All characters herein are copyright the Lassie folks,
whatever name they're going under these days,
except for Marv Cummings and his wife,
who are my creations along with the story itself.
(I don't know what Rudy's actual last name was.)

¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤

Jeff, Timmy, and Lassie

As Paul Martin drove up the road that led to his farm, he wondered if something was wrong.

Ruth was standing at the gate, a sweater bundled around her shoulders, inadequate protection for the keen north wind that was playing over the stubbled fields, looking searchingly in the other direction, the road that led to the schoolhouse. She was unconsciously rubbing her hands together for warmth and her face had that puckered, worried look that could only mean one thing.

As she heard the car approach, she straightened, smoothing her skirt and schooling her face to a less anxious expression. Paul grinned a little. She was good at that, hiding her emotions for a little while, but it never lasted.

She stepped aside as he drove into the gate, parking next to the barn, and smiled as she walked up to him to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. "Uncle Petrie off safely, then?"

Paul laughed. "As safely as he can. I've never seen a man make such a flurry getting on a train. I don't envy Cousin Ruby!"

"Oh, but the family will have so much fun together when he arrives," Ruth responded with a precise smile. "Your nephews love him."

He opened the rear door of the car nonchalantly, pulling out the two bags of groceries that she'd asked him to fetch in town. "Why don't we bring these inside—you look cold. Or-" and he smiled fondly, "do you want me to go look for Timmy?"

She blushed, lowering her head. "I'm that obvious, aren't I? Oh, he really isn't that late, but after what Miss Hazlit told us yesterday, I was worried." She raised her troubled eyes then, looking into his face searchingly. "I don't want to be one of those oppressive mothers, like my old Aunt Alma. I wince every time I think of how she smothered my cousins, and then I almost made the same mistake a few months ago when I made such a fuss about Timmy possibly being allergic to Lassie! I just wonder how you take care of a child without keeping them tied to you forever!"

Paul gave her a quick hug. "We're new at this parenting business, but I think Timmy understands us now. And he understands why you fussed over Lassie as you did and doesn't blame you any longer. We're doing better all the time and Timmy's all the more comfortable for it."

She sighed. "I still wonder though. And why am I so anxious that he's thirty minutes late coming home from school again? He hasn't been late once since we bought him the bicycle."

He handed her the grocery bags. "Here, take these, go inside and keep warm. I'll just drive down the road and see what's keeping him. We don't have to worry, anyway. Lassie will protect him from lions if she must. Hey-" this as he transferred the bags, "how's our Thanksgiving surprise coming along?"

For a moment her eyes sparkled. "I was so worried about Timmy I forgot to tell you: we're all set. They arrive tomorrow."

He grinned. "Well, there's some good news to give Timmy. I'm sure it will cheer him up."

But as he drove toward the school he was as troubled as his wife. There didn't seem to be any words to comfort their adopted son over this new turn in his life.

Sure enough, about a half mile away from the school, just at the edge of the woods, he spotted Timmy, chin resting on his fists, sitting on a crumbling stump. His new bike, with his books resting carelessly in the basket, was tilted against a nearby tree, and Lassie had her slim nose just resting on his knee, dark eyes looking up at him imploringly.

When Paul braked the car, she lifted her head, then barked and trotted toward him.

He bent down to pet the big collie and was rewarded with a lick with her wet tongue and a quiet woof. "Our boy run into trouble again, Lassie?"

She woofed again and then turned as if to lead him to Timmy.

The boy had already broken out of his faraway stare and scrambled off the stump, looking anxious. He was at the side of the bike idly rearranging the books as Paul strolled up.

"Kind of a cold day to sit out here and think, isn't it, skipper?" Paul asked kindly.

Timmy shrugged, "I guess so." Paul could see from his face that he'd been crying.

He considered, then opened the passenger side door of the truck cab and patted the seat. "Come up and sit here, Timmy."

The boy looked at him, puzzled, then clambered in the seat. Lassie came to sit under his feet, glancing upward quizzically.

"Miss Hazlit telephoned your mother yesterday," Paul said kindly, leaning the door inward so that Timmy was partially protected from the wind.

"She did?" Timmy asked, looking warily upward.

"Mmmm," Paul said. "She was worried about you."

Then he knew what Miss Hazlit had said. Timmy was quiet for a moment, considering, then burst out, "Dad, what's wrong with being adopted?"

Paul ruffled his hair. "Nothing at all from my point of view, skipper. If it wasn't for adoption, your mom and I wouldn't have you."

"Then why are Rudy and Don always picking on me about it?"

Paul gave a deep sigh. "Timmy, I don't understand all the time what makes people do what they do. But some people—and children—just like to tease people simply for the love of teasing. Probably before you came along, there was another boy or girl they 'picked on.' People like that exist everywhere, grownups as well as children. For some reason it makes them feel important to tease and torment others. When I joined the service, there was a young fellow who was always baiting me. He was from Chicago and kept calling me a 'hayseed,' hoping I would pitch into him. I hated it, but I ignored him—as much as not to show him he'd gotten my goat as to not get in trouble with the sarge. Do you know what? As soon as he realized I wasn't going to get upset about the teasing, in fact that I was proud of being from the country, he let me alone.

"Now if Rudy and Don hit you, that's a different matter." He looked down at the little boy kindly. "You know what would happen if I spoke to them about their teasing you, don't you?"

