by Christine Morgan

         "Rick! Wait for me!" Jean called, running after him.
         He stopped, flipping back his hair. "You're so slow," he complained as the little girl caught up with
him. "Why do girls run so dumb?"
         "We do not!"
         "You do so, flapping your arms all over like a bird or something. You're s'posed to run fast, fast
         "I do run fast. Just not as fast as you."
         "Nobody runs as fast as me," he boasted with the assurance of every one of his six and a half years.
         "Yeah," Jean said. "Nobody has to run away from Billy Edgebrook as much."
         "I don't run away!"
         "Do so!"
         "Do not!"
         "Then what do you call it when you see him coming and the next thing you know you're halfway to
the Wheeler's house?"
         "I've got stuff to do," he said.
         "Like what?"
         "Big, important, secret stuff."
         "You do not."
         "Well, you wouldn't know about it, 'cause you're just a girl!"
         "There's nothing wrong with being a girl. It's better than being a dirty, smelly boy!"
         "Is not!"
         "Is so!"
         "Oh, yeah?" He sprang at her. "Boys are better 'cause girls are ticklish!"
         "Eek! Rick, stop it! Stop it, stop it, stopitstopitstopit!" She tried to get away, but he was far too fast
and knocked her down, pouncing on her and seizing her feet.
         They were both six, almost seven, and twins just like the new babies at their house. The new babies
were both girls, and Mama and Papa had named them Ellen and Isabella. That made lots of kids in the
Avery house. John was the oldest at nine, the same age as Billy Edgebrook. But Billy was as big as Tommy
Yardley, and Tommy was thirteen. Lisa, Rick and Jean's big sister, was eight, Albert was seven, and little
Galen had been the baby of the family until the twins were born.
         Rick tickled Jean's feet until she was about to cry, then quit. He stood over her, grinning at her
while she was all red-faced and puffing. "Who's better?" he taunted.
         She kicked him in the knee. "Girls!"
         "Ow!" Her bare foot hadn't hurt, but it had surprised him. Girls were like that sometimes. They
looked all helpless, but then they'd turn around and kick you or something. They were pests. But they were
kind of neat too. The other day, he'd been picking up sticks with Annie Larksley and Elaine Bywell, and
Elaine had kissed him and asked if he wanted to see under her tunic. He'd heard that girls had different ones,
so he'd said yes, but before she could show him, Billy Edgebrook and Johnny Barclay came by and wanted
to beat him up. He hadn't run away, though. He'd just remembered that he was supposed to be doing a
chore, and had to get home before Mama got mad.
         Jean was giggling now. He pulled her up, resisting the desire to push her in the dirt and pull her
blond pigtails.
         It was kind of funny. Jeannie had yellow hair and white skin, but he didn't. He didn't look like any
of the other kids. His hair was black, always too long and in his face but that was only because he wouldn't
hold still to let Aunt Mattie cut it. His eyes were green, but other people like that little Janey Shearer had
green eyes, so that wasn't too bad. But his skin was dark, not like Papa's which was dark on his arms and
legs and neck but white other places. Rick's was dark all over. And his face was different too, not as
roundish as John or Albert's.
         It wasn't just his family. Nobody else in town looked like him. He had started noticing lately that
people looked at him different too. They sometimes called him a gypsy, though he didn't know what that
word meant.
         "You shouldn't tickle," she scolded him, but he could tell that she liked it.
         "Well, you shouldn't be such a smartie-skirts," he retorted.
         "Jean!" Lisa's voice yelled from the direction of the stream. "You've gotta help me with the wash!"
         "Oops," Jean said, putting her hand in front of her mouth. "I'm in trouble."
         "So what else is new?"
         "Well, you're the one that dropped all the eggs," she pointed out. "What's Mama going to say when
she asks where the eggs are and you say that you broke them all trying to walk on Mr. Larksley's fence and
carry them all at the same time?"
         "I'll get other eggs."
         "From where?"
         "They've got lots of chickens at the Hillsby's house."
         "You can't just go take eggs! That's stealing!"
         "No it isn't."
         "Is so!"
         "Is not! They've got more chickens than anybody, and more sheep and more everything. They
won't miss a few eggs."
         "You were s'posed to get Mrs. Attewater's eggs."
         "Mama won't know."
         "'Cause I'm not gonna tell her, and neither are you."
         "But lots of people saw you walking on the fence. You were just showing off for Annie."
         "I was not!"
         "Was so!"
         "Well, she's pretty."
         "Rick likes Annie! Rick likes Annie!" she chanted. Then her little face scowled. "Do you think
she's prettier'n me?"
         "Yeah," he said.
         "You brat!" she yelled, slapping at him.
