The Silver Leash
by Beatrice Rordame Parsons
Synopsis: LaRue Harding, an orphan, who has lived since childhood in California with an aunt, goes to Fivelakes, Arizona, after the death of her sister Amelia. LaRue finds that her brother-in-law Herbert Vetterly is confined to a wheelchair and his children seem hostile towards LaRue.
The huge, silver-platter moon which rolled itself out from behind Coyote Peak during the night found LaRue crying miserably into her pillow. She felt grief-stricken not to have seen Amelia before her death, and to know her children.
But Aunt Mettie had needed her. There had been very little money for a nurse, even if Aunt Mettie had agreed to have one, and Aunt Mettie had been kind, thoughtful, seeing that LaRue went to school, to college. LaRue had repaid her aunt-mother by doing the hundreds of daily kindnesses which kept Aunt Mettie happy. Yet, LaRue’s mind kept nagging, seventeen years is a long time.
When dawn brought a turquoise sky with a great, yellow ball of sun to drench the chill from the desert-cooled night, the icy coldness in LaRue’s heart did not melt. Even though Aunt Mettie was no longer a prisoner of ill health in the neat apartment in San Francisco, LaRue felt the tug of homesickness. She longed for familiar sights and odors – great steel bridges spanning miles of water; cloud banks running in from the Pacific to smell of fog.
Erma put her questions into words later, when she and LaRue were alone. “Why didn’t you come? Mother wanted to see you so badly. You were a Harding, and she was proud of that. She felt that you belonged here …” Her voice shook and she left the room, not waiting to hear LaRue’s explanations.
Joel was youthful, inarticulate, but he broke out: “You didn’t come.”
She tried to tell him her reasons. But he grunted rudely.
“Seventeen years is a long time.”
“Too long,” she cried painfully, but she was talking to his back as he went out.
She tried to talk to Herb. but he had grown silent, morose. He ate the meals which Mrs. Jonstone prepared and said little to the children. He had closed his architect’s office as Amelia’s death had closed his life. He told her: “I have a small income. Enough. I used to build things. Now I build no more …”
Watching the way he rolled his chair along the hall to his room, LaRue learned that the chair, and the bedroom door which he always closed tightly behind him, had become the only security he knew.
LaRue found that the things he had written in his letter were true. He and his children were drifting apart. Once they had been a family, close, happy, loved and beloved. They were a family no longer.
Just four hurt, bewildered people, separated by the bits of their shattered world!
LaRue longed to help them. But she didn’t know how, in the face of their anger and resentment. Tears welling into her throat warned her that she was an outsider. That she had no place in their lives.
She did try to coax Herb from the house. Paying no attention to the way his body tensed, the way his hands gripped the wheels of his chair, she spoke casually, “I’d like to drive your car, Herb. See the town. Come with me. We’ll put your chair in the back and …”
The roughness of his refusal jarred her. “I never go anywhere. I don’t like people staring at me …” He was ashamed of his outburst, and said more quietly: “I’ve only been out of the house once or twice since the accident.” His pale face was indrawn, frightened. “Dr. Alan Rutherford wanted to take some X-rays. He’s never given up the idea that an operation might help.”
LaRue caught at a straw, saying eagerly: “It might, Herb. Why haven’t you?”
He brushed the matter away with a violent wave of his hand. “I could be a great deal worse off, it the operation failed.”
LaRue understood. He had suffered so much pain. He could not take a chance on more.
He returned to the matter of the drive. “You are welcome to take my car. I’d like you to meet people. See Fivelakes. We’re pretty proud of our town.” He paused, then said pleasantly: “Erma can show you around.”
Erma’s face was still as her eyes met LaRue’s. She pleated a corner of her napkin and her voice was forced. “I’m sorry, Father. I’m very busy.”
Herb felt the rudeness of her refusal and turned to Joel. “You go with her …”
But Joel was already shaking his dark head. “I’m going over to Eddie’s.”
LaRue’s expression must have told Connie how hurt she was, for the child spoke cheerfully.
“I’ll go, Aunt LaRue. I know lots of people. I’ll take you to see Harding Hospital. Introduce you to Dr. Alan Rutherford. Maybe we’ll meet Gladys Drew. She’s engaged to Dr. Alan. We could go up to Hillhigh House. Grandie would be there. He’s terribly old. More than a hundred, I’ll bet.”
Erma corrected her with unnecessary sharpness., “He’s eighty-two, Connie. Do you always have to exaggerate?”
Connie lifted her chin. “You don’t have to scold me, Erma. You’re not my mother.” There were tears on her lashes.