"Yes," Timmy sighed deeply. "They'd say I was a tattletale and just pick on me for running home and crying, too."

Paul gave him a hug. "Sometimes the world's a rough place." Then his eyes twinkled. "How'd you like a surprise to make you feel better?"

Timmy brightened. "Has Mom made gingerbread?"

He laughed. "I'd wager she has, but this is a different surprise. I don't suppose you'd be interested in some company for Thanksgiving?"

His eyes wide, face now intensely curious, Timmy looked as if he were about to burst. "But Uncle Petrie left."

"That's right. I put him on the train not an hour ago."

Lassie barked sharply and Timmy said, "I want to know, too!"

"Well, this company lives at 311 Cedar Street in Capitol City," Paul said with a grin.

Timmy now looked as if he were going to explode. With a leap, he sprang from the seat of the truck to throw his arms around Lassie. "Lassie! Aunt Ellen and Jeff are coming! They're coming to see us for Thanksgiving! Jeff's coming, Lassie! Yippee!"

The big collie began barking and Timmy turned from her to Paul, flinging his arms around his father. "That's the swellest present I've ever had, Dad. Thanks! When do they get here? How long are they staying?"

Paul picked him up and put him back into the truck, then patted the seat to call Lassie up. "Come on, girl. What do you say we go home, eat some of Mom's gingerbread, and we'll both tell you all about it. Let me put your bike in the back of the truck and then we'll get going."

* * * * *

Ruth ran a hairbrush through Timmy's already tidy hair, then looked at him affectionately. "There."

He looked preoccupied and it puzzled her. The night before he had been alight, chattering like a small bird, asking all sorts of questions about the arrival of Ellen and Jeff Miller, the time the train was coming, when they would leave the house. He'd been so excited it had been hard to get him to go upstairs for his bath or indeed even settle to sleep. She had peeked into his bedroom a half hour after his bedtime and seen him petting Lassie, who had her head resting on his blankets, and talking to her about Jeff's visit.

Unmindful of her best dress, she squatted before him, straightening the collar of his shirt under his suit jacket collar. "Something bothering you, Timmy? You do want to see the Millers, don't you?"

Timmy's eyes sought out Lassie. Earlier that morning he had laboriously brushed her coat and fastened on the collar she must wear when they went into town. Now she was under the stove, sulking about having to wear it.

"I do, but..." Now he turned to her. "You don't think...I mean...maybe Jeff might want Lassie back?"

"Ohhhh," she said thoughtfully, straightening and smoothing her skirt. She sat down in one of the kitchen chairs and pulled Timmy close to her. "I didn't get to know Jeff very well in the few days he was here during the property transferral, but I heard very well what he said to you the day the Millers left. He gave Lassie with you for two reasons, one, because he knew it would be hard for a big dog like Lassie who's used to running loose on a farm to be locked up alone in a city apartment most of the day. Look how she's fretting right now, just over wearing her collar.

"And second, Jeff cared about you very much. He knew you needed Lassie, and he was generous enough to leave her here with you, knowing it was the best thing for both of you. Jeff didn't strike me at all as someone who would give someone a gift and then demand it back. So I don't think you need worry at all. All right?"

Timmy's sober face brightened as he smiled up at her. "Okay. Thanks, Mom."

Paul came hurrying into the room, still fastening his cufflinks. "Well, folks, let's get on the road."

Lassie rose, then scratched at her neck with a back paw, whining.

"Now, look," he added severely, tugging at his tie, "if I have to wear one, you do, too. I don't want to hear any complaints!"

* * * * *

Since it was the day before Thanksgiving and many had relatives arriving for the holiday, the depot platform was crowded. Timmy, so small that people often didn't see him, stayed close to Lassie's neck as the adults milled around him.

"Here she comes!" Paul sang out for Timmy's benefit as the long, low wail of the train whistle echoed toward the waiting crowd, and Ruth reached for the little boy's hand.

"Aw, Mom-"

"People are going to be moving very quickly when that train stops," she told him, "and they won't be careful of a little boy. I don't want to lose you."

Sure enough, when the train did slide into the station with a great squealing of brakes and came to a stop before the platform, the crowd surged forward, but Timmy was well protected on both sides. They stood back against the wall as Paul moved forward to greet the Millers.

Timmy spotted them first, however, as the crowd broke for a minute and he caught sight of a dark-haired woman in a smart hat and traveling outfit at the top step of the railroad car. "There she is," he shouted, "there's Aunt Ellen!" For a second, he could see Jeff's head, topped with his best hat, bobbing behind her, then they were lost again in the press of the crowd.

Lassie let out a joyous bark and with a quick tug, broke away from Timmy, disappearing into the crowd. He let out a protesting cry.

"It's all right," Ruth soothed. "The train's stopped and Lassie's large enough that she won't be hurt. Here, let's try to move a little closer."

The two of them excused themselves through the crowd. Over the chatter of happy people they could suddenly hear an excited whining, and when they finally broke from the crowded throng, there was Paul saying hello to Ellen Miller and Jeff squatting down to greet the enthusiastic collie, who was licking his face excitedly.

"Easy, girl," he said, face split with a grin. "I'm glad to see you, too."

Ruth loosed Timmy's hand just as Jeff spied them both. "Timmy!"