         He jumped out of the way. "But you're pretty too," he said quickly. "You're real pretty."
         "If I was pretty, you'd give me a kiss."
         "I'm not s'posed to kiss you. You're my sister!"
         "Elaine Bywell told me that she kissed you on the face."
         "She did," he grinned. "It was neat."
         "Was it on the mouth?"
         "Nope. Right here." He touched his cheek. "Maybe next time she'll kiss me on the mouth. I saw
Cathy Hillsby kiss James Evansby on the mouth once."
         "I wonder what it's like, kissing somebody on the mouth."
         "Me, too. Maybe I'll go to Elaine's house and find out."
         "Maybe you could find out right now," she said, putting her arms around his neck and half-choking
him as she pulled his head toward hers.
         "Jean, quit it!"
         "Not until you give me a kiss to show I'm pretty."
         "All right!" He kissed her on the mouth.
         It was different. Kind of neat. He tasted blueberries, which was what they'd had for lunch a while
ago. Peeking, he saw that Jean had her eyes squinched way shut tight. He decided that kissing girls was fun.
         Lisa hollered again, and Jean let go. "She's gonna be mad if I don't go help," she said.
         "Yeah. Go on. I'll go find some eggs. Maybe I'll look in the woods. There's lots of bird eggs now. I
heard Papa telling Mr. Shearer that he saw a nest with six eggs."
         "You can't get bird eggs! We'll all turn into birds if we eat bird eggs."
         "Will not. We don't turn into chickens eating chicken eggs. Don't be silly. Girls!"
         They went in different directions, Jean heading for the stream to help Lisa with the wash and Rick
ambling into the green thickness of Glenslot.
         The stand of woods wasn't as big as the deeper and darker forest on the other side of the big house
where all the Hillsbys lived, but it was plenty big enough. It was right in the Avery's backyard, and all kinds
of animals lived in it. Rabbits, squirrels, deer, maybe even bears and dragons. He picked up a long stick to
use as a sword just in case.
         He explored for a while, starting out looking for eggs but then deciding that it would be neater to
find buried treasure like they did in all the stories. His explorations turned up a neat grey rock with white
speckles, and a piece of wood that looked exactly like a horse, if he squinted. He'd seen a horse once before.
Lordling Edmund used to have one, before he got too fat to ride it and sold it for a whole pile of shillings.
Dorus Benjamin had a donkey, but that wasn't anywhere near as neat as a horse.
         He heard voices, yelling, from deeper in the woods, and gripped his sword/stick more firmly. One
was a girl's voice. Maybe she was in trouble and needed to be rescued.
         Dashing in that direction, throwing caution to the winds, Rick quickly saw the girl. Her blaze of
bright red hair was like a beacon of fire in the shadowy woods. It was Janey Shearer, who was four but
acted like she was lots older. Maybe five, or six. She was bossy enough to be that old, anyway.
         There was a bigger boy with Janey, Galen Trelane. He was as old as Rick, and lots thicker though
Rick was taller. Galen was holding Janey by the arm, and she was kicking him. Typical girl.
         "Lemme go! Lemme go!"
         "Stay out of the way then," Galen said, pushing her. She tripped on a branch and fell down, starting
to cry.
         "Hey!" Rick yelled, brandishing his sword/stick. "Don't pick on girls, you bully!"
         "She bit me!" Galen said, holding out his arm, which showed the tiny marks of Jane's teeth.
         "You bit him?" Rick asked the sobbing little girl.
         "They were chasing Damon," she hiccuped.
         "You'll probably get sick from biting poisoned meat," Rick said. "Any yellow sissy who'd hit a girl
has gotta be sour."
         "I'm no sissy!"
         "Wanna bet?"
         "I'll show you!" Galen leapt at him, swinging his fists.
         Rick jumped out of the way, almost stepping on Jane. "Get out of here!" he told her.
         "They were chasing Damon," she repeated stubbornly.
         Galen's next swing hit Rick in the ear. He clobbered Galen with the stick, though the side of his
head was stinging.
         "Ouch!" Galen said, rubbing his arm.
         "That'll teach you!" Rick said, hitting at him again and connecting with his leg. "Shouldn't pick on
         Galen grabbed the stick and they both held onto it, pulling each other back and forth. "Go to hell,
you rotten gypsy!"
         Rick and Jane both gasped at his use of the swear word, and it startled Rick so much that he let go
of his end. Galen smacked him with the stick and laughed loudly.
         "I'm not a gypsy!" Rick yelled, backing away from the stick.
         "You are too! My great-grandpa said so! A dirty no-good gypsy!"
         "Shut up!" Rick said, continuing to back up.
