The characters of Jeff Miller, Ellen Miller, Porky Brockway, the Martins, Clay Horton, and, of course, Lassie, are copyright the Lassie folks,
whatever name they're going under these days
Any others are my creations along with the story itself.
This story follows "Transition," and my story "The First Thanksgiving" takes place during this story.
She glanced in the rear-view mirror so long as it was safe to do so, watching the house, and then the gate recede behind her, watching the faces of the family that was waving, lingering on the small boy and the big dog beside him, her slim collie-face cocked slightly as if she were still puzzled at their driving away.* * * * *
Only when the road curved and they were all out of sight did she dare glance to the right, at the teenage boy in his brand-new suit sitting up straight and stiff in the passenger seat next to her. His fists were clenched in his lap, but his face was schooled into impassiveness.
The road to their new home seemed to take forever, although it was only fifty miles distant. For five or six miles they inched behind a lumbering hay wagon pulled by a tractor. Another hour delayed them when they stopped in the small town they had lived near for so long, so that she could say a last farewell to friends. He remained in the car at her last stop, the garage, and his own farewells were polite but perfunctory elsewhere. Once when someone started to say something to him, she flashed the older woman a pleading look and just then the switchboard had buzzed and the moment was over.
Once back in the car and on the road again, Ellen Miller began, "Sweetie-"
Jeff's voice was a little ragged when he replied, "Please, Mom, not now. I know I'm bad company right now, and I'm sorry, but...not now."
So she kept her peace until they arrived at 311 Cedar Street, parking in the alley behind the building and walking up the back stairs. She had her little grip and Jeff the larger suitcase, and once they were inside they stopped and took stock.
Ellen had looked at several apartments in her price range; this one had been chosen for its proximity to a park and the landlord's acceptance of a dog. It had a small, bright kitchen painted lemon yellow with black-trimmed tile perfect for the two of them, two small bedrooms in pale green, and a pale-pink tiled bathroom, with a large, airy living room full of light and painted a neutral beige which would be perfect for Ellen's piano pupils. One day a week she would be teaching at Berman's Music School three blocks over and she hoped to get another day or two later on. On her work night Jeff would meet her at Berman's after school and they would eat out at the diner at the end of their street. The neighborhood was pleasant, with rows of small brick apartment buildings alternating with triple-story multi-family homes, and unlike most city living areas, this particular spot had shaded neighborhoods and pleasant gardens, something she hoped would make the transition from the farm easier.
Jeff mumbled, "I guess I'll go put my stuff away," and disappeared into the bedroom that had been designated to him. Ellen gave a little sigh, but let it go, although truth to tell, she was a bit lonely herself.
She hadn't taken much from the old house, thinking that it was about time Jeff had more adult furniture. She'd kept her own, and her whatnot shelf and all her little knickacks. The living room furniture was new, nicely set off by her brand-new spinet, and the floral curtains from the house, and a small blond kitchen table and chairs had also been purchased. She was particularly delighted that the apartment came furnished with a small, but nice refrigerator. Too bad for Mrs. Martin, she thought, stuck with that nasty old icebox!
She went into her own room, changed out of her good things and into a dress more fit for housework topped by an apron, and immediately began bustling around the kitchen. She had made a quick trip to the apartment early the day before, stocking the refrigerator with milk and eggs from the farm and other perishables; there were meats in the freezer, cereals and canned goods in the white cupboards, and cleaning supplies under the sink.
In about a half hour she knocked on Jeff's bedroom door.
"Come in," he said diffidently.
She came in with a little tray on which she'd arranged a glass of cola, a cup of coffee, and some of Jeff's favorite chocolate chip cookies; she and Ruth Martin had baked them together while Jeff and Timmy had gone off with Porky Brockway for a last fishing trip together, and Lassie and Pokey could romp to their heart's content. "Mind if I come in? It's so quiet out there!" She added more quietly, "I thought we could have a snack together."
Jeff blinked at her. He had changed out of his suit into everyday shirt and jeans and was lying, in stocking feet, on his bed, hands laced behind his head. "In the bedroom?"
"Oh, it's a special occasion, being moving day. After this we can confine the snacks to the kitchen." She smiled gently at him in that way she had when he was unhappy and he had to smile back, even if it was just a small one. Then he stared at the tray as she put it down on his night table. "Is that Coca Cola?"
"Yup!" she answered teasingly.
"But you don't like me drinking soda."
"I said it was a special occasion. Here, have a cookie."
She sipped her coffee and he his Coke, and they each had a cookie. Ellen glanced around the bedroom approvingly. Jeff had put his "alone time" to good use, arranging his hair brush and comb on the dresser top, along with some hair oil and antiperspirant. One of his 4H medals was hung on the corner of the mirror, and on the opposite side he had stuck a black and white photograph of Lassie into the edge of the mirror. His sports banners were still sitting on the desk; she'd have to dig up the hammer as they completed their unpacking and then dig up some tacks.
"We can get a frame for that at the five and dime if you like," she said casually.