"Jeff!" the smaller boy caroled and ran into his arms. Jeff tried to heft him up, but this was not the thin little waif the Millers had discovered hiding in their barn six months earlier. "Jeez, Timmy, I can't even lift you. What have you been eating, rocks?"

Ellen Miller stepped forward to give Ruth a hug. "Hello, dear! I'm so happy to see you!"

She was barely done saying this when Timmy threw himself at her legs. "Oh, Aunt Ellen, Aunt Ellen!"

She laughed, carefully squatting down to hug him. "I missed you, too, sweetie!"

A man bumped Paul so that he was forced to step forward, jostling Jeff, then another woman pushed a baby carriage close to Lassie's hindquarters and made her jump. "Folks," he suggested, "what's say we go down and get your luggage and then do our reunions somewhere a little quieter?"

"Suits me," Jeff said, pursing his lips at the crowd. "Come on, Mom. Let's get our bags."

* * * * *

As a treat, after they had extricated the luggage and themselves from the crowd, Ellen suggested a stop at the ice cream parlor, but as if in tandem, both Jeff and Timmy shook their heads.

"We can't, Mom," Jeff said.

"Whyever not?"

"'Cause Lassie'd have to stay outside," Timmy answered stoutly, and the adults laughed.

"Let me run in and have them pack some up for us to bring home, then," Paul suggested and disappeared into the shop.

"So, Timmy," Jeff said after a minute, "how's school?"

Timmy winced. "Gosh, Jeff, do we gotta talk about school during vacation?"

Ellen let out a musical laugh. "Good heavens, it can't be that bad already, can it? You've just started!"

Ruth gave Timmy an encouraging smile and he brightened and said, "We got a new teacher."

"We have a new teacher," Ruth corrected, with a wink at Ellen.

"That's what I said," Timmy insisted. "Her name is Miss Hazlit and she's real nice."

"What happened to Miss Vernon?" Jeff asked.

"She went away to California to get married," Timmy said with the sour expression of a small boy who has just been kissed. "The girls gave her something called a shower and she got a whole bunch of mushy gifts like girls' underwear."

Jeff grinned. "You wouldn't expect her to wear boys' underwear, would ya? So, are you doing okay in your subjects?"

"I guess," Timmy said, looking downward. "I don't like arithmetic much, though."

Now Jeff did laugh. "Neither did I. Mom, remember the time I missed the circus..."

"Oh, heavens, yes," returned Ellen, "and I felt like such a monster for making you take that test!"

"Next year we're getting a whole new school, too," Timmy added.

"What's wrong with the old one?" Jeff bristled indignantly.

"Mostly age," Ruth said with a smile. "The school board finds they can't make it draft-proof in winter any longer. In the spring they'll build a new schoolhouse a little bit closer to the crossroads."

"Gosh," Jeff said, "I feel like I spent half my life in that old school and now someone's going to tear it down."

Ellen had a mischievous expression on her face. "Getting old is such a pain, isn't it, sweetie?"

Just then Paul emerged from the ice cream shop and they were driving home once more. As they passed the last farm before the Martin place, Timmy pointed and said, "Jeff, did you know Porky's moved away?"

Jeff laughed. "Yep, he sent me a note. It said, 'Jeff, I moved. Please write!' Then the big lunk forgot to include his new address!"

Everyone laughed and Ellen added, "We had a letter from Birdie a day later with the address on it. But Porky's letter gave us quite a laugh."

"We were sorry to hear that Matt's brother died," Paul told her, "but we sure couldn't blame him for leaving to manage that farm upstate that his brother left him. That's prime farmland."

"Mom and I are still talking about if one of us can go visit during Christmas vacation. You know Mr. Brockway—he always says he can't spare any money, but really, neither can Mom. I've got some money put aside from working on Saturday..."

Timmy's eyes were round as saucers. "You got a job?"

"What's so strange about that? You remember I had that job at Doc Weaver's over the summer. This one's at a veterinarian's office, too. Doc Weaver wrote me a recommendation. I clean out the cages and walk the dogs that are boarding and give them a bath when they need it. When summer comes I'm gonna get a work permit and work full time."

As they approached the farm, Paul needed to steer around two small boys walking at the side of the road. Jeff was surprised to see Timmy glance out the window, then shrink in his seat until he was out of sight. Lassie shoved her nose into the little boy's hand, and Timmy whispered, "Go 'way, Lassie."

Jeff saw it clearly, but instead changed the subject. "Looks like someone's living at the Brockways' old place, though."

"Oh, those are the Richards," Ruth chatted. "I met Mrs. Richards at the grocery when I was picking up all the things for Thanksgiving. They just moved in this week. Gracious, can you imagine the fuss, moving right before a holiday? They're from Illinois. They have a daughter—oh, and a little boy your age, Timmy. He'll be starting school on Monday. His name is Scott."

"Okay," Timmy said. He was sitting back up in the seat now, but still warily looking back as Paul turned into the driveway.

For the next few hours, the Millers were busy unpacking. Ruth had placed Jeff into the downstairs bedroom where Uncle Petrie slept and Ellen had the spare room upstairs. She had smiled as Jeff put her suitcases up. "I'll feel very safe here...this is where Dad used to sleep."

