by Olive W. Burt
Synopsis: When her sister Elizabeth died, Carol Wilson, an artist, who was unmarried, felt great sympathy for the motherless children. Several months after Elizabeth’s funeral, Carol, who had returned to her magazine work in the city, received a letter from Kathy, the eldest niece, saying that the children were lonely and unhappy, and the grandmother ill. Carol decides to go to the children.
Carol had never been welcomed anywhere as joyously as she was that Saturday morning at the little Wyoming airport. Fred had brought the children with him to meet her. As she came down the steps from the plane, she heard their shouts, and saw their waving hands. Then, when she reached the gate, they swarmed over her with hugs and kisses. Behind them, her brother-in-law Fred Trent stood beaming.
“It’s mighty good to see you, Carol!” he said. “Watch out, children, or you’ll smother her! Back up, Stevie! Give your Aunt Carol a chance to get her breath.”
Carol raised her face from the bobbing heads of the youngsters. She was flushed and happy.
“Oh, Fred!” she cried. “I’ve missed them all so much! How are you? And how’s everything at the ranch?”
“Okay to both questions, Carol. Oh, Mother’s been down with arthritis, but I have an excellent housekeeper, who looks after us all.”
Beneath the hearty assurance, Carol wondered whether she detected the same note of loneliness and unhappiness that she had read in Kathy’s letters.
“Well, I’m here to cheer you all up a bit!” Carol said cheerfully and squeezed Kathy’s thin shoulders. She would say nothing, as yet, about the tear-blob on the letter.
They all clambered into the station wagon, all four maneuvering frantically to sit next to their aunt. It was a laughing, happy group that went into the big ranch house, where Fred’s mother sat in her wheelchair by the window, waiting for them. Carol went to the frail, suffering woman and kissed her.
As Carol glanced quickly about the big living room she thought, there’s something wrong with this picture! She had expected to find the children sad and unkempt, the house a shambles, everything just waiting for her magic touch to set it right. But the house was neat and orderly, the children well-groomed, and now the fragrance of a hearty meal greeted her nostrils. Carol shook her head. How could she have been so wrong? There was that tear-blob on Kathy’s letter and Stevie’s unmistakable hints, but now these seemed to have lost a good deal of their poignancy.
Just then Mrs. Cartwright came into the room and was introduced to Carol. She was a tall, spare woman in her middle fifties, very neat and clean and efficient-looking.
All through the noisy, delicious meal, Carol kept wondering where she had gone astray in her interpretation of the situation.
The next morning, Carol asked, “Do you want me to drive the children into the village for Sunday School?”
Fred smiled.”Oh, no, Carol. We all go – even Mother. It’s been such a comfort to us – Church has, and Bishop Glover has been a pillar of strength.”
He brought the station wagon to the front door and gently carried his mother out and placed her in the front seat. Her wheel chair, folded, went into the back. Mrs. Cartwright sat beside the older woman, solicitous for her comfort, and Carol was again surrounded by the children.
Carol was scarcely conscious that she was observing everything so closely, trying to discover why Kathy and Steve had given her the idea that they were so miserable. They looked perfectly happy this morning, dressed in the pretty spring outfits she had sent them.
She had no opportunity to question Kathy until that afternoon, after dinner. The little girls had been put down for their naps and Stevie was swinging in the hammock, reading. Kathy snuggled close to her aunt as she sat on the wide porch, drinking in the beauty and peace of the still, Wyoming countryside. Carol slipped her arm around the little girl and drew her close.
“Kathy, darling, do you know something? Somehow Aunt Carol got the idea that you were crying when you wrote that last letter.”
Kathy raised her clear, honest eyes to her aunt’s face. “I guess I was, Aunt Carol,” she admitted, unashamed.
“What was wrong, dear? Anything special?”
“Oh, no!” Kathy answered. “It’s just that when I write to you I get to thinking about Mommy – you are so much like her, Aunt Carol. And then I feel bad and the tears come.”
Carol’s brow wrinkled. “But I thought …” She stopped. How could she tell the child the anxiety that had gnawed at her?
“I’m glad you did, Aunt Carol. If that’s why you came to visit us. Honestly, we get so lonesome sometimes we just about die!”
“But darling! You have your Daddy and Grandma Trent and Mrs. Cartwright. How can you be so lonely?”
“They’re not Mommy, Aunt Carol. And they’re not you! don’t you see – you treat us different – you take us on walks and tell us stories, the way Mommy used to. It makes us sort of forget – oh, we don’t really forget, but it makes it easier to remember.”
Carol drew the child closer. “I see, darling. Well, I am glad that I can do even that much for you children.”
But she was somewhat taken aback. She had built up such a picture of Elizabeth’s children, with tear-streaked faces, needing her. Oh, yes, they did need her, but, after all, would an expert in child training think she spoiled them?
That their Grandmother Trent had some such idea Carol learned that evening. The older woman said carefully, “We’re all so glad to have you with us again, Carol. The children adore you so. And it’s good for them to be spoiled a little now and again. How long can you stay this time?”
Carol looked at the pain-drawn face of the invalid. How long can you stay or how soon will you go? Which did she mean? But one thing was certain, Mrs. Trent didn’t expect her to stay indefinitely.
“I don’t know, Mrs. Trent,” Carol said slowly. “Not too long, I guess.”