Jeff looked startled, as he had been staring into the cookie in his hand for some seconds, then realized. "Oh. I guess."
"That was an unselfish thing you did, Jeff. Not just for Timmy, but for Lassie, too." When he didn't say anything, she continued casually, "Oh, I know we picked this particular apartment because it was close to the park so you could take Lassie out for a run every day after school, but"
Jeff shrugged a little. "She was used to running loose all the time. Just coming and going as she pleased. She would have been awfully bored here."
Ellen nodded soberly. "She would have."
He looked earnestly at her. "I really would have walked her every morning and taken her for a run in the afternoon."
"Oh, I know you would. Keeping you two in the house would have been a job for the hard hearted, even when it rained!"
"But at school I was hoping to get in some of the sports teams, and they have practice late. Now I won't have to worry, either."
"Are you thinking football?"
"I don't know. Not in my freshman year anyway. But maybe basketball."
"Do proud mothers ever get to come cheer you on in your games?"
Jeff grinned. "If you want to be proud of me sitting on the bench most of the time."
"That shouldn't last too long." Ellen glanced at her watch. "Sweetie, how about helping me unpack the rest of our things? Then I think we have enough money for one more treat: we'll eat out tonight and start proper housekeeping tomorrow. That okay with you?"
"Sure." He noticed her arch her eyebrows when she smiled. "Mom, what are you up to?"
"Now, what makes you say that? Go ahead and get those few boxes still sitting in the kitchen. They go in the parlor."
He got up from the bed, slipped his sneakers on, and then planted a kiss on her cheek before dashing out to the kitchen. She suppressed a laugh, then waited in the doorway until she heard him shout, "Wow-weee! Mom!"
She found him standing in front of the new cabinet television set, his eyes shining. At one time Gramps had offered to buy them a television, but an unexpected bill had put a stop to that dream. But now, she figured, had been about time. "Just in time for the World Series, isn't it?"
His hug was all the response she needed.
And sometime, between one of his trips to the parlor to take another box, she quietly put the dog dish and water bowl into the very rear of the cupboard.
If she was hoping life would "settle down" once they moved in, she was off, as Gramps might have said "by a long shot."
Ellen knew the casual shirts and dungarees Jeff was used to wearing to the village school were inappropriate for high school, but she was next to astonished when he buttonholed her a few days before school was to begin to ask if they could do their shopping at the Boys' Varsity rather than the department store as she had planned.
"I know their stuff costs a little more than Harrison Department Store's," he explained, "but I talked with Woody before I left and he says this is what the guys are wearing at school this year. It would be better if I had a few good things than more of the inexpensive stuff. I have the money I earned working for Doc Weaver and can put it in."
Ellen was just about to say, "But I thought you might think about buying a puppy..." when she snapped the words back into her mouth. That would be Jeff's decision, not hers.
He'd grown up so much over the summer since Timmy had arrived! First he'd taken on the role of big brother, but then he'd always been fairly good with small children, judging by the way little Janie Taylor had adored him. Then when Dad had passed away so unexpectedlyshe swallowed a little, recalling his collapseJeff had pitched in without a word of self-pity, even helping her decide what to do with the farm. He had been so sensible about it all that it worried her. Why, he didn't even seem to miss Lassie, even though it was so quiet around the apartment without her! Perhaps Jeff didn't realize on those long winter schooldays, or on days he was somewhere where Lassie wasn't allowed, Ellen had her for company all day. She missed the lively click of toenails on linoleum and floor and the occasional nudge for attention as she did housework or baking.
Never mind, she told herself. Jeff would open up soon.
* * * * *
"How do I look?"
Ellen regarded him critically. He was wearing a new, pale pink shirt that was all the rage with the boys this season, navy blue trousers, and a blue tie with diagonal stripes of different shades of blue. The shirt and trousers had been set with sharp creases and usually layabed Jeff had been up a half hour early so he could comb his hair into the fashionable pompadour the boys were wearing. She kept the amusement to herself, but she wanted to laugh when men complained about women primping for hours. Men, under similar conditions, could do so, too.
"Very handsome, and very citified."
"Woody gave me some tips on how to dress the first day," Jeff confessed. "That Woodysome days I don't know whether to pat him on the back or belt him."
"Let's keep the belting to a minimum," Ellen suggested mischievously. She prinked the tips of his shirtcollar one last time. "You're ready."
"Me and a thousand butterflies," he confessed.
"I know." She patted his shoulder. "I had to move at least once, and at your age, too. It's hard facing all those strange faces, and I won't lie to you, there will be boys who will try to make fun of you. You remember that there's been nothing deficient about your schoolingMiss Vernon made certain of that!and you're as good as any city boy in that school. In a few weeks, I hope, anyone who's teased you will have found some other thing to attract his attention and you can blend in and find some good friends."
"I know, Mom," he said so soberly that her eyes started to puddle up. "Aw, Mom, don't do that. C'mon, please."
She dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief and then gave him her best proud smile. "Not today. Not for my young man."
* * * * *
In a few days Jeff would be more inclined to pat Woody on the back, because his sometimes-foe from grammar school had done the brunt of the hard work paving the way for Jeff and the other eighth-grader at the Calverton school, Bob Bremer. Woody, Jeff, and Bob made a trio that stuck together for the first month. Ellen would find them in the kitchen, homework sprawled over the table, discussing dreaded algebra homework.
By the end of September, Ellen was relieved to hear the casual "Stinky [she didn't want to know] thinks I might make a good third baseman next spring" and the appreciative "Pete's got this swell dog; he's an Airedale named Junior," as an indication he was making new friends. Stinky, in fact, made a surprise appearance one early October morning, a totally nondescript blond boy whose hygiene seemed fine. Jeff didn't offer a first name, and Ellen didn't ask, but simply shook hands with the boy.
Despite the mention of Pete's "swell Airedale," Jeff still didn't mention dogs otherwise.
A few weeks after school began, Jeff was bent over the kitchen table, alone today, grimly working on his homework-algebra bedeviled him just as much as fractions had-and Ellen was wiping dishes when a knock came at the back door. They exchanged a puzzled glance, then Ellen moved to the door and broke out in a sunny grin when she saw who it was through the glass.
Jeff looked up when she opened the door and exclaimed, "Well, hello, Clay!"
Clay Horton was standing in the doorway, smiling just as broadly as his mother, his constable's hat in his hand. "Good evening, Ellen. Hello, Jeff."
"This is such a nice surprise!" Ellen said, and Jeff had to bend his head and bite his lip at the formalities adults went through before they actually began to really talk, seemingly unaware that he and his classmates observed similiar formalities with different vocabulary. He noticed immediately how his mother's voice and face had brightened. "Please come in! We'll have some coffee."
Jeff waited. Clay said, "I don't want to put you to any trouble," just as Jeff expected and he laughed.
"What's all that about, young man?" Ellen asked as she closed the door behind Clay.
"We're reading some author in English named Jane Austen," Jeff chuckled, "and you two sound just like those really polite English people in the book. You guys have been friends for years. Why not just talk like it?"
"Clay is a gentleman," Ellen said pertly, before that gentleman could answer, "not a boy who goes barging into people's homes."
"C'mon, Mom," Jeff answered, "when was I ever not polite?"
Ellen motioned the caller to a chair. "Please sit down, Clay, and bear with this wild animal while I put the coffee on."
Clay said, meekly, "I don't suppose I could talk you into tea."
Jeff groaned "Jane Austen strikes again" and ducked his head over his paper as Ellen pulled out the teakettle. Clay peeked under his shoulder. "Oh, algebra."
"And I remember when I thought fractions were hard!" Jeff said resentfully.
He scribbled with his pencil for a few more minutes, then finally shoved the paper into his notebook and slammed the book shut. "Done for another night!"
"Congratulations," and Ellen popped a glass of milk in front of him with three oatmeal raisin cookies, then served Clay his tea next with more of the cookies, and finally sat down with her own cup, dipping the tea bag thoughtfully.
Clay ventured, "I saw Lassie the other day."
Jeff looked up, suddenly at attention. "Did you? How is she?"
"Keeping busy riding herd on little Timmy, according to Paul Martin."
"Lassie's good at that," he said confidently. "I'm glad she's taking care of him."
Clay swished his tea bag around a little longer, then set it on the saucer. "Anyway," he said a little hesitantly, "I wanted to tell you some news."
"What's that, Clay?" Ellen said expectantly, looking curious, but Jeff detected something in her voice, and apparently so did Clay. He frowned. "All right, who spilled the beans?"
Ellen gave a musical chuckle. "I had to call the bank the other day and of course spoke to Jenny."
"Telephone, telegraph, and tell the valley," Clay answered bitterly.
"Well, I wish someone'd spill the beans for me!" Jeff complained.
"It's your news, Clay," she said mischievously.
"Starting next week I've resigned as Calverton county constable, Jeff," and before Jeff's mouth could drop open, added, "I'm going to be attending the police academy in Creston for some addtional classes, in preparation for joining the Capitol City police force."
Jeff gaped at him a moment, then grinned. "Gosh, that's swell, Clay." He gave his mother a sideways look. "So I guess we'll be seeing you around here more often."
"Jeff!" she said indignantly.
"What's wrong with that?" he asked bluntly.
"Well, as I remember, the last time I started visiting your house often you and Mr. Miller gave me the stink eye," Clay said with some amusement, his handsome face creased with a grin.
Jeff scowled. "Whadja bring that up for? Heck, I was just a kid back then."
Clay and Ellen burst out laughing, and the boy looked indignant. "If you're going to be that way, maybe I'll just asked to be excused."
Ellen patted his shoulders, still restraining a giggle, recalling that it had only been eighteen months earlier. "Oh, sweetie, I didn't mean...but oh, having Lassie stick her nose between us as Clay was driving...that was too funny..."
