From the Relief Society Magazine, 1959 –
The Silver Leash
by Beatrice Rordame Parsons
The bus rolled steadily along the dark strip of asphalt which seemed to unwind itself under the wheels. The desert was unending. LaRue Harding stared out of the window and shivered.
I’m a stranger, she thought.
Not only a stranger to this corner of Arizona, but a stranger to her brother-in-law, Herbert Vetterly. He had married LaRue’s sister, Amelia, seventeen years ago.
I don’t even know their children, except as names, LaRue thought unhappily. Erma would be sixteen, now, Joel must be fourteen. Connie, only nine.
“They are my nieces and nephew,” LaRue spoke softly to herself, “yet they are as distant from me as those eroded peaks which unfold to let the bus go through.”
Her sister Amelia had written, year after year, asking LaRue to come to Arizona. Now it was too late. Amelia was dead!
Her mind went back …
* * *
She had been only five when their parents died. She and Amelia, ten years older, had left Arizona and gone to San Francisco to live with a distant relative, whom they called Aunt Mettie.
Amelia had been homesick for their home in Fivelakes, for her friends and acquaintances. She had often talked about it to LaRue, even though LaRue was too small to understand.
“I remember the houses, the streets. I can still see the oldest house in the valley. Hillhigh House, they called it because it was built on a knoll overlooking the town. The hospital is named after our great-great-grandfather, Jonas Harding.”
LaRue was proud to know that Jonas Harding had driven his small, gray burro into the rugged mountains prospecting for gold. She talked about it to LaRue. But LaRue, being a child, saw the small gray burro more clearly than the man. She did not remember Fivelakes.
As they grew older, Amelia teased Aunt Mettie to let them return to Arizona for a visit. But Aunt Mettie didn’t have money enough to send them. It wasn’t until Amelia was nineteen, and had saved enough money to make the trip, that she was able to visit old friends for an extended stay. She renewed acquaintances, and wrote about meeting a Herbert Vetterly. Love began to glow between the lines of her letters to LaRue and Aunt Mettie.
“Herb’s a wonderful man. He’s good, honest. He’s going to be an architect …” A few months later, she wrote that they had fallen in love, that they were to be married in the Mesa Temple. She asked Aunt Mettie to let LaRue come for the wedding.
But Aunt Mettie had been ill and LaRue, at nine, could not go alone. Later on, Amelia’s letters were filled with longing to see her sister. “You are growing up, LaRue. We two are the last of the Hardings. I’d like my friends to know you.” And as the years passed: “Herb and I would like you to know our children.”
But it had seemed impossible for LaRue ever to leave Aunt Mettie. Her duty seemed to be there. Even as a child going to school, she had things to do that Aunt Mettie could not do. As LaRue went through high school and on to the university, Aunt Mettie grew more and more feeble, but LaRue had managed to graduate. She found an excellent position in one of the large banks in San Francisco. By then Aunt Mettie was bedfast, and the money LaRue earned kept the dear old lady in comfort. When she died, LaRue, who had always had so much to do, found herself on the verge of a breakdown. It was soon after that Amelia was killed in the accident which crippled her husband.
Herbert Vetterly’s letter, written six months after his wife’s sudden death, was painfully compelling:
I am of little use to myself or the children. I sit in my wheel chair in my room. the children are alone too much. People are kind. Mrs. Jonstone, a neighbor assists with the housework, does the cooking. We manage, day by day. But the children and I are drifting apart. I worry about them a good deal …
LaRue immediately had written Herb that she would take three weeks leave from the bank, and come for a visit during the month of June. She assured her coworkers that she would return by the first week in July.
Although there had been no answer from Herb, LaRue felt she must go. She got several tourist folders and read about Arizona:
Area 113,956 square miles. Water, 329 square miles. State Flower, the Saguaro … The town of Fivelakes … in that corner of Arizona where so much of Western history began, is fast becoming a tourist center. The climate is ideal … the altitude contributing to not-too-warm days and desert-cooled nights … on the Lost Padre River … where the Lost Padre Dam contributes acres of water for irrigation … a lush green valley … four dry lakes and Blue Lake nearby gave the town its name …
* * *
As the bus rolled along, LaRue strained her eyes for a glimpse of the valley. It was hard to believe that somewhere – behind the weird arrangement of pink and yellow cliffs, a lush, summertime land of blue lakes and fertile fields would appear.
There were miles and miles of barren land to which gray tufts of grass clung stubbornly. She studied the wind-etched patterns in an ocean of sand, and wondered why Amelia had longed to go back to Arizona.
As the bus crossed the miles of arid Indian Reservation country, she studied the rude hogans of the ancient peoples, and wondered that they could survive on sand and sun.
LaRue was glad she did not have to stay in Arizona!
Then, suddenly, the valley appeared, cupped between towering mountains. She could scarcely believe her eyes. She thought, amazedly: It’s like those desert plants I’ve read about – lifting their heads to blossom when the rain has passed. No wonder Amelia had found it a good place to live!