Jeff had to smile about it, too. The room Timmy now slept in had been his and the room he'd be using had been Timmy's when he first came to the farm. "Funny how things are sometimes," he told Timmy as he unpacked.

He set a thick book upon the dressing table and Timmy looked at it with interest. "Whatcha reading, Jeff?"

"It's for school," the older boy said offhandedly.

Timmy looked horrified. "They gave you homework for Thanksgiving?"

Jeff began to laugh. "It's not homework really. I have a project due right before Christmas and I thought I'd get ahead on some of the reading. It's a report on Herman Melville—he wrote a famous book called Moby-Dick about a sea captain hunting a big white whale. Some of it's real exciting. But I brought some of his short stories, too, in that anthology."

"What's a 'thol-o-gy?" the little boy asked, struggling with the unfamiliar word.

"AN-thology. It's a book with a lot of stories by different writers. Like your reader at school."

Timmy considered, then admitted, "I sorta got homework for Thanksgiving, too."

"Yeah? What is it?" Jeff asked curiously. "Miss Vernon never assigned us homework over holidays. This Miss Hazlit sounds really mean."

"She is not!" Timmy defended hotly, then bit his lip and looked embarrassed. "I don't have to do a...project or anything," he said offhandedly. "When we go back to school on Monday, everyone's gotta get up and say what they were thankful for on Thanksgiving."

"Oh, that's different. Sounds easy, too," and Jeff ruffled his hair. "You can be thankful for Thanksgiving dinner!"

Timmy laughed and then asked eagerly, "Can we go play some ball now, Jeff?"

"Why don't we go in the kitchen first," Jeff suggested, "and see if our moms need any help? Who knows, there might be some cookies in it for us."

* * * * *

There were indeed "cookies in it" for the boys and after they'd helped a little while in the kitchen, they ran out with cookies crammed into their jeans' pockets and played catch. Timmy had wanted to play in the yard, but when one of his pitches went wide and nearly hit the screen door, Jeff took him closer to the edge of the woods. They played catch and Lassie fielded balls until they all were tired and collapsed under a tree to munch on their cookies.

Jeff turned up the collar of his jacket as he ate, for the wind had a sharp nip to it. "Hey, Timmy, tell me something..."

"Yeah?" the smaller boy asked brightly.

"Who were those two kids we passed in the car today, and why did you scrunch down when you saw 'em?"

Jeff knew he'd guessed correctly when Timmy's face whitened and he averted his eyes. Lassie was lying down between them and his hand stopped its unconscious stroking of her ruff and balled into a fist.

"I thought I recognized one of 'em," added Jeff casually. "The bigger one, with the dark hair. His name's Rudy, isn't it? He started coming to school last year and used to push around all the little kids. Porky and Spike and I caught him taking Linda Barker's lunch away from her. He didn't do it again after we got done with him." Now he leaned forward and his voice was angry. "Is that little twerp stealing your lunch, too?"

"Nooooo," Timmy said reluctantly.

"Who's the other one and what are they doing, then? You would have waved to 'em otherwise."

"His name's Don," Timmy admitted. "They don't hit me or anything. They I haveta say?"

Jeff was disappointed. "No, you don't have to say anything, if you don't want to." He checked his watch. "Looks like it's time for supper. We'd better go."

* * * * *

After supper, Ellen and Jeff accompanied the Martins to the Grange Hall. The Calverton community always had a food drive the evening before Thanksgiving, preparing baskets for the less-fortunate families and lone elderly farm folk in the area. This gave the Millers the opportunity to talk to old friends, including Doc Weaver and Jenny, and it was a happy reunion.

The only thorn in the gathering was the blustering of one big farmer who Jeff recognized as Marv Cummings. His farm was on the other side of town, but his son—the boy Jeff had recognized as one of Timmy's tormenters—went to the Calverton school, so he and his family were considered part of the community. His wife, a tired-looking woman, was nevertheless briskly helping with the baskets while Marv stood outside and smoked with some of the other farmers, while roughly directing his son to do this and that to help his mother.

Rudy didn't look so tough here, Jeff decided—in fact he looked cowed every time his father spoke to him. Timmy was giving him a wide berth, but the older boy didn't bother him.

Timmy, in fact, was more fascinated by the fact that Aunt Ellen's time, when she wasn't helping pack baskets, were being taken up by a tall dark-haired man. Finally, along with Lassie, who hadn't left his side, he made his way back to Jeff, who was standing in a far corner talking with Spike, who, despite the name, was a tall, fair-haired girl wearing a white blouse and a plaid jumper, her hair in braids. She was attending high school in Creston and they were comparing teachers.

"Jeff..." Timmy asked when they had concluded their conversation and parted, "who's that man Aunt Ellen's been talking to all night?"

Jeff looked up unconcernedly from the tart apple he was munching. "Oh, that's Clay Horton. He used to be the constable here in Calverton before Sheriff Billings took over. He's back here for the holidays, too, like us. He's been taking law enforcement classes so he can get a job on the Capitol City police force. He and Mom have been seeing each other when he can make the time."

Timmy's mouth opened in an O. "S-s-seeing each other?"

The older boy grinned. "Well, I call it going on a date, but Mom keeps saying she's too old for that. She says I should call it 'keeping company.'"

"Is Aunt Ellen going to marry him?" Timmy gaped in astonishment.

