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       Aly's House, p.7

           Leila Meacham
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  “Remember that I won’t be having supper here this evening, Elizabeth,” Aly said unenthusiastically the next morning. Victoria arrived today, and her mother had called to insist that Aly have dinner with the family. Aly made a face. “Lord only knows what Annie Jo will have us sit down to.”

  Elizabeth smiled and handed her the sack lunch she prepared daily for her young boarder. “I put in an extra piece of chicken and a slice of cake. That should see you through the day.”

  At the main barn, Aly saw Joe Handlin’s personal car. “Good morning,” she said to the stable manager in the stall of Lady Loverly. “What are you doing back out here? Today is Thursday.”

  Joe was running his hand gently down the swollen sides of the mare. “I’m a little concerned about my sweetheart here. I think she’ll foal before the vet thinks she will. She looks mighty uncomfortable to me.”

  She did to Aly also. The mare’s tail twitched restlessly, and her head turned constantly to observe her bulging belly. Aly still found it unbelievable that inside a miniature horse waited to be born. “Do you think she should have exercise today, Joe?”

  “Only if she wants to go with you. If she is turned out, for God’s sake, make sure Jim Beam’s not in the paddock. He has the hots for my sweetheart here. The fact that she’s ready to foal won’t stop him. Also, get a stall ready for her in the foaling barn just in case. Keep an eye on her udder. If she begins to drip, take her immediately to the foaling barn and call Matt. He’ll take over from there.”

  Joe removed his cap and scratched his carroty head. “I wouldn’t take today off at all, but I promised I’d take my aunt into Oklahoma City to shop.”

  Aly laid a reassuring hand on his arm. “Go ahead and enjoy yourself, Joe. Show Aunt Hattie a good time. I’ll see after your old sweetheart here. I’ll prepare her a stall fit for a queen. Maybe by the time you get here in the morning, she’ll have a surprise for you.”

  Joe’s freckled countenance showed his growing affection for the new stable hand. He had been calling her Aly for over a week now. “I know you’ll see after her, Aly. I’ve come to depend a lot on you.” He put his hat back on his head. “See you in the morning.”

  Aly hurried to feed and water the horses so that she could get over to the foaling barn to prepare a stall for Lady Loverly. The man in charge was on vacation now that nearly all of the pregnant mares had dropped their young. Lady Loverly’s delivery was the only one imminent. Working alone, Aly removed all the previous straw and droppings with a pitchfork and wheelbarrow and then swept the floor of the thermostatically controlled stall. After disinfecting it with soap and water, she dusted the concrete with powdery white lime to ensure its cleanliness, then laid a clean dry bed of straw over it. She remembered that Joe had said that it must be deep but not impossible for the foal to move around in. Finally, assured that the stall would meet Joe’s expectations, she went back to complete her chores at the other barn.

  From time to time during the day, Aly checked on the mare, whose tail continued to twitch fitfully. When Lady Loverly began to pace in her stall, Aly said, “What’s wrong, old girl? Tired of your room? Well, come on, and Aly will take you out for your constitutional.”

  Slipping a halter on the mare, Aly led her to an empty paddock and watched her graze from the fence. It was a perfect June day, peaceful and sunny with small white clouds dotting the clean blue sky. How she loved it here at Green Meadows. She might very well have found her life’s work, thanks to her good fortune in buying Sampson, now good friends with his new mistress. After the auction, she and Marshall would bring him out to Green Meadows together. Wouldn’t he be surprised to learn that she worked here and had the run of the place!

  After a while, deciding that Lady Loverly had taken the air enough, Aly led her back up the bridle path, careful not to jostle her bulging sides. Like Joe, she felt the birth very near. Maybe that excitement or the fact of Marshall’s coming home or the simple beauty of the afternoon accounted for the happiness bursting inside her. Not even knowing that Victoria was home for the summer could blight her newfound joy. In her innocence and ignorance of life, she doubted that anything could.

