by J. A. Buxton
Chapters 36 through 40.
Leaving the stable and tack room area, Walker and his small group headed through a large opening into the barn’s main area. The long leg of the L-shaped building was finished except for a small section of roof near the joint of the two sections. They could hear the sound of hammers and heavy footsteps up on the roof. Half a dozen workers hurried to finish the work there before the imminent arrival of the various animals.
“Mr. Walker?” Eddie quietly asked, taking a few steps further into the barn. “What type of animals will live here?” A city boy, he was unfamiliar with any animal other than rats and stray, mangy dogs. Only after moving to Hannah’s Home had he seen healthy, friendly animals. Valentine, the Irish wolfhound, was a frequent visitor at the orphanage. The large dog had even once unexpectedly licked Eddie’s face when the little boy hadn’t moved quickly enough out of her way. Now, the two of them were a frequent sight, walking together to explore the mansion’s extensive acreage.
Walker continued into the barn before speaking. The way Felix had divided it into large living quarters for the animals pleased him. Since the barn was next to a field of about 100 acres, there were wide doors for the animals to exit and enter freely. A second level contained a fully stocked hay loft the length of the building along with rooms for the other foods needed. Already the smell of freshly cut hay filled the barn to mingle with that of sawdust and new wood.
Finally he answered Eddie’s question. “Besides Savannah and a couple other horses, half a dozen sheep will be arriving tomorrow.”
“Sheep? Why sheep?” This came from Brennan, who now was poking around a pen big enough to hold three grown elephants. When Walker had asked Felix to design a large barn, the architect had taken him at his word. After the animals arrived, there would be two dozen people in place to take care of them. Walker had hired most of them from the nearby town of Westbrook, but many of his elderly guests had eagerly volunteered to help.
“The sheep are for Dan and Rose Cochran.” Walker leaned over the pen’s front railing to talk with Brennan. “You might ask them later on for a lesson in sheep sheering.” He continued, “I’ve also got some Jersey cows coming so Chef Geoffrey will have a supply of fresh milk and a flock of chickens for eggs.” Per Walker’s firm instructions, the chef would use none of the animals as a food source except for the milk and eggs.
Continuing down the length of the barn, Jack and Walker slowly explored the rest of the empty pens. Halfway down, they entered the office of the person hired to manage the barn’s staff. Walker took advantage of this to find a chair and sit, taking the weight off his still painful leg. Jack wandered around the room, checking to see that everything the manager would need was in place.
The boys had run ahead to see what was in the large room at the end of the building. When they opened the door, they saw in front of them a veterinary clinic. To one side was a private area set aside for an animal maternity ward with cages along the walls. Unknown to the boys, the room was completely sound proof to keep out any noise from the rest of the barn animals. The veterinarian could also use the room for sick or injured animals. The main room contained the veterinarian’s office equipment as well as a fully equipped laboratory and operating area.
Like the hospital that had started out only for the mansion’s guests and staff, Walker hoped this clinic would eventually also serve the whole town of Westbrook. With this future possibility in mind, he had Karla’s workers create a two-lane road. It came off the circular driveway in front of the mansion and led right to the clinic.
“Mr. Walker,” yelled Eddie, racing back toward the barn manager’s office. “Mr. Walker, can I ask you something?” He was out of breath by the time he’d run the long distance between the two offices.
Walker waited until the usually silent boy was standing in the doorway, then said, “Sure, Eddie, what?”
“Well,” Eddie managed to get out, “can I come visit the vet some times? I’d like to work with animals, if you and he would let me.” This was the first time the child had shown a lack of fear around Walker, and the sudden change in him pleased Walker and Jack. By then, Brennan had joined them.
“I’ll speak to Dr. Roberta Ellison,” Walker said, “but I’m sure she’ll let you come and help.” In this way, Walker first announced the name of Dr. Harriet Ellison’s sister as the new veterinarian. While Harriet was the head of the hospital’s ER trauma team, her younger sister, a graduate of Tufts University in New England, was now the estate’s animal doctor. Walker expected her to arrive the next day, and a new bungalow near the clinic was waiting for her.
After completely exploring the barn and the grounds around it, Walker and his small group left the area to the roof workers. By now, Jack couldn’t help noticing his friend’s rapidly slowing and unsteady gait. After seeing the two boys heading toward the orphanage, he went the rest of the way into the mansion with Walker, staying close in case the other man lost his balance. With Walker finally settled and resting in his apartment on the fourth floor, Jack went in search of Samantha.