Yet, even as she made this small concession to her sister’s judgment, LaRue could not accept the valley as her own. The pastry-like contours of the hills made her think of a cake – baked eons before – to rise on one side and fall on the other, as if the oven had been imperfect.
She saw yucca and Joshua trees that looked like odd-shaped Marsmen. There were saguaro and tall, straight cacti which looked like the pipes of an organ. In some places they were actually planted to form a sort of fence. There were small, spiny cacti crouched menacingly among gray boulders as if waiting to spring out upon the unwary. She saw tiny green lizards slithering into the sand to escape he turning wheels. She did not see, but her vivid imagination painted in her mind, pictures of tarantulas and Gila monsters.
LaRue shivered again. Homesickness tugged at her like a leather thong. The beauty and fascination of San Francisco rose in her memory and she could almost smell the Pacific breezes, almost hear the roar of the skyscraper canyons. She knew with uneasy clarity that she could never make this oasis in Arizona her home!
When the bus rolled into the station, she wanted to keep her seat and return to the Coast. But her baggage – one suitcase and an overnight bag – was being unloaded by a rough-looking, scraggly-bearded young man in a plaid shirt and Levis. He saw her staring at his face, and grinned, scratching his thin beard. “You’ll see a lot of ‘em, lady. Every man around here is getting ready for the Founding Festival. By the time it rolls around, I’ll have one of the best beards in the county!” He whistled as he set her bags inside the station.
When her bus disappeared in muted distance, LaRue followed her bags. The station was unpretentious. There was a café with green plastic-covered counter. There were Mexican and Indian dolls with intricately decorated costumes ranged on shelves. Aztec gods glowered down at her from brass and tin masks, and she remembered that Fivelakes was close to the Mexican border. On the walls she saw murals of pink and orange cliffs which reminded her of castles and fortresses. As the one or two fellow passengers disappeared into waiting cars. LaRue realized that no one had come to meet her. Panic seized her. It had been almost two weeks since she’d written Herb that she would come. She had not heard from him. Could all of them be ill? Or moved away? Or … something was surely wrong.
She looked out of the window at the road which ran like a gray artery into the town of Fivelakes. The highway was being widened. From where she stood it seemed that the town would surely be gobbled up by the machines which sent clouds of acrid dust into the air. The chugging of scoop-shovels, the pounding of rollers beat dully unto the café. She gazed through the brilliance of the blazing sun, and her head ached.
The man behind the counter – bearded, frightening almost, in his western garb – watched her quietly. When he spoke, she jumped. “Get you a cab, lady?” At her nod he went to phone. “Be here in a minute,” he assured her lazily, running his fingers through his dark beard. “Raising this beard for the Founding Festival,” he explained smilingly.
She thought it was awful, but she didn’t say so. She wasn’t really interested in the festival. She’d read about such things. There’d be a Kangaroo Court, of course, in the middle of town, where frontier justice would be handed out. Women would wear the traditional swirling skirts of their Mexican neighbors, or the traditional sunbonnets of the pioneers. It would be a fiesta!
The taxi, which had been a spinning, orange fleck in the distance, arrived at last in a cloud of dust. The driver put LaRue’s bags into the back. When she gave him Herbert Vetterly’s address he stared at her in amazement.
“Why, you’re the sister Mrs. Vetterly talked about! You’re not a bit like her. Your hair is red.” He amended quickly, “I mean, auburn.”
LaRue laughed. “Red hair and freckles,” she said, and was glad wide-spaced gray-blue eyes, dark brows, and long, dark lashes compensated for the row of freckles across her nose. Amelia used to call them “sun kisses.” Oddly enough, she hadn’t thought of the word for years!
The taxi lurched back towards the town, the driver skillfully avoiding loose gravel and hot oil. He chatted easily.
“Mrs. Vetterly was a very fine woman. She worked in the Church, in Relief Society. She belonged to the Genealogical Society. She was very proud of her family and of the fact she was a Harding.”
“I know very little about the Hardings,” answered LaRue weakly. She thought, I know so little about my sister. Even her taxi driver knew more!
LaRue could remember Amelia, as she had been seventeen years before, when she left Aunt Mettie’s to marry Herb. But all the years between were closed to LaRue. Trying to see Amelia’s face as it had been during later years was like looking at the wrong side of the negative, misty, blurred.
I’m a Harding, she thought confusedly, yet not one of them at all!
She tried to shake away the feeling that she was just a pinprick of personality, with no beginning, no end, floating aimlessly into a place called Fivelakes. The driver was explaining how the town had got its name.
“Four of the lakes dry up during the summer.” He pointed. “But Blue Lake is deep and clear, fine for swimming and fishing.” It lay like a silver tureen in the distance. He advised LaRue, smilingly: “Stay for the Founding Festival and see some fun!”
LaRue smiled politely. But her mind refused to think of remaining so long. The driver was still giving her a tourist’s glimpse of the valley.
“Over there, just under the shadow of Coyote Peak is the Lawson Dairy Farm. Frank and Ellen Lawson are wonderful people. They’ve adopted five children. Now they are expecting one of their own.”