LaRue spoke hurriedly: “Where else could we go, Connie?”
“To the supermarket,” cried Connie, with a sidelong glance in Erma’s direction. “Erma’s boyfriend, Bob Powers, works in the fresh vegetables.” She found Erma scowling at her, and added: “I’ll go change into my best dress.”
She ran to her room, and in a few minutes Erma and Joel drifted out of the house. Herb looked apologetic.
“It wasn’t this way when their … mother … was here.” he paused, drew a deep, unsteady breath and went on. “They never used to bicker. Now the slightest thing brings harsh words.”
LaRue tried to reassure him. “Children often quarrel, Herb.”
He shook his dark head, a worried line drawing tight about his mouth.
“This is different, LaRue. I don’t understand it. The children have changed. Erma and Joel have too much time on their hands now that school is out. Half the time they don’t bother to tell me where they are going. I know very little about their companions.”
“Why not have Erma and Joel bring their friends home?” asked LaRue. “They could play records. Have barbecues.”
“I’ve suggested those things,” said Herb tensely, “but they simply don’t bring their friends home. Bob Powers takes Erma out. But I do not know him. Joel’s friend, Eddie Parrat, has been in trouble about cars …” He was frankly at a loss. “I’ve told Joel not to associate with Eddie and his crowd, but …” He lifted his hands helplessly from the wheels of his chair. He looked beaten, afraid. His voice trembled: “My sister lives in another part of the State. She’d be glad to take the children. They need someone who … cares!”
“You care,” cried LaRue loudly. “Oh, Herb, they’d be miserable away from you and their home. If you’d only try …”
He lifted his hands from the wheels of his chair and grated: “Look at me, LaRue. I’m a cripple! Physically and mentally! Without Amelia I’m … nothing!”
He turned his chair abruptly and swept out of the room. His door closed loudly. LaRue looked at the panel in pity and distress.
If I could only help, she thought bitterly. But the children had shut her out. All except Connie, who was coming along the hall, dressed in a fresh blue cotton dress, her long, brown braids tied with blue ribbons.
She looked at LaRue in surprise. “I thought you’d be getting ready!” There was disappointment in her small face. “Aren’t we going, Aunt LaRue?”
LaRue got quickly up from her chair. “I’ll go and change,” she said. But she wished she hadn’t asked for the car. She felt moody, depressed by her conversation with Herb. Her hands were unsteady as she fastened a golden-linked belt about the waist of her becoming leaf-green cotton frock. “You’re the official guide,” she told Connie in forced merriment as she turned the car into the highway. “Let’s go see the old house, first.”
“Let’s” cried Connie eagerly, “we’re sure to see Grandie. He’s always there …”
But when they came to the place, huge machines blocked the road up the steep incline.
“Never mind, Aunt LaRue,” consoled Connie in her elderly manner, “someday, before you go home, you can walk up to the house.”
LaRue didn’t know why she felt so disappointed. It couldn’t possibly matter if she didn’t visit the old house. She drove slowly along, seeing brown, auburn, gray, and black beards on most of the men who were growing them for the celebration.
Connie giggled, saying: “It’s lots of fun, Aunt LaRue. The carnival’s at Blue Lake, but there’s a parade in town, and a lot of other things. I’m going to have a new dress. So is Erma. Our dressmaker makes them. But Erma’s going to sew lots of sequins on her skirt like a Mexican Senorita. She’s going to wear pink, because Bob likes it. She likes Bob, awful much! He’s only got the littlest beard, but she likes it.”
They drove into the part of the valley which had reminded LaRue of a prehistorically baked cake. Jutting boulders of pink and yellow sandstone had been left undisturbed, and houses, patios, and swimming pools had been built in their midst, giving the lovely ranch-type homes a look of the wilderness.
“You have to be awful rich to live in Maple Park,” explained Connie. “That’s why Grandie is giving Dr. Alan the money to build his house. Grandie is always telling people that Dr. Alan might as well have it now, as later!” She was very grave. “Grandie believes in giving things to people while he’s here to see them enjoy them. So he can enjoy them, too. He asked Daddy to design a nice house, but Daddy …” Her face fella s her voice trailed away.
Suddenly she motioned for LaRue to turn into the huge, black-topped parking lot at the Supermarket. “I’ll introduce you to Bob Powers.”
As they walked across the lot with its hundreds of cars, Connie said: “It’s bigger than the open-air pavilion at Blue Lake where they hold the square dancing.” She looked expectantly into her aunt’s face. “Will you be staying for the Festival?”
LaRue shook her head. “I’ll have to go back to the bank long before that!”