The worry about Walker’s health was foremost in his mind, but he also wanted to get the plans for his birthday celebration finalized.
August 26 started out warm and clear. Fluffy white clouds filled the sky with no ominous signs for rain. Executive Chef Geoffrey closed and locked the dining room doors behind the last of the breakfast crowd, and last minute cooking for the evening dinner meal began. What would seem like complete chaos to an outsider was actually a well orchestrated dance by a perfectly trained kitchen staff.
Sous-Chef Ricardo, his second in command, never paid attention to Chef Geoffrey’s autocratic ways, and he remained calm throughout all his superior’s orders. The various line cooks stayed busy all day managing the cooks working for them in each particular area. The smell of the cakes and pies baking mingled with the aroma of meats, poultry, and fish coming from the many ovens assigned to the roast cooks.
Days earlier, each person coming to the dinner received a menu order form, and their choices for dinner returned to the kitchen. Sous-Chef Ricardo then placed copies of the filled-in forms on a large kitchen board near the dining room doors. The names and table location of that person matched hand-printed name cards the serving staff had placed at each table in the dining room. In this way, the staff would know immediately who got what meal and at what table. They needed this tight organization because of the large number of people expected to arrive that evening.
In the ballroom at the back of the mansion, the party theme, decided on months earlier by Jack and Samantha, was for a child of five and not for a man turning 51. Staff members were stringing banners proclaiming Walker’s 5th birthday. The decorations around the room were in red, blue, green, and yellow. Hundreds of helium balloons filled the ballroom, and Samantha had placed goodie bags filled with toys and candy at tables scattered around the room. She also had streamers going from one end of the large room to the other end, again all in various colors.
A clown who was also a balloon artist was already there making balloon hats for everyone. On the stage, a local DJ had arrived early to set up his equipment. Around 10 a.m., he started playing kids’ songs for the first half hour as people started arriving. As the day progressed, he planned to play music for anyone who cared to dance. Both Samantha and Jack had worked closely with him to make sure he included some of Walker’s favorite songs in his selections. He also planned some musical contests for both children and adults to participate in with a chance to win little prizes.
In the middle of the room was a table with a kids’ plastic swimming pool filled with ice and sodas. Samantha also had bought little plastic wagons and Tonka trucks and filled them with nuts and munchies. There were disposable cameras on every table, and a few guests were bringing their video cameras and recording all the day’s fun. In addition, Franklin planned to photograph activities during the day to create a special keepsake book for Walker later on.
Jack had taken over the outside entertainments behind the mansion. Beer was in a second plastic pool on a picnic table and clearly marked “For adults only!” Near it on a second picnic table, Jack earlier had placed a number of red and blue sand buckets containing ice and wine bottles.
He had hired a traveling carnival for the day, and the workers started right after daybreak setting up easy rides for the children and elderly. There were also game booths with play tokens handed out earlier and a small petting zoo with animals that would get a home later in the now completed barn. A face painter was setting up his table and had a group of children and adults standing in line. Already, Sue Beth and Delia’s daughter Catherine were sporting colorful designs on their smiling faces. It was impossible to expect the children to wait for anything today, and Jack watched in amusement as even more of them raced from the orphanage to the mansion.
“Slow down, kids,” he called out to them, after Brennan and Joshua almost ran him down in their hurry to get to the candy machine. The two boys had become good friends, and Mike often joined them to make up what the adults called “the terrible trio.” Right now, Mike was sitting in the chair having purple stars painted on his face and trying not to squirm.
The rich fragrance from a cotton candy machine, attended by one of the carnival workers, was acting like a magnet, drawing the children to it. Pink spun sugar already was sticking to faces and fingers, and Jack decided to bring out small bowls of water for cleaning them during the day. On his way into the mansion for the bowls, he stopped suddenly at the sight in front of him and began to laugh uncontrollably.
Standing there was the honored guest of the day wearing a purple beanie with a little plastic spinner on top. The face painter had covered Walker’s smiling face above his trimmed beard and mustache in bright red and blue designs. Noisy excited children trying to get his attention surrounded him, and one handed him some freshly made cotton candy.
“Happy birthday, Walker!” He heard this from everyone he met, and the sight of the happy middle-aged man in his silly hat set the tone for the rest of the day.
While Walker was celebrating his birthday with his friends behind the mansion, a small group was on its way from San Francisco to the safety he provided on his estate.
* * *
Earlier that week, a small figure sat on the park bench near the ferry building, fog drifting all around. The commuters hurrying to catch the Sausalito ferry tried to ignore the wretched bit of humanity in front of them. They averted their eyes as if this would make the apparently homeless person disappear. Even a tiny cry for help now and then from the bundle of rags didn’t slow them down.