"I dunno. They don't talk about it." Jeff looked over at his mother. Her eyes were sparkling as she talked to the man. "Although the way she looks..." And then he grinned. "Maybe."

"But then he'd be your dad!"

"Stepfather," Jeff corrected. "So what?" Timmy looked so overwhelmed that he squatted down. "Look, a couple of years ago, Clay took Mom dancing. Or he tried to. Gramps and I got really hot under the collar about someone daring to take Mom out and I told Lassie to hide in the car and be their chaperone. Lassie ruined their whole night. Boy, Mom let us both have an earful about that! But then she made me understand that even if she did like Clay, it didn't mean she loved me any less."

He shrugged. "And he's kinda cool. A couple of Sundays he took me fishing and we've gone to a couple of ballgames together. He's a nice guy, and besides, Mom's got a right to be happy as much as anybody."

He gave Timmy a covert grin. "He's sure a lot nicer than that old Marv Cummings. You know, I sure don't envy Rudy, having him for a dad." Timmy looked at him, startled, and Jeff gestured at the rear entrance. "C'mon, let's go outside."

Timmy and Lassie followed him out the back door of the Grange Hall. The light at the rear barely illuminated the leafless maples and oaks that edged the property. Jeff rolled his eyes at Woody and his girlfriend, kissing in the corner, and they glared at him, then vanished as Jeff settled on the uneven boulder just beyond the back door.

"Now, what's Rudy picking on you for?" he asked forthrightly.

Timmy hesitated, then wound his hand in Lassie's fur for additional courage and admitted, "He and Don make fun of me for being adopted. They said I'm a reject and that I got thrown out like the garbage."

"Well, you know that's not true," Jeff answered indignantly. "Adopted kids are lucky because someone wants them."

"I know," he said smally.

"You know what I think?" Jeff confided, and Timmy came closer to him, wide-eyed. "I don't know about this Don kid—he's not here, I guess?—but I bet I know what's wrong with Rudy. I think he's jealous of you."

"Jealous? Of me?"

"Yeah, sure. Look how his dad talks to him and his mom, like they're hired hands or something. I bet he sees how Mr. and Mrs. Martin fuss over you and wishes his dad was like that." Jeff petted Lassie. "I bet his dad won't even let him have a dog. I heard what Mr. Cummings muttered to Lem Boots when we came in. Something about 'that mangy dog goes everywhere with the Martins like she did with the Millers.' Of course, that isn't any reason why Rudy should pick on you. But I bet that's why he does it."

"Honest, Jeff? I never thought of that."

"Well, you're not as old as me. When you get my age, you'll be able to see stuff like that," Jeff said a bit pompously, as if his fourteen years made him some sort of sage. "It sounds like they're finished with the baskets and putting out the refreshments. Wanna go back in?"

"Sure," Timmy said delightedly, then added indignantly, "And Lassie is not mangy!"

"She sure isn't," Jeff agreed.

* * * * *

Ruth stretched in bed, turning over to look at the clock. It was 6 a.m. and she really needed to be up, but right at the moment she was too warm and comfortable to care. Paul's bed was empty; he was probably already looking after the stock. He'd insisted on the twin beds when they'd decided to buy the farm, saying her work would be hard enough without having to wake up when he did. She had to admit it worked.

In a few minutes she heard familiar thumps from downstairs. That had to be Timmy; he couldn't go into his closet without knocking around something, no matter how tidy she kept it. Then, even with the boys being all the way downstairs, she heard Jeff's "Shhhhh! You're gonna wake 'em!" and laughed.

She was going to miss this weekend after it ended; it had certainly been a happy and memorable Thanksgiving. She'd enjoyed Ellen's help in the kitchen and the company of another woman, and they'd all spent the meal talking—and marveling over Jeff's appetite.

After dinner they'd had a surprise: three long-distance telephone calls! First her mother had phoned, and despite the expense, had asked to speak to both Paul and Timmy. She'd already sent Timmy's Christmas presents, safely put away in the attic for now, and was still talking about coming to visit her new grandson for Christmas.

The second, shortest call was from Uncle Petrie, the last person either of them expected. He always claimed the cost of long-distance was "plumb foolishness" ("You can say what you need to say in a letter and if it's an emergency you send a telygram"), yet he cared enough for them enough to call.

The third had been a surprise for Jeff: ever tight with his money, Matt Brockway had allowed Porky to call his buddy to wish him a happy Thanksgiving. He'd given his son ten minutes and for the last three of them, Jeff could hear his pal's father calling out the time remaining in the background. Ever-voluble Porky had to hang up in the middle of a sentence.

The boys helped Paul with the evening chores and they spent the Thanksgiving night listening to the radio and popping corn. Timmy had looked happier than they'd seen him in weeks, and he'd had even a better time the next day when Jeff took him along as he visited old haunts. She didn't know their entire itinerary, but she'd gathered at supper last night that they'd visited Diane and Woody, gone into Calverton to check out the new general store opened by Ed Washburne, and visited the Baldwins, the family who had bought Jeff's colt Domino after the farm was sold. Domino was now broken to saddle and Timmy had come home bragging about his horseback ride.

Meanwhile she'd spent a lovely day with Ellen, finishing the housework together and then going to the women's Grange meeting, bringing along a cake and cookies to go along with the weekly tea.

