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. She tries to help and encourage her brother-in-law Herbert Vetterly, who is confined to a wheelchair. his children gradually come to accept LaRue as a friend and as a member of the family. She meets Dr. Alan Rutherford, a surgeon at the Jonas Harding Hospital, and his fiancee Gladys Drew. “Grandie,” Dr. Rutherford’s grandfather, who now owns old Hillhigh House, which was built by the Hardings, invites them to a picnic there.
When LaRue had first suggested the cookout at Hillhigh House, she had been doubtful of its success. But Erma and Joel – to say nothing about Connie – were so delighted and surprised by the prospect of their father accompanying them, that they could not do enough to help.
Though he didn’t speak of it, LaRue knew that Herb was still frightened by the thought of leaving the house in his chair. She knew his shyness at being seen by his friends and neighbors. She knew his courage in deciding to go!
LaRue admired her brother-in-law for that courage. She knew that his love for his children had overshadowed his fear. But she knew that deep inside he cringed at the thought of what he would have to face.
The children, however, did not guess. They were glad, happy, too excited to look for hidden meanings in their father’s actions.
Connie had written carefully printed notes on some flowered stationery she had found, and had sent them off to Dr. Alan, to Gladys, Grandie, Janice, and Bob. She had even sent one to Eddie Parrat and had propped one up outside of Atlast’s little dog house.
“I’ve been teaching him to behave when I put him on his leash,” explained Connie dubiously, “but he’s not very polite. He runs away all the time, dragging his leash behind him.” As though she hated to criticize her little pet, she added hurried, “It’s only because he’s not used to a leash that he acts that way, Aunt LaRue.”
“I’m sure he’ll be properly trained by the time we go to Hillhigh House,” LaRue assured her, smilingly, but deep inside, she was not entirely sure that the little tan and white dog would take graciously to his collar and leash. “At least, darling, you can be sure he can’t find any very naughty mischief to get into at Hillhigh House. There’s plenty of space in which to run.”
Connie was comforted. She didn’t give up trying, however, and when it was time to get ready, she carefully packed Atlast’s leash.
There were sundry other things that she and Janice packed in order to set up proper housekeeping for their dolls; and when they were ready, Joel clapped his hands to his head and guffawed loudly.
“We look more like we’re moving, than just going to a cookout,” he declared, surveying all the folding chairs, the table and grill, the picnic basket, and all the other things that they were to take along. “It’s good that Dr. Alan is calling for Dad. What with his chair and everything …” He caught a quick, sidelong glance of his father’s face, and shouted at Eddie: “Grab something, man. Don’t just stand there with your tongue hanging out, thinking about all that chicken.”
LaRue was relieved to see that in the bustle the boys made packing the back of the car, Herb’s color had a chance to come back before Dr. Alan, with Gladys in the front seat and Grandie in the back, lifted Herb’s chair into his car.
LaRue, watching the shadows creep into Herb’s face, grew worried. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have … yes … forced Herb to come,” she told herself fearfully. “If anything should happen …” But she turned that thought away as Joel shouted for her to hurry.
They laughed and chatted and made fun of their two-car caravan as it advanced up the steep road to Hillhigh House.
Joel got quite a laugh as he remembered something his father had said. “Stately carriages, and spirited horses were never like this!” he declared, giving Eddie a great thump against his shoulder. “I’ll bet the clustered ghosts of long-gone Hardings are staring down at us with disapproval in their … eyes?”
Everybody laughed, but Connie was worried. “There aren’t any ghosts in the daytime, are there, Aunt LaRue?” She clutched at Janice’s arm as she waited for an answer, and both small faces were pale.
“Of course not,” cried Erma vehemently. Then with more gentleness: “If there are any Harding ghosts at Hillhigh House, they are all very nice ones. Grandie knew most of them, and he always tells such kind stories about them. I’m sure they were wonderful people.”
LaRue saw Bob Powers beaming at Erma, and she remembered how sharp Erma’s reply might once have been to a thoughtless brother, frightening little girls with stories of ghosts.
She’s improving, LaRue told herself happily; and found that they had reached their goal.
There were so many eager hands to help with the unpacking and getting settled, that there was more confusion than order, there under the old willow on the brick patio.
They arranged folding chairs, tables, the grill, and the special aluminum-and-nylon chaise lounge which Gladys had insisted on bringing for her very own benefit in the pool of shade cast by the great tree.
Dr. Alan had made a huge chef’s hat out of white paper. When he tipped it over his dark hair and waved his scepter – a long barbecue fork for turning the chicken – they all declared him “The Ruler of the Feast.”
Grandie was happy to be with Erma and Bob, strolling over the grounds, pointing out the old rock spring house, which had once served the Hardings and the Rutherfords as a natural refrigerator where round pans of milk had been set until they were golden with thick, sweet cream for the table.