And in seconds all three of them were laughing.
In a few weeks Clay had become a familiar face at the little apartment. Jeff joked that now he was the chaperone instead of Lassie. He turned up a lot, Jeff noticed, at the end of Ellen's music lessons, just to hear her play the piano with her students and occasionally sing. And Clay didn't always call for Ellen. One Saturday he turned up on the doorstep asking if Jeff wanted to go to a late-season baseball game in Creston. Another Saturday they went fishing.
It was almost too cold the next time they went fishing out on Cedar Lake; Jeff was bundled up in a heavy jacket and wore a hunting cap with the flaps turned down. Clay was in a down jacket and his familiar Stetson. They were hunched down back to back in the light mist still overlaying the lake, the bright orange bobbers of their fishing lines soothingly swaying on the surface of the water. Clay found himself so hypnotized by it he finally asked in a low voice, "Jeff?"
"Huh?" the boy asked, as if awoken from deep sleep.
"You ever thought about getting another dog?"
"Mom put you up to that?" Jeff asked wryly.
"Your mother would never 'put me up to anything.'" Clay reproved. "But she is a little worried about you. Lassie was a big part of your life."
Jeff considered for a moment, his face fixed upon the water. Then he shifted gently in the rowboat they occupied, turning slightly toward Clay. "Yes, she was. And that's why I haven't thought about another dog." He paused. "I still miss her. A lot. And sometimes I'm even a little envious of Timmy." He looked up at Clay. "That's a silly thing, right? Me being jealous of a seven-year-old kid."
Clay ventured, "A seven-year-old kid with your dog."
Jeff shook his head. "No." He looked Clay straight in the eye. "Sometimes you have to do things that are the best for others, not for you. What I did was best for Lassie. And she isn't 'my dog' anymore." He paused and Clay could hear the faint, faint hint of a sob in his drawn breath. "So that's why I need to wait until it doesn't bother me anymore. Or doesn't bother me as much."
Clay looked mystified.
"Besides," Jeff said in a little while, "if I got another dog now I'd expect it to be like Lassie. I'd want to treat it like Lassie. But only Lassie is Lassie. I have to wait until I can see another dog as herself. Or himself. Does that make any sense? It's like you and Mom. When I was a kid, I saw her only as Mom. My mom. And she says she loves being my mom..."
Clay said softly, "She does. More than anything."
"...but sometimes she needs to be Ellen Talbot Miller, too," Jeff finished earnestly. "I'm old enough now to see her as both."
Clay Horton knew if he cheered he would only embarrass Jeff. "Looks like I need to give myself a makeover, Jeff," he said soberly. "I keep thinking of you as that little boy who broke up my dinner date. I have to start remembering you're a grown man."
Both self-conscious now, they turned back to their fishing. It wasn't until the sun had climbed to its zenith for the day and they had finished eating the fish they'd caught, dressed, and fried over an open campfire, that Clay said casually, as they put out the fire they'd made, "Your mom said you might be looking for an afterschool job and something on Saturdays."
Jeff perked his ears. "Yeah. You know someone?"
"About a block or two from your school, on Maple Avenue. Doctor Phil Quiner. Vet. Has a good reputation in the neighborhood and looking for someone to do chores, clean up, maybe make deliveries, same kind of thing you did for Doc Weaver. Maybe you'd be interested?"
Jeff had loved working for Doc Weaver, and he was still thinking seriously of becoming a veterinarian. But he gave Clay a sideways glance. "I don't suppose this is your sneaky way of getting me to look at another dog."
"Dogs, cats, ponies, hamsters, parakeets, whatever," Clay averred. "Not necessarily dogs."
Jeff paused just a moment. "What number on Maple Avenue?"
* * * * *
"How do I look, Mom?"
Ellen nodded after observing him. He didn't wear a suit, but he had on good pants with a sharp crease in them, a button-down shirt, and his second-best shoes. His hair was combed conservatively. Folded up in his pocket was a recommendation letter that Dr. Weaver had written him. "Perfect. He can't help but want my brilliant, handsome boy."
Jeff rolled his eyes. "Geez, Mom..."
Ellen swept open the kitchen door. "Off you go!"
Jeff swung confidently down Cedar Street, turned right at First Street, and continued for a half mile until he reached Maple. The fourth house from the corner, a big two-story colonial with an extension to the right, was on a large plat of land. Jeff could hear dogs barking from out back and he surmised that there were kennels there. Out front a sign said "P. Quiner, Veterinarian," posted smartly across the front gate of the picket fence around the property.
He said to himself, "Well, here goes!" and almost added "Lassie," before he thought twice.
The extension seemed to be the veterinary office, so Jeff went to that door and let himself in. He found himself in a cheerful waiting room painted a bright blue with pale yellow accents, with long benches along the walls and a desk directly in front of him. It was painted the same butter yellow and there were photographs all over the wall of dogs, cats, horses, and even, Jeff noticed with interest, snakes, lizards, and various pet birds. One was a blue parakeet with a white face.
