof, his head held high and dark eyes brooding.

  That afternoon while Willy was still inside, the bus from the elementary school drove up at the end of the lane and deposited Marshall. Aly responded to her friends, who had spotted the Cadillac and were hollering and waving from the windows as if they hadn’t seen her for a week. She would have spoken to Marshall, if he’d given her so much as a glance. But he had walked past the car without turning his head and gone into the house as if she and the Cadillac were invisible.

  “Why don’t you offer a ride to young Marshall next Thursday, since we’re coming out to his place anyway?” Willy suggested on their way home. “He’d probably prefer the Caddy to the bus.”

  “Somehow I don’t think you’re right about that, Willy, but I’ll ask.”

  The next day on the playground, Marshall looked through her as if she’d been a screen door and said, “No thanks.”

  “Willy,” she asked not long afterward, “why don’t the Waynes cotton to us Kingstons?”

  “Well, now, Punkin, there’s an old saying that borrowing is not much better than beggin’, and the Waynes have been borrowing from your dad for a long time. Just as they’re about to get a nickel ahead, somethin’ comes along—like drought or inflation or a gas shortage—that costs a dime. It bothers Sy awfully that he’s not his own man and that his wife has to take in ironing, not that Elizabeth seems to mind.”

  “It bothers Marshall, too.”

  “Oh, does it ever. He takes poverty personally, that one does, and he’s straining at the bit to do something about it. Give him time and he will, too.”

  That summer she continued to accompany Willy on “laundry day,” happy to sit in the back of the Cadillac with the windows rolled down, absorbing the sights and smells and sounds of the country, feeling the constant tightness between her shoulder blades melt away. Sometimes they didn’t get out to the farm until twilight, a time when she would generally be rewarded with the sight of Marshall—or at least the top of his dark head—leading the cows through the green corn to the barn to be milked.

  Her senses were never more stimulated than at dusk on Cedar Hill in summer. By then the crickets were in full voice and the fireflies were out. From the house, the aroma of supper cooking drifted out to mingle with the soft evening smells of dew and earth and growing things. Ever after, when she heard the clink of a cowbell in summer, her taste buds watered and her nostrils filled with the scent of freshly ironed laundry—and her heart ached with a sorrow she could not name.

  The winter afterno
on she’d been invited inside the house, she had tried to think of topics for conversation. Should she compliment Mrs. Wayne on her ironing? Or would that remind her hostess of the difference in their stations, as her mother would say? Should she mention Marshall and how much he was admired? Maybe she should comment on the weather, like the grown-ups did when they couldn’t think of anything to say. But there was so much to say to Elizabeth Wayne. Did she know that a pair of wrens returned in the spring to the nest they had built in one of the pecan trees the spring before? Was she aware that a fat old bullsnake lived in a camouflaged burrow at the edge of the cornfield? Maybe she ought to be told that a wasp nest was tucked beneath the eave by the front porch swing. And did she realize that this year Marshall would probably be taller than the corn?

  But when time came to speak, she had blurted out, “God, I love this place.”

  Elizabeth had glanced up from the ironing board, her gentle eyes expressing humor and surprise. “Why, whatever would make you say that? We live very simply here.”

  “No,” she had disputed. “It’s grand. You live very…grandly.”

  “Grandly?” Elizabeth had puzzled over the word, thinking no doubt of the splendid house where Aly lived and wondering at the child’s meaning. “No, not grandly, child, but we live very happily here.”

  “Isn’t that living grandly?” Aly had wanted to know.

  “Marshall is in his room,” Elizabeth said when Aly arrived at Cedar Hill the day Willy left. “He’s studying for a few hours before he has to go down to the barn to help Sy inventory the equipment. Willy’s down there now. He’ll stay with us while he’s looking for a job. Just go on down and knock on Marshall’s door.”

  “You mean—his bedroom door?” The idea of entering the sanctum of Marshall’s room was stupendous to her. She had never had so much as a glimpse into it.

  Elizabeth smiled and some of the sparkle returned to her worried eyes. She had long perceived Aly’s secret infatuation with her son. “Yes. You impressed him yesterday. He’ll be glad to see you.”

  Aly walked down the breezeway to the second room from the end and knocked on the door. “Come in,” Marshall called, his deepened voice carrying authority, confidence. Put off by it, Aly hesitated, then opened the door and entered.

  Marshall sat over his books with his back to her, and Aly had a few seconds to run her eye hurriedly over the room where Marshall had grown up. It was a boy’s haven, too juvenile now for the full-grown man. Open shelves held an accumulation of athletic equipment from the sports of years past: football, baseball, tennis. Others contained well-thumbed books, mostly paperback, and Aly saw that Edgar Rice Burroughs had been a favorite. One shelf had been devoted entirely to trophies and awards, many of them scholastic. Other memorabilia—pennants, citations, athletic letters—had been tacked on the wall above the twin-sized bed, too short for him now. Aly could imagine his feet hanging off the bed, his dark hair tousled on the pillow…There was also a collection of photographs. Something inside her wrenched painfully as she noted several of her beautiful sister, Victoria. “Hi,” she said brightly.

  Marshall swung around sharply, obviously having expected his mother. “What do you want?” he demanded, almost rudely. She had disturbed his concentration, she understood at once, hurt scoring her feelings. Why do I care so much for him? she wondered. I can count on one hand the number of smiles I’ve had from him through the years. Why can’t I stop loving him? Why can’t I tell him to go to the devil?

  “I—I have an offer to make you,” she stammered, appalled that she made it sound like a favor she was asking. She blinked at the rise of tears, refusing to let them come.