The child had been sitting on the bench for the better part of the night. Just after midnight, 12-year-old Jeremy wrapped a thin, faded blanket over his pajamas and ducked out the front door of his foster home. For hours before that, the frightened boy had huddled in the bed he shared with two other foster children, both his siblings. Out in the living room, shouts of drunken rage alternated with the sound of glass crashing against the walls. A woman’s screams of pain diminished into sobs, then silence.
“Jeremy,” he heard his sister, the youngest of the children, whisper. “I’m afraid. He’s going to come in here next. You know he is.” Seven-year-old Helen shivered in fright. She remembered well the behavior of their foster father, Hank Belden, after every drunken fight with Elsa, his common-law wife. The two boys, Jeremy and 11-year-old Thomas, only suffered vicious beatings. Bad as that was, Helen had to try to avoid his groping hands and wet kisses until he finally passed out in a sodden stupor. So far, she’d been able to do this by running and locking herself into the bathroom. She and her brothers realized, though, one day Hank would crash his way through the door or simply remove the lock from the door in one of his rare sober moments.
Thomas pulled his sister closer to him and looked over her at his brother. “We’ve got to get away tonight. Jeremy, we can hide some place down on the Embarcadero.”
“Then what?” asked his brother. “The police will only make us come back here again.” A look of bitterness crossed his thin, pinched face. “That’s what happened the last time we ran away. You ended up in the emergency room from ‘falling down the stairs,’ remember?” The three children knew Thomas had barely survived that beating. He still walked with a pronounced limp because the broken bones of his left leg never healed properly.
“Well, we can’t stay here,” replied Thomas, getting out of bed. “I say we risk getting caught.” He froze in place at hearing footsteps coming down the hall towards their bedroom. The door opened, and in the light from the hallway, they saw the figure of their foster father. Even from that distance, they could smell his unwashed body with the strongest odor being the beer he’d just spilled on his filthy undershirt. He was already reaching to undo the zipper on his slacks, a drunken leer on his unshaven face. This time he planned to keep the little girl from darting past him for the safety of the bathroom.
When he came into the dark bedroom, aiming for the bed containing Helen and Jeremy, he passed by Thomas standing unseen in the shadows. Quickly, taking advantage of the situation, Thomas picked up his wooden baseball bat from where he’d placed it earlier in the day. He swung and crashed it against Hank’s skull. The man went down, instantly unconscious. Dropping the bat next to Hank, Thomas called out to the two children sitting in shock on the bed. “Hurry, let’s get out of here while we can.” He grabbed three blankets from the closet, and the children crept out of the bedroom.
Walking on tiptoes through the living room, they saw Elsa lying on the floor, bleeding but still alive. She tried to raise an arm toward them, but was too weak to stop them. Even though they wanted to help the woman, the children were afraid Hank would regain consciousness any minute. Averting their eyes, they wordlessly passed by her and out the front door.
By ducking in between buildings whenever a car passed by, they managed to avoid detection on their way to the Embarcadero. Because of the difficulty Thomas still had walking, it took them two hours to reach the area near the ferry building. In their rush to leave the house, none of the children had thought to put on shoes. Their feet were soon numb from walking on the icy sidewalks and caked in dirt. The wind whistling around the buildings tore at them, causing them to shiver uncontrollably as they made their way in the dark. Eventually they reached the deserted ferry building next to the bay.
Thomas and Helen crawled into a discarded packing crate behind the park bench where Jeremy huddled. The night was practically freezing, with the bay fog rolling in. Even the slowly rising sun didn’t warm the children, protected only by their night clothes and threadbare blankets. Jeremy had about given up hope of getting help from the passing commuters when a middle-aged man paused in front of the bench.
* * *
“Are you okay?” the man asked. “What are you doing here?” Ralph Kenyon peeled back the blanket from what he thought was a derelict’s face. To his shock, staring out at him was a young boy, cold and scared. His shock increased when two more children stumbled out from a nearby crate. He sat back on his heels when the little girl stared at him in terror.
“Please,” Ralph heard her whimper, “don’t make us go back.” Ralph looked at her in horrified understanding when she continued, “He’ll just hurt us again. Please.”