LaRue looked at the neat, white buildings outlined against the gray of the mountain, and smiled. But again her mind turned down the possibility that the Lawson farm would ever – could ever – mean anything to her!
On one side of the highway the land rose in a rolling knoll, topped by a very old yet dignified house. LaRue had a queer feeling that she had seen it before. Then she realized that she was probably remembering it because Amelia had talked about it. It was two stories high, with small attic windows. There were wide, comfortable porches, and so much gingerbread trim that LaRue thought of gingerbread cookies.
The driver saw that she was interested and explained. “It’s almost one hundred years old. The oldest house in the valley. It used to belong to one of the Hardings. But now it belongs to Clyde Rutherford. Everyone calls him ‘Grandie,’ because he’s Dr. Alan Rutherford’s grandfather. He does not live in the old house. It’s for sale. Grandie lives with the aid of a day-housekeeper in that small red-brick cottage nearby.”
They had passed the old house, but LaRue could still see it raising its proud old head to look out over the valley. It had belonged to a Harding, and for that reason she promised herself that someday she would see it close up.
The taxi turned abruptly into a tree-lined street and stopped before a neatly kept white bungalow with maroon trim. The driver took LaRue’s bags from the car and put them on the porch. Then he touched his cap, and the taxi disappeared around a corner.
LaRue stood there, feeling strange, awkward. Was no one expecting her? She put out her finger to reach the doorbell, but before she pushed it, a small girl with flying brown braids came racing from the back yard, followed by a tan and white dog.
She stood there, her hands loosely clasped behind her, her large, blue eyes wide open, curious. The dog sniffed at LaRue’s red sandals.
After a long, embarrassing scrutiny, the child spoke. “Are you my Aunt LaRue?” Then, as LaRue managed a smile and a nod, she added critically: “You don’t look at all like my Mommy looked!”
LaRue swallowed nervously. “You must be Connie?”
She held out her hand. but the child did not move to take it. She called to the dog.
“Come here, Atlast.” At LaRue’s frank look of puzzlement, she explained: “He was a stray. Daddy let me keep him. So I have a dog – at last!”
LaRue smiled. “Where is everyone?”
Connie did not answer, just opened the screen and beckoned LaRue inside.
“Daddy can’t walk,” she said simply.
LaRue found the house neat, comfortable, with the bedrooms on one side of a long hall, the living rooms on the other. She looked around.
So this is where my sister lived, she thought painfully, these are the things she touched. Her heart was heavy with questions. How many times did Amelia’s hands polish this furniture? How many times did her laughter ring through these quiet rooms?
Connie was tugging at her sleeve. They went into the living room. At first LaRue thought it was empty. Then a man with wide shoulders, very dark, crisp hair, rolled his chair from the shadows, and she saw Herbert Vetterly for the first time. His dark eyes, sunken with pain and distress, surveyed her carefully. It was a moment before he put out his hand. “Amelia would be glad to know that you have come.”
He tried to hide it, but LaRue caught a tense criticism in Herb’s voice. She wanted to make him understand. Wanted to make him know those long, busy years with the aunt who had taken the place of her mother. But they were over. No need to speak of them now. Perhaps some other time …
LaRue was aware that someone else had entered the room. She turned. For an instant she thought it was Amelia. The same soft pale hair, the same lovely blue eyes …
“How are you, Aunt LaRue?” asked the girl, and LaRue knew her to be Erma. She would have put out her arms, but Erma’s blue eyes were unfriendly, her tone distant. LaRue kept her arms at her sides.
Then Joel came in. He was tall, dark like his father.
“I’ll take your bags, Aunt LaRue,” he said politely. His coolness chilled his aunt. He went out upon the porch, came back with her bags swinging easily from his large hands. He carried them to one of the bedrooms.
LaRue stood there awkwardly. Herb pushed his chair back into the shadows. Erma moved out of the room. Joel left the bedroom door ajar. He tweaked one of Connie’s brown braids and she followed him out.
“Perhaps you’d like to unpack,” said Herb from the shadows.
LaRue crossed the hall, feeling the temporary briefness of her unwelcome visit. I’ll only stay a little while, she told herself, swallowing hurt, angry tears. Yet she did not blame any of them for not wanting her.
She knew by the daintiness of the curtains and furniture that this had been Erma’s room. She had moved, no doubt, into Connie’s room. LaRue felt more than ever the intruder.
She decided to unpack only the most necessary things. Almost surreptitiously she hung one or two of her cotton frocks in the empty clothes closet.
Her hands shook as she put her handkerchiefs into an empty drawer and a small, amber cut-glass bottle, with a tiny golden cap. Her movements were unsteady as she unscrewed the cap. The fragrance of white carnations flooded the room.
Amelia had given LaRue the pretty bottle the day she had left for Fivelakes. The words she had said, then, were engraved on LaRue’s mind.
“… so you’ll never forget me, darling, and always remember that love is everlasting …”