There was a second thump downstairs, this fainter, and she sat up, then laughed. The boys had been talking about what they were going to do last night, and she suddenly remembered they had planned a hike, so they were probably in the kitchen packing their lunches—"We don't want to bother either of you," Jeff had pointed out to his mother and Ruth. Where were they going now?—that was right, past the lake and up to the old mine that had once been Jeff and Porky's "cave." The back of the old mine, near the treacherous shafts, had been boarded up long ago by Gramps, and Timmy had Jeff and Lassie to keep him safe, so, unworried, she smiled drowsily, reset the alarm clock for seven, and went back to sleep.

* * * * *

"Porky and I sure used to like coming up here," Jeff said chattily as the boys rounded the edge of the lake. It was cold, and the boys were bundled in their heaviest jackets, Timmy with his earmuff cap on, although Jeff had stuffed his own hat in his pocket with teenage bravado. Lassie, energized by the cold air and the presence of an old friend, was bouncing between them, happily alternating between nudging under Timmy's hand and romping close to Jeff. "We took all sorts of nature hikes, too. Got pretty good marks for our projects, too."

Timmy shrugged visibly in his checked coat. "Not much to see around here now, though."

"Now that's not true," Jeff objected. "There's plenty of stuff going on in the winter if you're sharp enough to look for it. Now, look there—see what looks like a big old pile of brush out there on the shore?"

He pointed to a squat brown pile just on the other side of the lake.

"Yeah?" said Timmy speculatively.

"That's a muskrat's nest. They're probably started hibernating by now, but sometimes they'll come out of their dens for food. If you watch around the nest, you can probably see their footprints."

Now, at their left, they approached a big fallen tree. It was an old elm which had collapsed from the concave bank of the shore and extended some feet into into the lake, like a bridge that had collapsed into water. Jeff climbed next to the leafless and rotting tree and peered about its roots.

"That got knocked down in the last windstorm, in October," Timmy said importantly. "When Uncle Petrie gets back, he and Dad are going to see if they can get some firewood from it."

"No use letting it go to waste here," Jeff agreed, as Timmy clambered up behind him, "Now, look here," and he pointed to the roots, "the storm knocked this tree down, but it probably wasn't strong enough to withstand the wind because of erosion, too. See how the bank has collapsed underneath?"

"Oh, yeah," Timmy observed, noting the strong roots ripped from the loose, fragmented soil. Jeff jumped down then and continued on the walk, Lassie frolicking at his side. Timmy watched them wistfully for a moment, then noticed his sneaker was untied and bent down to tie it. His fingers still fumbled at the task, and it took him a laborious few minutes to make the bow. As he did so, a big grub came crawling over the toe of the shoe and once he finished the bow, he watched it with interest as the insect finished its climb over the strange soft "rock" and scurried toward the tree roots. Timmy, absorbed, followed its progress as it wandered about the rotting leaves and soil. Then it disappeared under the leaves.

When Timmy finally straightened up, he discovered Jeff and Lassie were nowhere in sight. For a moment a slight thrill of fear ran up his spine, then he shrugged. He knew perfectly well where they were going; they had just headed up the trail that led toward the old cave, just there on the other side of the tree. And they were certainly in earshot. All he had to do was call and Lassie would come running back.

Then someone behind him spoke. "Hi, reject."

Eyes wide, Timmy wheeled. Behind him, also in clad in winter jackets defiantly opened to the cold air, were Rudy and Don. Rudy added scornfully, "What are you doing all alone out here, reject?"

Timmy retorted, "I'm not a reject. And I'm with Jeff Miller and Lassie. They just got ahead of me while I was tying my shoe."

"Oh, yeah, old Jeff and his mother," Rudy mocked. "Yeah, we saw 'em at the Grange on Wednesday. What's high-and-mighty big shot Jeffery Miller doing hanging around with a little reject like you?"

Timmy's face was scarlet and to his embarrassment he felt his eyes start to fill. To fight his urge to cry he responded, "I'm not a reject. My mom and dad picked me out of all the other kids they could have adopted. And Aunt Ellen wanted to adopt me, too, but the Child Welfare said they wanted me to have a mom and a dad."

"Yeah, yeah, well my dad says your 'Aunt Ellen,'" and Rudy threw further scorn into those two words, "is a meddling do-gooder. She probably felt sorry for you."

Timmy could only repeat, "I am not a reject!"

"Sure you are," Rudy replied, "and a chicken, too."

Timmy, stung, cried out, "Am not!"

"Prove it," Don said carelessly, and Rudy looked at him in surprise, then a grin broke out on his face. "Yeah, prove it."

"I will," Timmy retorted. He has his feet spread apart and his fists doubled so tightly that his knuckles shone white. "How?"

Don pointed to the fallen tree. "Walk all the way out on that old tree, touch the water, and come back."

"Yeah!" Rudy chimed in. "Great idea!"

Timmy considered the tree, the distance out to the water, then turned back to the boys. "That's stupid."

Rudy looked at Don, then made a move to turn away. "See, I told you he was chicken."

"I didn't say I wouldn't do it," the little boy flared. "I said it was stupid. You don't have to be brave to walk on some stupid old tree."

And with resolve borne in anger, he clambered up behind the tree, struggled for a few seconds to climb on top of it, then found his purchase and scrambled to the top, balancing there.