Behind the desk, a woman was sitting writing on a legal pad. She had fair, slightly reddish hair pulled back into a bun, a pair of wire-rimmed glasses on her nose, and she was wearing a flowered blouse and a pair of black slacks. Jeff was confused for a minute, then realized this must be the veterinarian's secretary, the one who made all the appointments and answered the phone. As he realized this, the woman looked up, cocked her head curiously, and then said, "Yes, may I help you?"
"I've come to talk to Dr. Quiner," Jeff said in his most confident voice (which, he had to admit, still sounded a little shaky). "I heard there was an opening for someone to help out around the clinic."
"You're here to...oh, I see." The woman rose and gave him a pleasant smile. "You hold on and I'll let the doctor know you're here. Feel free to take a seat."
"Thank you, ma'am, but I'll stand," Jeff said importantly, and she gave him a nod and walked through the swinging door behind the desk area. In a minute she had returned, but now she was wearing a white laboratory coat with "P. Quiner, DVM" printed across the pocket, as well as a mischievous grin. "I'm Dr. Philippa Quiner."
Jeff found himself with his mouth open before he could stop himself.
"Can't a lady be a veterinarian?" she asked, this time more soberly.
I'll get you for this, Clay, Jeff thought grimly, then closed his mouth and collected himself. "The person who recommended this job to me didn't mention that you were a g- ... a woman." It sounded lamer than he felt.
"That's because I probably asked the person not to," she said kindly. "Some people don't take to my gender well. Do you have a problem with it?"
"No, ma'am!" Jeff said strongly.
She came out from behind the desk with a smile again. "Then let's start over. "I'm Philippa Quiner."
"Jeff Miller, ma'am." And he held out his hand and she shook it strongly, then waved him over to one of the couches. "Let's talk."
* * * * *
"...and she said I could work Saturdays and after school on Friday. That way I can still meet you for supper on Tuesdays and play sports on the other days. Is that okay, Mom?"
"You'll do any weekend homework on Sunday?" Ellen asked thoughtfully as she whipped up some cream for their dessert, pudding she had made the previous evening.
Ellen flashed him a smile. "Pinky swear?"
Jeff rolled his eyes. "Pinky swear, Mom."
"Did you like her?" Ellen continued as she spooned out the pudding and then dropped the whipped cream on top.
"She's neat, Mom." Jeff turned his chair around. "She told me she was the only girl...I mean woman...at her vet school. The guys played mean tricks on her, but she never let them know they were getting her goat. I think that's pretty swell." He took the bowl and spoon from his mother. "You know what she told me? Even though she has a degree from Cornell and a specialist degree in exotic petsthat's lizards and birds and stufffrom the University of Virginia, some people won't go to her because she's a woman! Isn't that the dumbest thing you ever heard? I mean, Cornell and UV are two of the biggest veterinary schools in the country. I read about them in the 4H magazine. If she graduated from there she has to be good."
Ellen sat down at the table with her pudding. "Well, you know, sweetie, I got a lot of criticism, even from your Aunt Amelia, about raising you myselfwell, with Gramps' help, of courseinstead of finding another husband."
"But youand Gramps!did a great job raising me!" Jeff protested. "Yeah, I know I had problems sometimes," and he made a face, "like that time with Higgy and the Father-Son dinner, but I couldn't have asked for a better life, especially growing up on the farm and being friends with Porky and..." He stopped and gave a little swallow.
He nodded silently and the look in his eyes made her want to hug him. Instead she restrained herself, and continued, "Oh, just to let you know, I've made all our Thanksgiving arrangements."
"Are we driving to Grandma's or taking the train?"
"Oh, Jeff, you know I can't drive that long a distance..." she protested.
"I can help, Mom, you know I can. You know Gramps used to let me drive the tractor, and I'd drive slow, so we wouldn't get stopped."
"You are not helping me drive to Mother's house," Ellen interrupted sternly, then added, "Besides, we're going to see the family at Christmas. I thought we'd spend Thanksgiving with our other family."
She smiled, the smile Jeff loved the best where her eyes laughed too and her entire face glowed. "I've arranged with the Martins to spend Thanksgiving at the farm."
Keeping that secret had been worth it, she decided later as she got ready for bed. Jeff's face had lit up like that proverbial Christmas tree.
* * * * *
It had been a swell Thanksgiving, Jeff thought to himself again as he headed home from school that Monday. Yeah, he and Lassie had had to fish Timmy out of the lake, but it has been worth it to get rid of the two little kids who'd been bullying him. Jeff clenched his free fist as he walked, still thinking angrily of Rudy and Don calling Timmy names because he was adopted, and goading him into taking a stupid dare.
He was taking the long way home, going by Dr. Quiner's clinic to drop off some of the big batch of cookies he and his mother had brought home from the farm. Mrs. Martin must have thought they were starving for good food in the city; they'd come home with leftover turkey and chicken, fresh vegetables, and lots of mashed potatoes. He and his mother wouldn't have to cook dinner for a couple of days and side dishes for a couple more.