Janice and Connie made a fabulous playhouse with bits of white stone, and a carpet of dried leaves. Atlast, unconfined by his collar and leash, thumped the dust, from what they had decided was the front porch with his tail, until Connie spoke firmly about the trouble of housekeeping with a small dog. Then he curled his paws under him and dozed, keeping one ear well cocked to hear what his young mistress was up to.
Joel and Eddie climbed ancient apple trees, Hut herb sat in his wheelchair, tense, shaken by his journey to the old house. While Dr. Alan turned the chicken over the charcoal in the grill, Gladys lazed in her chaise lounge and pointed towards the activity taking place at Blue Lake.
“They’re getting ready for the celebration,” she sighed contentedly, crossing slim, tanned legs in a pool of sunshine to add to their tan. “Why, they are assembling a regular mountain of steel and wood for the amusement part of the carnival.”
“There’s the merry-go-round,” cried Connie, turning Janice about so that she could see, too. “I just love those pink, green, and lavender horses! I think I’m going to ride them all!”
Erma turned to Grandie and smiled. “Will you ride the Ferris Wheel with Bob and me, Grandie?”
The old man slapped his knee and grinned: “I’ll even pay for the tickets,” he assured her teasingly.
Joel and Eddie were disdainful of merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels. “We’re going to ride the rocket to the moon,” said Joel, boastfully. “And the atomic blockbuster. And the satellite bomb.”
Everybody giggled. But LaRue’s eyes were shining as she studied the tall, dark-haired boy who would soon be the man his father had once been.
His head is full of wheels and wings, she thought eagerly. So is Eddie’s. Boys of that age are mechanics. They need things to do with their hands. They will be flying those atomic-powered planes of the future. They’ll be riding the earth satellites. She laughed aloud at her own wild imaginings.
Gladys, lazily beautiful in a sleeveless raspberry-red frock, spoke scornfully. “You can have those things! I’ll take the dancing. I’m going to buy a new Mexicali frock – blue, I think – with a cute little bodice with a V-neck.”
She looked to where LaRue was helping Dr. Alan fry the chicken, her dress protected with a big apron, and asked: “What will you wear, LaRue?”
For all she had told Herb that she wanted to stay for the Festival, LaRue had not consciously made any plans. She remembered the dresses she had left hanging in the neat clothes closet back in San Francisco and wished she had brought something very special. But she shook her head a bit ruefully.
“My yellow, I guess. It’s not new, but it’s the only nice thing I brought with me. Maybe it’s a little plain for …”
“They wear anything, Aunt LaRue,” said Erma quickly. “I’m sure your yellow will be all right.”
LaRue turned a piece of chicken, saying thoughtfully: “I’ll wear it, if I go.”
Dr. Alan waved a chicken leg at the end of his barbecue fork. He wore a dish towel to protect his gray slacks, and his paper hat was rakishly tilted over his twinkling eyes.
“Of course you’re going. Even if Gladys and I have to drag you …”
“Dr. Alan Rutherford!” It was Grandie’s voice rising indignantly. “Is that any way to invite a young lady to dance?” He gave his grandson a withering glance, and bowed formally to LaRue. “Miss Harding,” he asked most politely, “may I have the pleasure of escorting you to the Founding Festival? Perhaps I’m not quite up to the jitterbug, but I’ll be glad to try.”
LaRue’s face was merry, her voice choked, but her acceptance was very formal.
“I’d be honored, Grandie. Very, very honored. Thank you. We can sit out the jitterbug.”
Everybody laughed then and scrambled for their places as Dr. Alan announced that the chicken was ready. It was heaped on a large platter, crisp, golden brown, and it smelled so delicious that Atlast took up his place near Connie, where she could surreptitiously feed him on bits of skin.
More than once during the meal, LaRue saw Herb’s hand go out, offering Atlast a tidbit. They sat there, watching the workmen build peppermint-striped booths along the shores of Blue Lake. Other men were setting up frames for the fireworks on a small island. They ate until they could not hold another bite. Then they packed away the remains of the feast and followed Grandie for a tour of the old house.
LaRue had never been inside, yet, somehow, she felt as if she belonged. It was very run-down, yet beautiful and gracious. Gladys walked gingerly, fearing the floor might let her through, but Grandie laughed at the idea.
“This house was built to last, Gladys.” He led them up the curved staircase to the second floor. LaRue peeped into the dormer-windowed bedrooms where so many Hardings had slept. Then they went up a short staircase to the attic where some lovely old furniture was ranged against the rafters.
LaRue watched Erma’s face as she and Bob walked about. The girl’s hand went out to touch the old rosewood piano, and it gave off a sweet, mellowed tone. Erma’s eyes were shining. “I wish I’d come here with Mother,” she said softly. “No wonder she loved these things. I can just see them in their proper place downstairs.”
LaRue could see them, too. but Gladys sniffed daintily. “I’ll take modern,” she said haughtily. “I don’t care for old things.” She drew her skirt out of danger from dust, and caught possessively at Dr. Alan’s arm, as they all trooped down the stairs and back into the shadow of the willow tree.