Don raised his eyebrow at Rudy, and the other boy shrugged. Clearly, both of them had thought Timmy would have "chickened out" by now.

"So go ahead," Rudy urged finally.

Timmy looked down the length of the trunk and gulped. It was really a very wide elm, having been old and large, and if he was careful, there was little chance he would fall. But still the part of the trunk that dipped into the water looked very far away.

"Reject," Rudy repeated softly.

His jaw set, Timmy began to walk down the log, setting one sneakered foot carefully before the other, his arms outstretched only partially to keep his balance. His teeth pressed on his lower lip as he concentrated. The surface of the tree trunk seemed a bit springy, but he thought it was because he was frightened that it seemed to give a bit under his feet. Slowly, calming as he approached his goal without mishap, he walked the wide trunk, stepping over broken branches, until he reached the water, and then carefully, carefully, squatted down to touch the surface.

With a smile of triumph, he jerked his chin at the two boys on the bank, stood up again, carefully turned around, and took one step to start back.

Unfortunately he hadn't been imagining that the tree was giving beneath his feet. Erosion, as Jeff had pointed out, had made the tree fall, and erosion was still at work on the lakeshore. Even Timmy's slight weight was finally too much for the barely clinging roots.

There was a crack, the trunk of the tree tipped sideways, and Timmy lost his balance and fell with a great splash into the lake.

* * * * *

As the leafless oaks and maples and the evergreens and those tangled brown vines remaining from summer enveloped him, Jeff felt as if he'd traveled back in time. Overhead a cardinal was scolding in a tree; he could see the bright flash of red feathers, and he could hear the far-off chatter of a squirrel. The years fell away and he was eleven years old again, off to meet Porky. The inclined trail would level again and he'd follow it to the cave. They'd light the old oil lamp that Gramps had allowed them to have and pretend to be pirates or treasure hunters, and Lassie would...

From behind him came a yell, then a scream.

He snapped from his reverie, wheeled, startled, noticing two things immediately: Timmy wasn't following him, and that Lassie had frozen, her ears pricked far forward and her nose working, her right paw suspended in midair.

Then she headed downhill at a dead run, back toward the lake.

"Oh, crimeny!" he exclaimed and dashed after her.

* * * * *

After Timmy's prior tumble into the lake, Jeff and Porky had taken care to show the child how to float, and now when he hit the water the little boy tried manfully enough to relax and let the water suspend his body. But the shock of the frigid water frightened and chilled him, and with his heavy woolen jacket, clothing, and sneakers weighing him down, after a few minutes Timmy surrendered to his panic and began to splash and flounder, screaming for Lassie.

And to his relief, his almost water-blinded eyes made out a brown-and-white blur bound around the corner of the fallen tree and leap into the water, swimming toward him. He saw Rudy and Don as blurs, too, yelling at him to hang on.

* * * * *

Jeff came dashing around the fallen tree to find the two boys shouting encouragement to Timmy as Lassie pushed steadily through the icy cold water. He could see Timmy, just opposite the end of the tree, and it seemed to him that the trunk was now in a slightly diffenent place.

"You dopes," he shouted angrily to the boys, "why don't you go help him?"

Rudy said, ducking his head, "I can't swim."

"Me, neither," added Don, his face scarlet.

"But you expected him to, didn't you?" retorted the older boy furiously as he pulled off his boots and jacket. "Hold on, Timmy, I'm coming to get you. Lassie's almost there. Don't grab her around the neck! Just hold on to her ruff!"

A second later he had knifed into the lake, gasping as his body struck cold water. He gave himself only a moment to react before he began swimming strongly toward the splashing boy and the collie approaching her. He was halfway to his goal when Lassie reached Timmy and seized his collar in her teeth, describing a circle around him and then towed him back toward shore. Timmy blindly clutched at her neck, but he was already too chilled to grip properly. Minutes later Jeff had reached him and had hooked one arm around the little boy, using the other to propel himself to shore.

To his surprise, when he peered forward, he could see Rudy and Don running back and forth to the trees, making a pile of brushwood at the lake's edge and adding the dead roots broken from the fallen elm. By the time the three of them were back on dry land, the boys had collected a creditable pile of wood and were attempting to light it with matches Rudy had in his pocket.

Jeff snatched up his jacket, yanked Timmy's soaked one off, and placed the dry garment around his shoulders. Then he grabbed the matches from Rudy. "You supposed to be fooling with these?"

"We learned how to make a fire watching the Boy Scouts," Rudy defended. "We figured he needed to get warm."

"He does," Jeff admitted, gruffly, then added, "but Cub Scouts like you aren't supposed to be playing with matches."

"I'm not in the old Cub Scouts," Rudy snapped. "My dad says they're a money-waster."

"Your dad's wrong," retorted the older boy, "but you were right to gather the wood. It was a good idea. Can you guys get some more?"

The tinder the boys had gathered was very dry from several weeks of no rain and in a few minutes Jeff had a good fire going and had pulled Timmy close by, rubbing his hands and feet. Rudy and Don surprisingly did what they were asked and the large fire was soon throwing heat on the shivering swimmers. Lassie had shaken herself off twice and now was laying close to Timmy, her damp chin on his knee. Rudy took off his jacket and offered it to Timmy so Jeff could put his own, now chilled inside from Timmy's wet body but at least warmer and some shelter from the wind, back on.