“Well, as I said, it doesn’t hurt them to have a little special attention now and then, though I’m a firm believer in teaching children to be self-reliant and independent. I’ve seen too many children ruined by too much attention.”
Carol smiled. “I’ll try not to spoil Elizabeth’s children, Mrs. Trent. Anyway, they’ll be in school most of the time. I won’t have many hours with them.” She couldn’t keep the edge of bitterness out of her voice.
Mrs. Trent stretched out a frail, wrinkled hand and laid it on Carol’s arm. “Don’t take my words amiss, Carol. It’s just that I need a lot of attention – and I hate to be a burden – hate to see Fred burdened, not only with me, but with all the responsibility …” her pain-dimmed eyes begged for understanding.
Carol, touched, bent and kissed the wrinkled forehead. “I understand, Mrs. Trent,” she said gently.
After the children left on the school bus next day, Carol felt like a fifth wheel. She didn’t dare pay too much attention to Trudy, the only one at home, and there was little to do in the house, so efficiently managed by Mrs. Cartwright. She was glad she had brought her painting kit with her. She gathered her equipment and went out into the field to paint the Tetons towering above the narrow valley.
As she worked, she was thinking how Brent Gibson would love this place. Brent! She ought to be back at her desk – the magazine needed her more than Elizabeth’s children did. Then she shook away that thought. No, she was needed here, too, for a while at least. Anyway, she could not go back and face Brent and say, “I was all wrong. They don’t want me up there.”
Brent would smile his amused, understanding smile and tell her as he often had, “You’ll learn, Carol. The only true peace in this world comes from work – work you love.”
The week passed uneventfully, but Saturday was to be a big day. The children and Carol were huddled over the table on Friday evening, making plans for the morrow’s picnic, when the phone rang. Fred answered it, and as he listened an expression of delight brightened his face. He hung up the receiver and came to the table, his step light and buoyant, in spite of his six feet and well matured frame.
“Forget the picnic, kids!” he said excitedly. “Something better has come up. Guess what it is!”
“What Daddy? What could be better?” they asked.
“Mrs. Graham and Tony are back! They’ll fly in tomorrow. We’re to meet them at the airport!”
“Oh, goody! goody!” Kathy cried. “She promised to bring me a doll from England!”
“Tony’s bringing me some stamps!” Stevie boasted, “from every country they went to.”
“She’s undoubtedly brought each of you something,” Fred admitted, “but I hope that’s not the main reason you’re glad she’s back.”
“Of course not, Daddy!” Kathy said seriously. “We’d be glad if she didn’t bring us anything. We’re glad she’s coming home. She’s been away so long!”
The words brought a shadow to Fred’s face. “Yes, she’s been away so long.”
Carol knew from former visits that Dolly Graham owned the next ranch to Fred’s. She and her husband had been Fred’s and Elizabeth’s closest, dearest friends. But John Graham had died last spring, and, later, before Elizabeth’s death, his widow had gone to England to meet her brother, who was just completing his mission there. They had toured Europe and the Near East, spending Christmas in Palestine. Carol didn’t quite remember where she had picked up all this information about the woman, but she had garnered it, bit by bit, during her visits.
Fred noticed the somewhat puzzled look on Carol’s face and exclaimed, “Forgive us, Carol. We were just carried away, I guess. But Dolly Graham is – well, someone special.”
“I know,” Carol answered. “I’ve met her, of course, when Trudy was born, particularly. She helped so much …”
The next morning Carol decided not to go to the airport. The station wagon would be full enough without her.
“You’ll have a lot to talk about, all of you, so I’ll just wait here. You’re going to stop here on your way to her place?”
“Of course. We’ll have dinner. Mother would never forgive us if we didn’t bring Dolly here first.”’
Grandma Trent watched the happy group depart, and then she turned to Carol. “I’m almost as excited as Fred,” she said happily. “Dolly is almost like a daughter to me, almost as dear as Elizabeth was. You know, after Trudy’s birth Elizabeth never was truly well again, and Dolly Graham did everything a woman could do to make Elizabeth’s life easier. The children adore her, and she knows how to handle them so easily and happily. It’s a good thing she is home again.”
Carol knew the older woman wished to talk, so she asked, “What about her ranch while she’s been gone?”
“The foreman, Luke Nebeker, has taken charge. But of course Fred has kept one eye on it.”
Carol turned to the window and looked out at the serene, immutable face of the Tetons.
“Now that Tony’s back,” Mrs. Trent went on, “he’ll probably take over. Tony Muir’s a fine young man, Carol. I don’t think you have met him. He came to the ranch here only a few times before he was called on his mission, right after his parents died. He helped his father run the family ranch near Boise before that. but I understand that place is sold now, so he’ll probably run Dolly’s. And,” a speculative look came into the faded blue eyes, “if Dolly should marry again, well – if Tony’s here, it would be easier for her.”
Carol moved toward the door. “I think I’ll take a little walk before dinner, if there’s nothing I can do here to help.” She always said that – and always there was nothing she could do. “I’ll be back in an hour.”
She went out and across the field, walking swiftly. It was good of Mrs. Trent to fill her in on the details. But, she shrugged, what did she care about Dolly Graham or Tony Muir or any of these strangers? It was Elizabeth’s children she was concerned about. And she could read what was in their grandmother’s mind – a wife for Fred, a hand-picked mother for the children. Well, they wouldn’t need her, then. But her need for them was deep and lasting.