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       Tumbleweeds, p.5

           Leila Meacham

  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.”

  “No, ma’am.”

  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.”

  Chapter Nine

  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 friendl
y 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.

  One afternoon they found her morose. “What’s the matter?” John asked, sitting down beside her on the front porch swing of her grandmother’s house. Trey took the other side, next to Rufus.

  “My daddy did not leave any money for my care, and now I’m a financial burden on my grandmother,” she said.

  “Ah, how do you know?” Trey asked.

  Cathy related her grandmother’s conversation with Miss Mabel she’d overheard. “As I suspected, Sonny was completely broke when he died,” Emma had confided when she’d thought Cathy was out of the house. “They lived entirely beyond their means, and their lifestyle was supported on credit. He let his life insurance premiums lapse, and everything was mortgaged to the hilt. The money from the sale of the house and possessions will go to his creditors. There’s nothing left.”

  She had gone on to say that now she’d really have to watch her pennies to provide properly for Cathy, but she would manage. She still had Buddy’s insurance money put away and that would help toward college expenses. She’d ask the county to waive the retirement age for her job, and so what if she didn’t take the trip to England she’d planned?

  Cathy had already realized her grandmother did not have much money. She never failed to check the prices of things and served leftovers and turned off lights when they weren’t needed—things Cathy’s family never had bothered to do. It hurt her dreadfully to know her grandmother would have to give up things because of her.

  “She loves you, Catherine Ann,” John said. “That will make her sacrifices easier.”

  “Yeah,” Trey said. “You’re better to spend money on than a dumb ol’ trip to England.”

  A warmth spread through her, easing her hurt. Sometimes she felt like a valley sitting between the boys. They blocked the wind and storms like friendly mountains. “You really think so?”

  “Yes!” the boys said together.

  They were as different from each other as bacon and eggs, but they went together as nicely. John was quiet and calm, patient and steady. He blended in. Trey was someone who stood out. You knew he was there—in the classroom, hallways, cafeteria, school bus. You couldn’t miss him. “Tempestuous,” she’d heard his aunt describe him, and Cathy agreed. Her grandmother had explained that Trey’s brash attitude was a shield against the hurt and humiliation of his parents not wanting him. If his uncle had lived, Trey might have grown up a different boy. Harvey Church had been a man’s man, a big-game hunter and fisherman who would have taken him in hand, and Trey was of the nature who would have adored him for doing it. But four months after Trey had come to live with them, his hale and hearty uncle had died unexpectedly of a heart attack and Trey had been left in the sole care of a retiring aunt ill-equipped to handle a precocious, willful nephew.

  And poor John’s mother had died when he was seven, leaving him to the mercy of his hard-drinking father.

  So Trey’s remark had been right that day in Miss Whitby’s class. They were all orphans one way or the other, and that created a special bond among them. Without Trey and John, she couldn’t have endured attending Kersey Elementary School.

  The winter thawed to spring, and the trio turned twelve. For two weeks in March, Trey was older than John. Trey looked upon the fourteen-day age difference as a cause for celebration at least in his own mind, for it gave him some sort of edge over his friend.

  The boys were shooting up in height, and—just as Cathy was losing her little-girl shape—so maturity was slowly chiseling the boyishness from their features. To mark their last year of innocence, Mabel decided to honor Trey’s and John’s birthdays by throwing a party in her backyard. It was the first time Cathy had ever seen John’s father, Bert Caldwell. She knew he worked in the oil fields and was gone much of the time. John never spoke of him and spent the days he was at home at Miss Mabel’s. He drank heavily when he was “between rigs.” He arrived at the party sober and clean-shaven, wearing starched jeans and a crisp long-sleeved white shirt, party attire for Kersey’s “menfolks,” as Cathy’s grandmother referred to them. He was shorter and stockier than John, burlier of features, and John was wary in his presence, as Mr. Caldwell appeared uneasy in his. Cathy felt sorry for both of them. Didn’t Mr. Caldwell know how lucky he was to have a son like John, and couldn’t John realize how fortunate he was to have a father?

  To celebrate her birthday in April, her grandmother invited Laura to come for a visit over spring break, a time that corresponded with the promised arrival of the prairie’s wildflowers. “What in the world—?” her best friend, fashionably dressed in a suit and matching tam, exclaimed the second she saw Cathy in the waiting room of the Amarillo airport.

  Cathy aborted the hug she’d intended to give her and drew her jean jacket tighter. “This is what they wear here.”

  Only Trey and John softened Laura’s appalled impression of her new home and environment. “They’re gorgeous,” she said. “I could endure cactus and cockleburs for them.”

  Laura was the kindliest girl Cathy knew. She did not mean her pity for Cathy’s reduced circumstances to hurt her feelings or awaken longings for her parents and Winchester and her old classmates and the pretty house and neighborhood where she grew up.

  John sensed her blue mood immediately once Laura had gone. “You miss her, don’t you?” he said. It was her first time to witness John and Trey almost come to blows.

  “Yes,” she said, “and the way it used to be.”

  “Listen to me, Catherine Ann,” Trey ordered, stepping in front of her as if his height and size, like a barrier before the sun, might block all thoughts of her former life. “We’re your friends now. You like it here. Tell us you don’t want to go back where you came from.”

  “Let her be, TD,” John said, pulling at Trey’s jacket sleeve.

  “No!” Trey jerked at his arm, jealousy and panic tightening his face, Cathy recognized. “You don’t want to leave us, do you, Catherine Ann?”

  “I—” Tears welled, spilled down her cheeks. Her throat cons
tricted from an agony of memories—visits to the beach with her parents, piano recitals, trips to museums and concerts in days filled with warm sunshine and cool sea breezes—and she could not give him the answer he wanted to hear.

  “Now see what you’ve gone and done?” John confronted Trey angrily. “You’ve made her lose her voice. It’s okay, Cathy. You can miss Laura and how it used to be all you want.”

  “Shut up, John!” Trey shoved at his friend. “It’s definitely not okay. You’re going to talk her into leaving us.”

  John shoved back, fixing Trey with a furious, dark-eyed look that made Cathy step between them before punches could fly. She had never seen John angry before. “Boys! Boys! I’m not going anywhere,” she said, startled out of her despondency. “How could I go off and leave my grandmother and you and Rufus?”

  Trey cut his angry gaze away from John back to her. “Promise?” he said, and she could see the fires slowly banking in his eyes.

  “I promise.”

  “It’s still okay to be sad, Cathy,” John said with another look at Trey that dared him to dispute it.

  The near fracas had brought home to Cathy the surprising importance she had assumed in their lives, and she decided to keep to herself the plans that she and Laura had made to reunite at the University of Southern California, where they would pursue their dreams of becoming doctors.

  Chapter Ten

  The children entered their teens, and Emma and Mabel often discussed and kept an eye out for changes in the trio’s relationship. It was just a matter of time before the boys discovered Cathy’s developing breasts, and how could Cathy miss their burgeoning biceps? For the moment, they were simply friends. When Trey and John weren’t playing sports, they came home with Cathy after school and roughhoused with Rufus. Most evenings, they did their homework together and sometimes the boys even sat in on Cathy’s home-schooled lessons. Often they stayed for supper, which both loved. John had to get his own meals at his house, and Trey much preferred Emma’s delicious cooking to Mabel’s notoriously tasteless fare. They even continued to show up at the First Baptist Church to hear Cathy play the piano.

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