  At six o’clock, Aly patted Lady Loverly’s neck one last time, reluctant to leave her. The mare was pacing back and forth, back and forth in her stall, stopping at intervals to peer at her heavy sides. If only the family dinner were tomorrow night, she thought, wishing she had the nerve to call and cancel. But Matt was home and a nightwatchman was on duty, though Aly suspected that he slept most of the night. “Now, listen,” she instructed the aging groomsman as she was leaving, “you make sure that you check on Lady Loverly constantly during the night. She’s expecting, you know, so you hurry up and get Matt if she goes into labor.”

  As she drove up Elm Drive to her parents’ white columned house, Aly suddenly remembered that she’d not had a chance to make herself presentable in any way, not with so many of the men on vacation now that the breeding season was practically over. Oh, well, what did she care? Shame immediately followed the thought. Why did she persist in thumbing her nose at her family and their way of life? Was it because she really wanted to fit in but was afraid she couldn’t if she tried? Was she an Emmalou Fuller in that respect, refusing the race because of the competition?

  Her guilt was short-lived when her family, gathered for cocktails in the living room, turned shocked heads at her entrance. Aly paused in the doorway, her smile showing first embarrassment, then rebellion. Why did they always see the dirty clothes, the freckles, and lank hair? Why couldn’t they ever see her and be glad she was there? “Well, howdy, folks,” she said in a pronounced Oklahoma twang to annoy her mother. “Just in time for a glass of wine, I see. I can use it. How are you, Victoria? Back for a while? When are you leaving?”

  “Young lady!” Eleanor’s tone was sharp. She stood up from the couch, looking in a pink summer dress almost as breathtaking as her older daughter. “Go upstairs and wash before you sit down anywhere in this house. Then you may have a glass of wine. I’ll tell Annie Jo to hold dinner.”

  “Well, let me say hello first.” Victoria laughed, rising to go to her sister. Holding a glass of sherry in a dainty hand and bending to avoid contact with Aly’s clothes, she kissed Aly lightly on the cheek. Aly caught a whiff of fragrance composed of more than Victoria’s perfume. It was a compound of fresh glowing skin and silky blond hair and white sparkling teeth—it was the scent of sheer femininity. “How are you, Alyson? I do believe you look happy. Are you?”

  “Very,” Aly answered, adamantly.

  “Well, good for you! I’m happy that you are.”

  Aly looked narrowly at her sister, suspicious of her sincerity, but the heavily fringed blue eyes gazed back affectionately. That was the trouble with Victoria. Sometimes out of her preoccupation with herself there beamed an unexpected ray of sisterly love. “Hurry upstairs and get back so that we can have time for a drink together before we have to face Annie Jo’s efforts,” Victoria urged. “I’m eager to hear about your work.”

  “Okay!” Aly grinned, happy, in spite of knowing she should know better, that Victoria was home.

  Meals were served in the Kingston household for the affirmation of the family’s status rather than for sustenance. Eleanor had never encouraged Annie Joe to improve her cooking, having discovered certain advantages in serving unappetizing and boring meals. Calories were more easily controlled and table manners taught if family members were disinterested in the food. Conversation could flow between bites, and more attention could be given to the proper use of utensils. Eleanor regarded the genteel clink of sterling against china, of cups returned to porcelain as more satisfying—more appropriate to the kind of people they were—than the sound of a family relishing its food.

  “Have you learned to ride yet?” asked Victoria, sawing at a slice of boiled roast.

  “No,” Aly answered. “When Marshall comes home for the auction, he’s supposed to give me some riding lessons on Sampson.”

  “Is he really?” Victoria’s blue eyes widened. “Do you suppose he could teach me, too? I’ve always wanted to ride. It’s such an in thing now.”

  “Then I suggest you take lessons at the riding stable while you’re home,” Aly replied at once. “Marshall will only be home for a few days. He has a job at one of the biggest banks in New York.”

  “He’ll have time to teach you,” Victoria reminded her with a slightly amused look.

  “I’m used to horses. You aren’t. Marshall won’t have time for you to become familiar with them.”

  “Well, then,” said Victoria brightly, “I’ll just come out to Green Meadows and watch him teach you.”

  Under the table, Aly’s hand balled into a fist. She did not reply but concentrated on the best way to destring the green beans on her plate, conscious that when Victoria lifted her wineglass, her lips curved into a smile before she drank.