Ralph, the northern California recruiter for Walker’s mansion and orphanage, quickly made up his mind these children needed his help. After explaining who he was, Ralph placed them in the warmth of his SUV parked one block away. A quick trip to the proper foster parent authorities brought the law down on Hank and Elsa. Next, Ralph called in Walker’s legal staff to handle the paperwork for the children to go to the safety of the orphanage in the distant town of Westbrook. In the interim, the siblings stayed together in a group home near Ralph’s hotel where he visited them every day.
Finally, after two frustrating weeks, he was able to bring the three children up the long driveway to the ancient mansion and then behind to the newer building. Eric, the limousine driver, had made this trip many times over the past couple years, both to deliver elders to Walker’s mansion and now children to the orphanage. Each time he felt the joy mixed with uncertainty of his passengers, and today it wasn’t any different.
He and Ralph were in the front of the vehicle with Helen sandwiched between Jeremy and Thomas in the back seat. All three children now appeared dressed in new, clean clothes and with more food in their bellies than they’d had in years. Still, the fear of the unknown kept them speechless while looking out at what would be their new home.
“Mr. Kenyon,” said Jeremy, almost too softly for Ralph to hear him. “Are you sure we can live here, and Hank can’t get to us?”
Ralph turned around to face the older boy. “I’m sure, Jeremy. In fact, there’s a nice lady just waiting to meet you. Her name’s Miss Cartwright.” The three children sat up straight, hoping against hope that the future would be better than their pasts.
By now, Walker’s birthday celebration was going strong. As soon as Edith received the cell phone call from Ralph they were nearing the estate, she left the party and walked quickly to the front of the orphanage. When the children fearfully entered the front door of Hannah’s Home, they heard the noise of laughing people coming from nearby.
Edith stood just inside and looked first at Ralph. He had followed the children in and was holding Helen’s hand. The two boys stood in front of them, fists clenched, automatically protecting their little sister as they had tried to do all her young life.
Even though Thomas was bigger and more outgoing, Jeremy spoke first. “I’m Jeremy, and this is Thomas and my sister Helen.” Before Edith could greet them, a tall man wearing a beanie with a plastic spinner on top came in through the open front door behind them. His face, covered in bright red and blue painted designs, startled the three children when they turned around to face him.
Ralph started laughing at his employer’s appearance. “Kids, this is Mr. Walker, the man I told you about.”
Jeremy shared a glance with Thomas, wondering what type of madhouse they would be living in. However, Helen let go of Ralph’s hand and slowly walked toward Walker. When he knelt in front of her, she reached out to touch the plastic spinner on his curly hair, and then smiled at him shyly.
Walker had effortlessly managed to ease the frightened child without even saying a word, simply by wearing a funny purple hat.
After he made sure the children were safe and comfortable in the care of his mother, Walker decided to return to his party. He looked at Ralph who was just about to return to where Eric had parked the limousine. Unknown to both men, Eric had left the vehicle and joined the noisy crowd in back of the mansion
“Come on, Ralph, you’re missing all the fun.” Walker said as he watched his mother leaving to show the three children their new rooms. “I’m glad you and Eric made it back here in time.”
Ralph hesitated, never taking his eyes off Walker’s ridiculous headgear. “Do I get to wear one of those?”
Walker reached up, having forgotten for the moment he was wearing the purple beanie. “No way! This is a special hat made just for me.” He laughed at the patently fake disappointment on Ralph’s face. “Well, I’ll see what I can do. You ready?”
“Sure. Lead on, McDuff,” he said, and the two men left to stroll from the orphanage to the back of the mansion.
The celebration by now was in full swing with people wandering around both outside and in the colorfully decorated ballroom. Guests from town were arriving to join the elders and children. The sound of the retro music the DJ was playing full blast often drowned out the voices in multiple conversations, but no one seemed to mind.
Standing apart from the crowd was young Paul, the fourth of the original orphanage children. At catching sight of him, Walker remembered the paperwork that had come with the 13-year-old boy months earlier. Evidently, one of the town’s garbage workers found Paul five years earlier wandering the streets of Westbrook around 5 a.m. The child wouldn’t say a word, just sat stiff as a statue in the cabin of the garbage truck until the sun rose an hour later.
When the garbage man left the boy at the orphanage, for want of a better place for him, the orphanage manager, Stella Farrell, decided to name the child Paul. This was a name she had always wanted for her own son. Since she never married nor had a son, for the next five years she gave her bountiful matronly love to the boy whom no one ever came to claim.
Paul never explained why he was walking around in the dark that night or shared anything about his life before coming to the town’s orphanage, not even his real name. The local television repeatedly showed a picture of the boy with dark skin and sad, brown eyes with no success. Sadly, it was like Paul was born that night with no past, no family, no one but Stella to care about him. In fact, Paul only spoke to Stella, and then rarely.