  At once Marshall’s chair scraped back on the hardwood floor. “Hey, Aly,” he said tenderly, as she’d once heard him speak to an injured dog found under the house, “don’t mind me. I’m sorry for snapping. I’ve got a lot on my mind right now.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “What can I do for you?”

  She said without preamble, “I want to buy Sampson for a better price than Matt Taylor is offering. I know how much you love that horse, Marshall. I can keep him for you until you can afford to buy him back. The money will help your family…”

  The hand was taken away. Aly could not read the unfathomable dark eyes, but she could feel him wanting to say no. He would be beholden to no Kingston. She braved a hand on his arm. “Please, Marshall. Please let me do this for you.”

  Her hand dropped as Marshall sighed and tucked his fingers into the tops of his jean pockets. “And what would you do with Sampson once you bought him? Do you know anything about horses?”

  “No, but I can learn. I’ll find someone who can teach me about them. I would take the best care of him, Marshall, honest. And when you get on your feet financially, you can buy him back from me. I won’t ask a cent more than what I bought him for.”

  “And how much is that?”

  “Ten thousand dollars.”

  Now the dark eyes showed expression. Marshall whistled at the sum. “Ten thousand dollars? Are you kidding? Where would you get that kind of money?”

  “From an inheritance I’ll be coming into when I’m twenty-four. My dad has agreed to let me borrow against it.”

  “To buy Sampson? How’d you manage that?”

  Aly shrugged and said cockily, “I gave him the old proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse.”

  Marshall laughed, showing his straight white teeth, and sat down on the edge of his desk, bringing himself eye-level with her. “I’ll bet you did. But why, Aly? Why do you care so much? God knows, I haven’t done anything to deserve your affection. Have my folks meant that much to you?”

  “Yes,” she answered simply, accepting that Marshall could never appreciate how much she loved his parents and Cedar Hill. He saw this house and Elizabeth and Sy differently than she did. He could never have understood, even if she’d been able to explain, that she respected his parents’ failures more than she did her family’s successes, that the warm treasures of this house impressed her more than the cold opulence of her own. Here she had found love and acceptance and understanding. Here she had been praised and encouraged and comforted. To think of Cedar Hill in the hands of someone else was ghastly enough, but to think of the Waynes gone from Claiborne was unimaginably worse. If Marshall agreed to her offer, at least she would have a guarantee of seeing him again. Sampson would keep him in her life, give her an excuse to call and write to him occasionally.

  “Please, Marshall,” she said again. “Please let me buy Sampson from you.”

  Marshall, with an unexpectedly tender look, reached out and tucked aside her shaggy bangs. “I appreciate your offer, Aly. Believe me I do, but where would you keep Sampson? And besides, you’ll be leaving for college in the fall, and who would look after him then?”

  “I’m not going to college, Marshall. I don’t know yet what I plan to do, but I’m not going to school.”

  “Your father will make you go. Can you imagine a Kingston not going to college? And there’s the problem of a place for Sampson.…”

  “I’ll keep him at one of the riding stables in town. I’ll rent a stall and exercise him every day—”

  “No, Aly. The answer is no.” Marshall stood up with finality. “I can’t let you take on a responsibility like Sampson because you feel you have to make up for what your father has done. You’re still growing, still changing, and what you feel today won’t necessarily be the way you feel tomorrow. A horse is a handful. You don’t even know how to ride.…”

  “Listen to me, Marshall Wayne.” Aly’s eyes narrowed sternly. “I don’t give my word lightly. If I say I’ll take care of that horse, I’ll take care of him. If I promise to sell him back to you, then I will. I’m your only chance to get Sampson back, and you don’t have any right to turn down ten thousand dollars, not with the pickle your family’s in. Besides, Willy will be around…”

  “Not necessarily, not if he can’t get a job in Claiborne, and he won’t go near Sampson anyway,” M
arshall cut in, but Aly could see he was beginning to weaken.

  “We’re not talking about a lifetime of care, for Pete’s sake,” she pointed out. “You’ll be buying him back within a year!” Hopefully not, Aly thought to herself, but she needed all the bait she could get on the hook.

  “All right,” Marshall conceded, “here’s the deal. If you can find a place to stable him that meets with my approval, learn to ride so that you can exercise him, and promise to sell him back to me, we can do business. But,” he cautioned, holding up a warning hand to check the burst of delight lighting her face, “I have to know about the stable arrangements today, and no later. I promised Matt I’d let him have my decision about Sampson before I leave in the morning.”

  “You got it!” Aly exclaimed happily, her features fully aglow now. “You won’t ever have any regrets, Marshall.”

  “I don’t think so, either.” He laughed with her, and for a second he had been startled by the brief flash of a deep, hidden, totally unexpected beauty.

  Propped against the hood of the sports car, the Kingstons’ former chauffeur and handyman was waiting for her when she went running down the steps. “Willy!” she cried, throwing her arms around the diminutive man whose left foot stuck out at a crazy angle. His complexion had the smooth look of worn leather, and his round button eyes were as black and endearing as a teddy bear’s. “Annie Jo and I are going to miss you so much!”

  “I will you two also, Punkin. You know why I left?”

  Aly nodded, wondering what resources she could call on for Willy. “You have any plans? What are you going to do?”

  “I don’t know yet. I’m too small and crippled to work in the oil fields, and I know better than to try to get any other kind of work around here. Everybody in town is in hock to your dad, one way or the other. I’m sure he’ll spread the word that I’m poison. I may mosey down to Texas once I’ve finished up around here.”

  “Don’t despair, Willy. I’ll think of something.”

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