Almost shyly, Joel begged, “If you’re not too tired, Grandie, would you show us the old car?’
Grandie looked into Joel’s face, and said bright, “Not a bit tired.” His eyes twinkled as he led the boys to the garage which had once been a carriage house. “We used to call ‘em Tin Lizzies, but they got us there and back!”
They disappeared in the dusty garage. Gladys sighed and relaxed on the chaise lounge with Dr. Alan sitting cross-legged on the patio beside her. Herb’s chair was nearby, and LaRue settled into a chair not too far away. She remembered about Mrs. Lawson’s baby. She asked Dr. Alan how things were coming along.
“Fine,” he said, but his dark eyes were somber, “but the little scamp seems determined to arrive a little early.” They talked about babies for a moment, then Dr. Alan turned to Herb. “Have you made up your mind about going to the hospital? Dr. Frame and I feel sure that the new techniques in nerve operations …”
He was explaining them earnestly when Gladys moved restlessly and raised her voice. “Darling, must you always talk shop? We’re having a holiday!”
Dr. Alan’s voice hung in the air in the middle of a word. LaRue saw the hot flush that mounted to his forehead. But he said: “Forgive me, Gladys. Sometimes I forget that the thought of operations makes you ill. I’ll promise to remember.”
Gladys gave LaRue a wry little pout. “I can’t stand the thought of … of …” she shivered, said bluntly: “I suppose I shouldn’t want to marry a doctor. But after we’re married, Alan can keep his office and his home separate.”
An embarrassed silence followed her words. LaRue knew that Alan was glad to see Joel racing towards them. Joel’s face was alight with pleasure. He went straight to his father.
“That’s some car, Dad! Grandie says it will be all right if Eddie and I try to make it run.” He hesitated. “I’m afraid my allowance …”
“I’ll give you the money,” said Grandie quickly.
Joel shook his head. “I couldn’t take it.” Then, as Grandie began to speak about loaning him the money, his head shook more vehemently than ever. “Dad doesn’t approve of kids going into debt.”
Grandie considered, scratching his head. “Maybe you could work it out.” He glanced about. “No wonder this house hasn’t sold. If the lawns were cut, the shrubs trimmed …”
Joel and Eddie were grinning widely as they shook the old man’s wrinkled hand. “It’s a bargain!”
Erma, standing at Bob’s side, spoke experimentally: “Maybe I could fix things inside. A little soap and water would do wonders. Bob could do the ladder work …”
Grandie was beaming. “I’ll get a brand new FOR SALE sign.” He gave his grandson a keen little glance. “Now that that’s settled, we might as well talk about that house Gladys wants to build in Maple Park …”
Dr. Alan interrupted quickly: “We haven’t quite made up our minds. I realize that I could make a lot of money, if I had my own office. But the thought of that new children’s wing keeps running through my mind, and …”
Before he could finish, Gladys said loudly: “Thanks, Grandie. I know exactly what I’d like the house to look like. I’ve been going over all the modern magazines. I even know where I’m going to place the furniture.”
Her words were so definite that Dr. Alan flushed again, painfully. But Joel was shouting for Connie and Janice to pack their dolls. Everyone was relieved to have something to do.
Connie and Janice ran eagerly about, Atlast barking at their heels. After a few minutes, Connie scolded him.
“Nobody can pack with all that noise. Now I want you to be a good dog. I’m going to put on your leash.” She slipped on his collar, fastened the leash and, as usual, he jerked it from her hands and went scampering across the patio.
His leash tangled in the wheels of Herb’s chair. The little dog was terrified to find it flying after him down the long slope. He ran faster in spite of Connie’s cries.
They watched in horror as the chair made its swift descent towards the busy highway. Gladys screamed shrilly and covered her eyes. It seemed eons before Joel, racing after the reeling chair, caught and stopped it. Atlast, free of the spinning wheels, returned penitently to Connie’s side.
LaRue found her face streaked with remorseful tears. “Oh, Herb, it was my fault. I shouldn’t have made you come. I …”
He quieted her with a gentle gesture as Connie flung her arms about his neck, crying: “Ah, Daddy, I’m so glad you’re all right. I love you so much.” She kissed him tenderly.
Erma kissed him, too, shyly. Joel. shook, hands in a fine, grown up manner, which made his father’s face glow with pride.
He circled them in his arms. “I love you, too, my darlings.”
It was a simple statement, but it held more than words could express. He lifted his head and met Dr. Alan’s eyes. “A few minutes ago I would have given my life to walk. I’m no longer afraid. My children need me. I’ll go to the hospital whenever you say.”
LaRue could feel Herb’s love binding his children closer. She remembered that Amelia had said that love could never die. Amelia’s love lived within her children. Herb had found it again. He would never be lonely, alone. He was unafraid …