When Timmy seemed a bit warmer and his fingers didn't look as blue, Jeff demanded, "What happened?"

Timmy started to speak up, but Rudy and Don looked at each other.

"It was sorta our fault," said Don, but Rudy looked down at his sneakers, then admitted, "It was our fault. We dared him to walk out to the end of the tree and back. He made it, too, and was coming back. Then the tree went sideways and he fell."

"You could have drowned!" Jeff said to Timmy.

"We said he was a chicken," Don said smally. "He had to do it."

"No, I didn't," Timmy said, swallowing. "Taking dares is stupid, right, Jeff?"

"Right," but Jeff wasn't looking at Timmy as he continued to rub the small boy's feet. "And people who give out dares are the cowards."

Don's answer was to scuffle his feet and turn around, but Rudy only looked shamefaced.

"I know you've been picking on Timmy," Jeff added hotly. "And when your parents find out..."

He was almost frightened by the way the blood drained from Rudy's face. "You can't tell my dad! He'll..."

"I guess that's up to Mr. Martin," Jeff interrupted, but not as coldly as he'd been planning to. "Now you guys help me put out this fire so I can take Timmy home. If you're smart you'll go home and own up before your folks find out from someone else."

* * * * *

Ruth put her face down against Timmy's almost dry hair, her eyes filled with tears. The two boys were seated in front of the open door of the oven, their feet in basins of hot water, wrapped in blankets that had been heated before the parlor heater. Ellen was standing sideways by the stove, stirring a pot of warming soup, while Paul was pacing up and down, his fists clenched.

"Paul, something has to be done about those dreadful boys," Ruth said finally, her face taut with anger despite her shining eyes. "Teasing him so cruelly was bad enough, but now this..."

"Oh, don't worry-" Paul began.

"Dad..." Timmy said, raising a pale face.

"Yes, skipper?"

"Do you have to tell Rudy's dad?"

"Timmy, your mother's right. The teasing was bad enough..."

"But I took the dare, Dad," Timmy confessed. "It was my fault. I should have just walked after Jeff. Besides..." and he hid his face in the blanket.

"Besides what?" Paul asked gently.

"You saw it too, didn't you, Timmy?" Jeff asked softly.

"Yeah." Timmy looked into his father's eyes. "You didn't see how scared Rudy looked when Jeff said he was going to tell his father."

"Really scared," Jeff added. "Terrified even."

"Mr. Cummings must be real mean," added Timmy. The distress in his voice was so evident that Lassie rose from her warm space under the stove and came to sit beside him, warm head thrust in his lap.

"Oh, Paul..." Ruth said, her voice catching.

Paul sat down then, his eyes dark as he stared at the table. "You know, Jim Teal and I and a few other members of the Grange had a talk about Marv a few weeks ago. Jim went there to deliver some goats' cheese to Mrs. Cummings the day before and had caught Marv whipping Rudy. He thought Marv was being way too hard on a little boy. And then there was the way he behaved at the Grange the other night."

He paused, then added, looking up, "Maybe Jim and I need to have a talk with Marv. Make him understand we don't tolerate that kind of thing here in Calverton. Maybe it will bring him to his senses."

He reached his hand out to tousel Timmy's soft hair. "I'd hate to call the sheriff on a neighbor, but no boy should be that afraid of his father."

Jeff said, a little relieved, "Thanks, Mr. Martin."

Ellen had, as they talked, been pouring the now warm beef broth into mugs. Now she handed one to each boy. "There, that's nice and warm. Drink it down and then you have to get into bed with a hot water bottle."

As they sipped at the savory broth, Ruth felt Timmy's head anxiously. "Do you think they'll be all right?"

"Jeff and the boys got the fire built so quickly, I think so. Keeping them warm like this and the soup ought to help. Maybe they'll get a cold, that's all."

"Gee, Mom," Jeff said with a teasing grin, "that means I can stay out of school a few days."

"Mmmmm!" she chuckled. "Let me tell you that I don't intend to let you get that cold, young man."

"If you stayed home," Timmy said as he finished the broth, "you could read more about that whale story in your 'thology. You know, Mopey Dick."

"Moby-Dick," Jeff corrected, trying to stifle a laugh. "Oh, gee, thanks, Timmy. Homework when I'm sick!" he retorted with feigned resentment, then did laugh. "How about your 'homework' project?"

When the adults looked puzzled, Jeff added, "Timmy's supposed to tell his class what he was thankful for on Thanksgiving."

"Yeah," Timmy corroborated, his face thoughtful. "Welllll...well, first for the turkey and the creamed onions and the squash and especially the pum'kin pie-"

"Of course!" Ellen agreed, her eyes dancing.

His brow furrowed in concentration; the words coming slowly but surely, he continued, "-and second for Jeff and Aunt Ellen coming to visit, and third," and here he hugged Lassie, "for Lassie holding me up until Jeff came for me."

"That sounds good," Jeff agreed.

"But most of all," Timmy finished, looking from Ruth to Paul, his face breaking into an all-encompassing smile that lit up his blue eyes, "that I'm thankful that I've got the very best mom and dad in the whole world."

Jeff laughed when Lassie began to bark. "See, even Lassie can agree with that!"

- 30 -

"The First Thanksgiving" is ©2002 by Linda M. Young

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