She didn’t know that her voice revealed her anxiety to get away. She followed Connie into the huge shopping center, and through the aisles to the fresh vegetable department. Bob Powers was cutting the tops from carrots and arranging them in a colorful triangle.
Connie introduced them. “This is my Aunt LaRue, Bob. I’ve told her about you being Erma’s friend. I told her how you’re trying to raise a beard.”
There were a few wheat-blond strands of beard on his chin, and when LaRue shook hands he colored slightly. “If my hair was dark, they’d show up better.” He was young, tall, and his wheat-blond hair was crew-cut. He said: “I think Erma’s pretty swell!”
LaRue smiled. She liked him for that. “The next time you come to take Erma out,” she suggested, “drop in and see her father. He would like to know you …” her voice failed, remembering that Herb was shy before people. Yet she liked this young man very much. “Come for dinner some evening,” she said. “Mrs. Jonstone is a good cook.” She felt awkward, knowing that she had overstepped her privileges in her brother-in-law’s home.
He did not promise, as he turned back to his carrots. “Maybe, someday, if Erma asks me.” He picked up his knife and whacked the top from a carrot with undue vigor, as if he was angry about something, thought LaRue.
When they left the market, Connie and LaRue drove up a quiet street. “There’s the hospital,” cried Connie, excitedly. “We’ll be sure to meet some of the patients that Dr. Alan brings out in the sunshine. Gladys doesn’t like to go inside. She says the smell of antiseptics makes her ill. But she comes each day to bring magazines and things.”
LaRue studied the three-story, benign old gray stone building. There was a name carved into ancient stone over the portal. She read it silently: Jonas Harding Hospital.
Harding, she thought, feeling a tiny prick of pride. It looked nice, printed there. She thought of how little she knew of the Hardings. Jonas Harding seemed a figure out of a book or a movie. She thought: I’ve missed so much! then wondered at the thought. The Hardings were of no importance to her. She had only known one, her sister, Amelia. She had almost forgotten her!
Connie was bounding up and down on the front seat. She opened the door. “Come on, Aunt LaRue. I told you we’d meet Dr. Alan and Gladys. There they are, over there on the lawn.” She skipped quickly ahead of LaRue, smiling, and greeting some of the patients who sat in wheel chairs or on benches in the sun. She called their names. “Dr. Alan! Gladys! I want you to know my Aunt LaRue.”
A tall man in white turned and smiled down at LaRue. He had slightly irregular features, which gave him a distinguished look, and his dark eyes under his brown crewcut were friendly.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Miss LaRue Harding,” he said, shaking her hand. His fingers were firm, strong, the fingers of a surgeon. “I’ve heard a lot about you from your sister.”
He drew a beautiful, green-eyed girl a little forward, saying: “My fiancee, Miss Gladys Drew.”
She had very dark hair, green eyes, and she wore a white, sleeveless frock, which set off her deep tan.
She touched LaRue’s fingers, then looked at her with wide, interested eyes.
“Are you going to make your home in Fivelakes, Miss Harding?”
LaRue did not mean to be rude, but she said quickly: “Oh, no, I’m going back to San Francisco.”
Dr. Alan Rutherford smiled, said a little stiffly: “You don’t like it here! Your sister loved it.”
LaRue was silent. She was glad that Connie was chattering in a lively tone. “How is Mrs. Lawson, Dr. Alan? When is she going to have her new baby?” She sounded so grown-up, so elderly.
“She’s fine,” said Dr. Alan. “I’ve been keeping her in the hospital for a while. But she’s going home.” to LaRue he explained: “The baby seems determined to arrive before schedule.
They talked for a little while longer. Then LaRue said they must be getting home for dinner.
Back in the car, Connie sighed happily. “I just love Dr. Alan. You’ll love him, too, Aunt LaRue, when you get to know him better.”
It was silly, but LaRue found her cheeks warm. She had liked Dr. Alan Rutherford very much.
Connie asked eagerly: “Aunt LaRue, I just love babies. Can I tend yours when they come?”
LaRue had to laugh. “I’m not even engaged, darling. But when I meet the right man and settle down, I’ll send you a ticket to San Francisco …”
Connie was shaking her brown head. There was a wistful look in her soft blue eyes.
“I don’t want to come to San Francisco, Aunt LaRue! I want you to stay in Fivelakes. Then I could tend your baby every day!”
LaRue hated to dash that wistful look from Connie’s face, but she said firmly: “My vacation ends by the first week in July. I’ve got to get back to the office.”
She was not aware of the relief in her tone.