The doctor in town who first saw him years ago had diagnosed him with selective mutism. The limited funds of the town had not allowed for any type of therapy for this, and Paul stayed locked in his own silent world for years. After settling the children in at Hannah’s Home, Walker had hired a therapist to work in conjunction with Stella to try to bring Paul out of his self-imposed mute state.
Now, on the edge of the noisy birthday party, Paul stood by one of the trees in the back area, silently watching but not joining in. Over the year, some of the sadness in his eyes had disappeared but never entirely. Walker motioned for Ralph to go ahead of him and join the crowd around the flowing chocolate fountain.
Moving quietly to not frighten the boy, Walker stopped a couple feet away. “Paul, would you help me?”
The boy’s gaze turned from the crowd toward Walker, waiting for the older man to explain this request. Over the months Paul had been at Hannah’s Home, he had politely listened to Walker many times but never said a word in return. This time, when Walker didn’t continue, Paul managed to get out one whispered word, “How?”
Delighted at this progress, minor though it was, Walker pointed in the direction of the long picnic tables Jack had set up earlier. “It’s time for lunch to start, and I need help in letting our guests know that. Maybe if you go and fill a plate with food, they’ll get the idea. Can you help me by doing that?”
In that way, with a little boy silently filling a paper plate with a cheeseburger and fries, Walker invited the others to sample food such as burgers, cheeseburgers, Coney dogs, onion rings, and fries. Old style sodas washed down this tempting buffet...grape Nehigh, cherry cokes, Orange Crush, and Moxie for the those more adventurous.
All afternoon Jack wandered around the milling crowd behind the mansion, constantly asking, “Do you know where Walker is?” Hours had passed since he’d seen the party’s guest of honor, the last time being when Walker and Paul started the guests toward the picnic tables. Since then, Jack had divided his time between helping Samantha organize the games for the older adults in the sunroom and checking with Chef Geoffrey regarding the evening meal.
When he finally found a free moment, Jack discovered not only was Walker missing but so were most of the children. He also saw the small petting zoo was empty. The fenced area once held two pigmy goats, a lamb, and five chickens, but now only trampled hay remained. Did they escape, thought Jack, looking around for the animals, and Walker and the kids are searching for them?
Upon questioning people standing nearby, Jack’s confusion grew even deeper when all he got were smiles and laughter. Finally, Eric took pity on him. The young limousine driver stopped munching on a hot dog long enough to point towards the newly constructed barn. “Our Pied Piper went that way!”
When Jack finally reached the pathway in front of the barn, he could hear voices coming from inside. He started grinning when Walker’s boisterous laughter suddenly rang out. Curious to see what was causing his boss’s merriment, Jack pulled open the barn door. Inside, what he saw had him quickly shutting the door to keep the running mass of children and animals inside.
Sitting on the wooden railing of a nearby pen, Walker was safely up out of the way. He hadn’t seen Jack entering the barn and was calling out encouragement to the children. “Come on, Michael. Listen for the lamb’s voice.” When Michael turned around to glare in the direction of the lone adult voice, Walker yelled even louder, “You almost had him that time.” He silently motioned for Brennan and his constant shadow, Eddie, to herd the frolicking lamb toward their blind friend.
“I got him. I got him,” bragged Michael once he had a firm hold around the small animal’s neck. Brennan and Eddie slowly ease them out of the path of the remaining animals. It was none too soon since slowly heading their way was Savannah, the Paso Fino.
Earlier, Joshua had let the gentle horse out of her stall without Walker’s knowledge or approval. He had lifted the excited Itzam up onto Savannah’s back and was leading the horse the length of the barn. Upon seeing the tiny child he’d grown fond of on top of the large horse, Jack nearly went into heart failure. “Walker, stop them,” he managed to croak out.
His boss saw Savannah and the two children at the same time. He got down off the fence and calmly headed for them. Unlike Jack, Walker knew Itzam was safe on the gentle animal. The scowl on Walker’s face, though, warned Joshua his guardian was very, very upset.
Itzam also noticed the expression and let go of Savannah’s reins in a panic. She started to slide off the horse unassisted, then halfway down noticed how far down the floor was. Before either of the men, now frantically racing towards her, or a shocked Joshua could catch her, Itzam crashed to the floor.
The horrifying sound of her soft body slamming against hard wooden floor echoed throughout the large barn. Sudden silence, except for the sounds from the animals, followed.