Dr. Quiner had the sign on her door that indicated that she was out on a call, but he had the key to the clinic and thought he would leave the cookies off in the little kitchen area. He had just put them on the counter with a note and was about to pick up his booksthat Mr. Edgarton was such a drip giving homework so soon after a holiday!when he heard someone pounding the door and ringing the doorbell of the clinic. He pelted through the hallway to the front, swinging open the door with a jerk to find a heavyset short man standing before it, cradling a medium-sized, rather scruffy tricolor dog in his arms. It lay limply in his embrace and its head with the black patches over each eye lolled down in such a way that Jeff's heart sank.
"Sonny, call your dad for me, hurry! I'm a trucker and this dog just ran out in front of me as I was making a delivery over at the fish market. I know I hit it with one of the wheels, but I don't know how bad it's hurt."
"My...dad?" Jeff asked.
The man, who had a florid face made redder by exertion, said impatiently, "Your dad, your dadthe vet! Hurry up, this dog's hurt."
Jeff collected his wits. "Bring him in here and put him on the examination table. Dr. Quiner's not my dad; I'm her helper and she's out on a call."
The truck driver was taken aback, keeping hold on the limp dog. "A kid and a girl doctor? Maybe I ought to drive to Creston..."
Jeff said angrily, "Dr. Quiner went to vet school like all the other men vets and she's as good as any of them. She even works on horses and cows. And I've been working in a vet's office since I was in grammar school. It's nearly 100 miles to Creston; if you take the dog there it might die on the way. Now...come in!" and he waved his hand at the examination room.
"I didn't really yell at him, Mom," Jeff explained later as Ellen put their dinner in the oven to warm a second time, since he had been so late. "But I was pretty mad."
"I understand, sweetie, but you need to learn to...what is it they call it? Keep your cool? Especially when you're working with potential customers."
"Yeah, I know." Jeff plunked down in one of the kitchen chairs, kicking the heels of his tennis shoes against the legs.
"Well, don't leave me in suspense!" his mother protested, setting the timer. "What happened?"
"I couldn't give him any medicine," Jeff explained, "but I had the guyhis name was Eddie Wigginsbring the dog into the examining room. I thought he might be in shock, and the first thing you do for that is keep them warm, so I grabbed a blanket and had Mr. Wiggins lay him on it. Then I checked him over. I did find a kinda big cut on his leg, and I got some gauze and asked Mr. Wiggins to keep pressure on itI showed him howwhile I checked out the rest of the dog. Just then Dr. Quiner came back in and took over."
"My son the veterinarian," Ellen said proudly, taking a seat next to him. "Good work, Jeff."
He put his head down, blushing. "Dr. Quiner said that, too. Said it was exactly the right thing to do, especially the blanket. As soon as she finished treating him she wrapped him in it and put him under a heat lamp. And Mr. Wiggins was a good egg, too. He stayed there for a little while to see if the dog was okay and he gave Dr. Quiner five dollars even though it wasn't his dog. He just had to leave and get back to his deliveries."
"So how is the dog?"
"Dr. Quiner says he probably got thrown away from the truck by the wheel rather than going under it and got a concussion. She stitched up the cutI helped her shave his leg and hold him still, even though she gave him a shot to knock him outand said she would keep him until we could find if he belongs to someone. But he looks like a strayhe's all skinny and covered in fleas and has no collar. Dr. Quiner's going to put an advertisement in the paper and says when he's better I can give him a flea bath and brush him out. He's some kind of terrier, I think, like a fox terrier, but with fuzz all over him."
Ellen noticed his face had become a little animated talking about the stray, but kept her observation to herself. Instead she handed him a letter. "Here's something for you to read before dinner. It came in the mail today."
"For me?" Jeff looked at it, then exclaimed, "From Porky!"
"I thought I recognized that handwriting."
Jeff looked at the scrawl on the envelope and grinned. "If you want to call it that. Penmanship was never Porky's strong point." He tore open the envelope and eagerly scanned the letter, then shouted, "Hey, Mom!"
Ellen clapped her hands over her ears. "I'm right here!"
He continued, "Porky said if it was okay with you he could come down on the train on the 27thI told him we'd be at Grandma's and coming home the day after Christmasand stay until New Year's Eve. It's okay, isn't it, Mom? Please say yes!"
"Of course! You can introduce Porky to your friends and we can go to a museum or the movies or a concert."
Jeff gave a whoop, and then added with a laugh, "We'd better start stocking up on groceries, though."
* * * * *
The veterinarian stopped in front of the little terrier's run and looked down at him. Jeff was next to her, looking proud. "How's he look to you, Dr. Quiner?"
"Jeff, you've done a wonderful job with him." She bent down to look the dog in the eye and he came up to the wire, wagging his stump of a tail happily and trying to lick her. "You would never believe when he came in here two weeks ago he was such a bag of bones. You've made him look almost like a show dog!"