  Chapter Six

  Driving into the entrance of Green Meadows the next morning, Aly recognized the station wagon of Doc Talley drawn near the foaling barn. She parked hurriedly in front of Matt’s office, casting thoughts of Marshall, Victoria, and the auction aside as she ran up the paved walking path between the white-railed paddocks to the barn. Doc Talley was the specialist summoned when a horse developed problems beyond the expertise of the local veterinarian Matt usually used. Aly’s heart pounded. Was something wrong with Lady Loverly? Had she foaled during the night and something gone haywire? Joe wasn’t due back until the afternoon. How terrible for him to return to find that something had happened to his old sweetheart.

  Several trainers and groomsmen were loitering about the doorway of the barn, looking anxious and talking in low tones. “What’s the matter?” Aly asked breathlessly, running up to them.

  The men broke off their conversation to stare at her in hard-faced silence. “See for yourself,” one of them eventually said, jerking his head toward the open doorway.

  As she entered the well-lit barn, Aly could smell the sharp, acidulous mixture of sweat and blood. At her feet began a trail of brownish red splotches leading to the birthing stall, next to which was a large black plastic sack, securely tied and labeled. She closed her eyes a moment, dizzy from the odor and the shocking realization of what must have happened. Doc Talley and Matt stood at the open door of the stall, tight-lipped and dour.

  Nearing them, Aly quavered, “Matt, is it Lady Loverly?”

  They acknowledged her with the same piercing scrutiny she’d received from the other men, and for the first time she realized that they were standing at the stall to the right of the one she had prepared for Lady Loverly. She stared back in confusion. What was going on?

  “Yes,” Matt glowered. “Didn’t you know not to leave a pregnant mare in a meadow where a stallion could get to her, Aly? Jim Beam was in the one where you left Lady Loverly. As a result, she aborted her foal, a little colt that would have been a beauty. Thank God, Joe was worried about her and got back to town early. He came out around ten o’clock and found her gone from her stall.”

  “Joe was able to get her back here before she foaled,” Doc said, adding his own note of censure. “Weren’t you supposed to get a stall ready for her?”

  “Well, yes. I did—”

  “You call that a stall ready for a foaling mare?” Matt demanded, pointing at the stall Aly had cleaned.

  She went to peer over its door. The wheelbarrow of soiled hay and droppings had been dumped back on the floor and spread around to indicate that the stall had not been cleaned. “Matt—” she said in dismay, her eyes round with disbelief. “I—I don’t know what’s going on here. Joe—” She moved between the two men to stare into Lady Loverly’s stall. Joe was kneeling beside her, stroking and murmuring words of endearment and comfort. The mare lay very still, the only sign of life the slight rise and fall of her smeared side. “Joe, I didn’t leave her in the meadow—”

  “Get her out of here, Matt,” Joe said without the slightest change of tone. He might have been cooing to Lady Loverly. “Get her out of here before I kill her. I trusted her. I should have known better than to trust a Kingston, but I did, and I nearly lost my ol’ sweetheart here.”

  “No!” Aly gasped the denial, restrained from entering the stall by the two men. “Joe, it isn’t true! I never left Lady Loverly in the meadow. She was in the barn when I left yesterday at six. And I left this stall”—she indicated the one she had prepared—“clean and comfortable enough for a baby. Ask the nightwatchman, he’ll tell you. I told him to keep an eye on Lady Loverly because she could foal any minute. Ask him!”

  Matt sighed heavily. “I did ask him. He said that the mare was still in the meadow when you left early yesterday afternoon.” Joe had gotten to his feet, green eyes narrowed to glittering slits. Stains of blood and afterbirth covered his clothes, horrifying evidence of the mare’s agony and loss. In a voice still soft so as not to disturb Lady Loverly, he began to call her and her family a string of epithets too profane for her comprehension.