Jeff nodded confidently. "I used to have to keep Lassie's coat brushed all the time. She had burrs, stickers, foxtails, you name it from running loose on the farm. He's easy!"
She looked up at Jeff with a resigned expression. "But still no bites from the classified ad?"
Jeff shook his head and looked a little disgusted. "Not a one. Who'd let such a swell dog like that go?"
She shook her head. "Maybe he came from somewhere a long ways away. Or, maybethe owner just doesn't care. It's a shame. If I don't get any response we're going to have to take him to the pound. Maybe they can find him a home."
"Yeah, but if no one wants him, they'll..." Jeff said, horrified.
"Oh, Jeffrey," and Dr. Quiner stood back up and put a hand on his shoulder. "If a veterinarian kept every stray animal they had to treat, they wouldn't make enough money to feed them. I have two dogs, three cats, and a parakeet already. It's better we do something to find him a home."
"I could make up some ads," Jeff offered, "to put outside in the waiting room. And what if I taught him a couple of things, like 'sit' and 'stay,' so people would want him more?"
"If you think it will help, go ahead." She looked down at the bright-eyed little dog, who was wagging his tail still, his black and brown-patched white body quivering with excitement at the people talking outside his run. "He'll make someone a fine dog."
* * * * *
Clay Horton opened the front door to the veterinarian's office to find her putting the finishing touches on a tabletop Christmas tree in one corner of the office. Instead of the usual ornaments, she had hung dog biscuits, cat treats, small bottles of fish food, and sprigs of millet on the branches by using fishing line, the little spruce already aglow from the string of fat multicolored lights, finished off with long strings of silver icicle tinsel and a gold garland draped around it all. "Are you a decorator now, too, Phil?"
She spun around, face blossoming into a wide grin. "Clay Horton, as I live and breatheand I do! How are you keeping yourself? I haven't seen you since September."
"Grinding away at my books and, frankly, feeling like a freshman at college again. All I lack is the beanie. Yourself?"
She pointed to the tree. "My latest patient. No emergencies right now, thank God. Sometimes I'm inundated with dogs and cats getting into poisonous plants or swallowing small toys." She indicated some warning posters scattered around the comfortable waiting room. "I'm hoping those have helped. Nothing ruins Christmas like having a cat poisoned by poinsettia plants." She rolled her eyes heavenward. "Please, God, none this year."
Before Clay could respond, she abandoned her tree-trimming to shake his hand. "I have got to thank you, Clay, for pointing Jeff Miller my way. I couldn't have a better helper. If that boy still wants to go to veterinary college once he graduates high school, I will help him all I can."
Clay chuckled, "He's a good kid. I knew you two would get along. Is he here today?"
"Yes, he's in back. Since it's slow, I told him he could take Ranger back and do some work with him."
Clay cocked his head. "Is that the little dog the Millers keep mentioning? The one who was hit by a car?"
"Yes," she nodded quickly. "Jeff's done wonders with him. He's teaching him some basic obedience in the hopes that someone might adopt him quicker."
Clay bowed his head, giving her a long look, and she added, "Oh, I know what you're thinking, Clayton Horton."
"And you can't make a boy love a dog."
"Does he ever talk to you about Lassie?"
"Oh, all the time. But...I think perhaps a little less than he used to."
Clay gave a big sigh. "May I go out and see him?"
"Sure, just walk through."
Clay wound his way past the examining rooms out to the kennels. A few dogs, boarding over Christmas, stood at the gates to their wire runs watching the tall, dark-teenage boy working with the long-legged terrier. As Clay entered the room, he heard Jeff command the sitting dog to "Stay!" and paused where he was, watching Jeff stare at his watch, counting down seconds. Finally, Jeff exclaimed "Good dog! Come!" and Ranger bounded up to him, making a circle around him and sitting at his left side like a trained obedience dog.
Clay applauded and watched Jeff turn crimson. "Bravo, Jeff! Good job!"
Jeff shrugged. "He's a pretty smart dog," looking down into Ranger's bright adoring eyes. "I think when someone sees how good he is, they'll snap him up in a minute."
Clay nodded agreement.
Jeff picked up the wiggling dog and set him back into one of the empty kennels. Clay noted how, unlike the other kennels, it had been furnished with a soft dog blanket, and a set of green food and water dishes. "Good night, Ranger. I'll see you after Christmas." He looked up at Clay. "I need to get home. Mom and I are leaving for my grandmother's house tonight and I have to finish packing. Suit and everything for Christmas services, you know how that is."
Clay nodded, and Jeff continued without pausing, "But we'll be back late on the 26th and Porky's coming on the 27th. You're coming to dinner that night, right? We can have a big Calverton reunion."
"That's right," Clay answered in a slow, pleasant voice.
"So what are you doing for Christmas?" Jeff asked, looking over his shoulder as he pulled his coat on.
"I'm just an old bachelor with no family close by," Clay chuckled. "I'll give my Dad a call long-distance, warm up something from the grocery store, listen to some music or some radio programs, put my feet up. It'll be a good rest from the classes I'm taking."
Jeff had his head down studiously as he pulled his gloves on. "You know, Clay, you don't have to stay a bachelor forever."
Now it was Clay's turn to color as he said, startled, "What?"
Jeff kept his head down as he pulled on his hat. "Just because Mom loved my dad doesn't mean she can't love someone else, either." And when he did put his head up, his eyes were grave.
Clay let out a hard breath as if he'd been punched in the stomach.
"I just thought I'd let you know," Jeff added, offhand.
Clay looked at him soberly, then glanced at Ranger, then directly back at Jeff. "Could be, Jeff, that goes for other people as well."
He noticed that, although Jeff emitted a small sigh, he did not seem particular startled by the concept. "Yeah. I guess you're right."
* * * * *
"Psssst! Mrs. Miller!"
Ellen jumped, then whirled around to find Porky Brockway with his head peeking in the back door. "Why, Sylvester..."
"Shhh, Mrs. Miller!" he hissed, putting a forefinger over his lips, then tiptoeing in with his suitcase in hand. "Sorry. I wanted to surprise Jeff."
She dropped her voice. "You should have phoned from the depot. We could have come pick you up."
Porky confessed, "I forgot the number. I'm still not used to having to memorize phone numbers. Jenny used to do all the work!"
"Well, here, let me help you with your coat, then," Ellen said, closing the door against the flying snowflakes tumbling through the gap, quietly latching it, then helping Porky shed his outside clothing. She hung his winter jacket, fur-lined hat, and gloves on a hook just behind the door where she and Jeff kept their outerwear and where there was space for other coats. She had to keep from laughing, instead facing him with an approving smile, because Porky was dressed in a suit and tie and looked embarrassed. "Mom said I had to look decent on the train. I feel all tied up and creepy instead."
Ellen laughed. "We won't keep you in your monkey suit, as Jeff calls it, too long. Porky," and she looked him up and down, "I do believe you've lost some weight. It's not just the suitwhich looks very handsome on you, by the way."
He looked sheepish. "I wanted to play football at Creston High and the coach said he wanted Johnny Unitas, not Bob's Big Boy. So I've been trying to eat rabbit food all this fallexcept at Thanksgiving, of course." His eyes brightened. "And not this week! After all, it's Christmas!"
"Well, it's a good thing, then," Ellen responded mischievously, "because I've made a lot of cookies and a big chocolate cakeI seem to remember that it's your favorite. After all, it's Christmas!"
Porky's face was lit up. "Gosh, that's swell, Mrs. Miller." He moved back to his coat to take a little Christmas gift out of his capacious patch pockets. "Ma said to give you this. She said it's a gift for putting up with me."
"You tell Birdie thank you for me," Ellen said firmly, "and thank you for carrying it."
"I think it's your favorite perfume," Porky offered, then kicked something as he turned around. He looked down to see what he had struck, then looked at Ellen Miller with questioning eyes.
"I'll clean up the spill," Ellen said with raised eyebrow and suppressed amusement, "you go on through."
Instead Porky cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted "Eee-aww-kee!"
There was a pause, a thump as if a chair had fallen over, and finally Jeff burst into the kitchen, echoing "Eee-aww-kee!" in return. Ranger charged at his heels, then, seeing a stranger, began to bark at Porky in a voice that outweighed his size. The scruffy hairs that surrounded him like a halo shook as he barked.
Ellen clapped her hands to the side of her head. "Boys! My ears!"
Jeff scooped up the terrier. "Quiet, Ranger. It's just Porky. Sorry, Pork, he doesn't know you yet."
Porky petted the dog's head as if petting another dog in Jeff's care happened every day. "He sure is neat, Jeff. Where'd you get him?"
Jeff shrugged. "He got hurt and I started taking care of him when I was working at Dr. Quiner's office. I gotta take you to meet her, Porky, you'll like her. Anyway...anyway, he was all alone in the kennels this morning since everyone else boarding had come to pick up their dogs, and I asked him what he wanted for Christmas, and he said he'd like to live right here."
Porky laughed. "You're a goof, Jeff. But that's okay. I'm one, too. Why Ranger?"
"Well, look, you dope, he's got a mask just like the Lone Ranger." Jeff was looking him up and down. "You look skinnier, Pork. You been sick?"
"Naw," said Porky, "it's my football coach-"
Jeff interrupted, "Oh, nevermind, come see the Christmas tree, and boy, have I something to show you..." and their voices trailed off as they disappeared into the living room. Ellen laughed when she heard Porky yelp, "Wow-weeee, a television set!"
And then, with Jeff's favorite smile on her face, the one where her eyes laughed too and her entire face glowed, Ellen began to hum a Christmas song as she cleaned up the spilled water from Ranger's dog dish and started supper.
- 30 -
"A New Chapter" is ©2016 by Linda M. Young
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