  “No!” Aly pleaded, covering her ears. “It’s not true. Joe, I never…”

  Doc and Matt took her by the arms and hustled her out of earshot of the hair-raising voice. Outside the barn, Matt pushed his cap back and considered her with scowling disappointment. “Aly, I’m surprised at you. I thought you were working out pretty good around here. Of all times to slack off…”

  “Matt, listen to me,” Aly begged, her freckles standing out like tiny copper discs on her white face. “I didn’t slack off. Somebody messed up the stall I had prepared and turned that mare loose after I left here at six o’clock yesterday. The nightwatchman was either asleep or lying.” A thought struck her. “Wait a minute! Matt, you—you didn’t do this to—to get Sampson, did you?”

  Shame and regret washed over her the second she’d said it, and she recognized that she’d made a terrible, irrevocable mistake. Matt’s lips thinned. His florid cheeks surged with color. “What an outrageous thing to say,” he gritted out. “I won’t even dignify that question with an answer. For your information, I was on the verge of telling you to forget our deal, that you’d just have to find another place to keep Sampson. But I’ve changed my mind, young lady. Now you get in your little car and get off my property before Joe comes out of that barn. I’ll send you your wages. For Marshall’s sake, I’ll wait until after the auction, and then I’m going to go pick up that horse. I figure he’ll just about make up the difference of what you cost me today.”

  “You have something to tell me?” Marshall spoke from the doorway of the front parlor where his mother had sent him to find Aly. He felt as if a weight of iron were hanging from his heart. Outside on the lawn, beneath the spreading pecan trees, the auctioneers were setting up their equipment in preparation of selling off an accumulation of a lifetime. Already buyers had begun arriving, parking their pickups and trailers in ready access of the equipment and livestock they hoped to carry off.

  His father and Willy were down in the empty barn playing dominoes, seemingly unconcerned about the proceeding that would deprive the Waynes of a means by which to continue the only livelihood they knew. But Marshall, who had just left his red-eyed mother tilling her garden, had seen the vacant look of suffering in the eyes of his father, and a resurgence of hatred burned like a hot flame in his chest.

  Looking at the daughter of the man he held responsible for his parents’ misery, Marshall made an effort to curb his anger. Aly had nothing to do with this. She had been nothing less than a friend to his family, to him. His mother loved her like a daughter, and the girl, from the look of her, was suffering every bit as deeply as the rest of them. “What is it?” he asked. “Better make it fast, Aly. I still have to tag the items not to be sold.”

  Aly swallowed with difficulty. She was sitting in rigid composure on the worn Victorian sofa that would soon go to the auctioneer’s block. Her face looked pinched and gray. With eyes fixed unseeingly on a view out the window, she said, “I lost Sampson. I had to sell him to
Matt Taylor.”

  “What!” The sound was like an explosion to her ears. “What do you mean you had to sell him to Matt Taylor?” Marshall went to stand in front of her. “Answer me, Aly! Look at me!”

  Aly obeyed, lifting eyes hollow with misery. “In order to get a stall for Sampson,” she explained haltingly, “I made a deal with Matt that I would work for—for certain wages. If he wasn’t satisfied with my work, I—I’d sell him Sampson.”

  Marshall regarded her in disbelief. “All right. So what happened?”

  Aly told him the details as she knew them. Finishing the narrative, she said, “Marshall, I beg you to believe that I didn’t turn that mare out like that. I don’t know who did, but I didn’t.”

  “Do you really think Matt Taylor capable of such a thing?” he asked tightly, visibly struggling with his anger. His eyes were black and condemning.

  Her mouth dry, she said, “No, of course not.”

  “Then who else would have any motive?”

  Aly said nothing. Marshall waited. Finally he said, “This is what I believe. I believe you saw a chance to quit early because Joe was away and couldn’t keep an eye on you. Being at your family’s dinner party last night was more important than seeing that mare safely stalled. You know so little about horses, I’m sure you didn’t realize that she was so close to foaling or that Jim Beam was in the meadow. I’ll give you credit for that much. And I guess I should thank you for what you tried to do for me, for my family, but I just can’t bring myself to do it, Aly.” His mouth twisted in repugnance. “I’d have thought more of you for making no deal at all on our behalf than to make one that was too inconvenient to keep. But I will ask this favor of you. Get out of this house and don’t come around while I’m here. I’m sick to death of you Kingstons. I never want to see any of your faces again—not until I’m ready.”

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