         "Aw, lookit the gypsy run! Who's the sissy now?"
         Furious, Rick threw his rock. It was the only thing he could think of to do, and it proved to be the
right thing. The rock hit Galen in the chin, cutting him and making him bleed. Galen dropped the stick,
touched his face, looked at the blood on his fingers, and started to cry.
         "I'll get you!" he screamed tearfully as he ran away. "Just you wait! I'll get you good!"
         "Nyah, nyah!" Rick called after him.  When he was satisfied that Galen was gone, he turned back
to Jane. "Are you all right?"
         She nodded.
         "Gosh, I rescued you."
         She nodded again. "He's a bad boy. He talks bad."
         "Hey, in the stories, when the hero rescues a girl, he gets to kiss her," Rick said, going up to Jane
and trying to do just that.
         Jane scooted out of his reach. "I'm only gonna kiss Damon," she declared firmly. "He gets all my
kisses, forever and ever."
         "Damon? Damon Forrester?"
         Her eyes widened. "There's one still chasing him! Davey!"
         "Dave Ramsey?"
         "Uh-huh." Tears brimmed in her green eyes.  "He'll hurt him!"
         "Maybe I can help him!"
         "Can you?" she asked hopefully.
         He crossed his arms. "Maybe. For a kiss."
         "No!" She kicked at him, but was too far away.
         "All right, all right! I'll help him anyway! But you should go home. The woods aren't safe for
         She agreed, and once he'd seen her safely headed back toward the village, he kept going into the
woods. He knew Damon Forrester, kind of. The Forresters lived next door, and Damon's dad had a neat job.
He got to go in the woods and hunt animals, and told everyone else how many rabbits they could snare.
Damon's big brother Bobby was one of Albert's friends, but most of the kids thought Damon himself was
weird. He had a weird name, first off, and his grandma was crazier than a wet cat. She told him all sorts of
strange stuff about omens, and he believed her even though everyone else laughed. About the only person in
town who didn't think Damon was a few sticks short a bundle was Janey.
         He tried to sneak in the woods, but it was a lot harder sneaking over leaves and under branches that
would all of a sudden snap back and slap you on the butt as you went by than it was sneaking around the
house at night when everyone was sleeping and snoring and the animals down at the far end were shifting
and rustling. Still, even without being sneaky as a wood sprite, he found Dave Ramsey soon enough.
         Davey was a real brat. His mom and dad were dead, so he lived with his old aunt and uncle and
they let him do whatever he wanted to. Right now, what he wanted to do was to beat the stuffing out of
Damon, but he couldn't reach him. Davey was standing under a tree, jumping up, trying to grab Damon's
feet, and using even more and worse swears than Galen.
         "Come down offa there, you shitty little bastard!" Davey was saying as Rick hid behind a tree.
         "Come up and get me," Damon replied, which Rick thought was pretty brave.
         "Gimme the fur and I won't kill you," Davey said.
         Damon was just a normal-looking kid, about a year younger than Rick. He had ordinary brown
hair, and he was dressed like all the other kids, except he had a piece of rabbit fur that wrapped around his
arm and tied with leather cords. The rest of the kids were jealous of that, and sometimes the bigger ones
tried to take it away.
         "You couldn't kill a dead mouse," Damon retorted.
         "Sure he could," Rick said, stepping out from behind the tree. "Heck, a live mouse would drop
dead just looking at his ugly face."
         Davey whirled. He was mad. His wide, plain face was red with it. "You wanna be next, gypsy? I
can pound both of you."
         "Oh, yeah?" Damon cried challengingly. Rick saw that the younger boy had a birdnest in his lap,
and he began to pelt Davey with eggs. Most missed, but one landed right on the top of his head and broke,
oozing down over his ear. Another splatted against his shoulder.
         "That's it!" Davey roared. "I'm going to kill you!" With that, he tried to climb the tree, but Rick
grabbed him by the leg and pulled. His other foot took Rick hard in the chest, knocking him over, but he
lost his grip on the tree and landed hard on his back. With perfect aim, Damon chose that moment to throw
his last egg. It struck Davey right between the legs. He howled, curling up.
         "Wow! Good shot!" Rick said admiringly. "Come on, we'd better get out of here!"
         Damon half-jumped, half-fell out of the tree. Just then, an earth-shattering roar of primal rage split
the forest, and Billy Edgebrook loomed before them.
         A high, startled squeak burst from Rick's throat. Damon, next to him, froze as fast as ice on the
rainbarrel at Midwinter.
         Almost as tall as a grownup, Billy Edgebrook had been called Big Billy since he was a baby. He
reached for the two boys with hands that looked to be roughly the size of millstones. He caught Damon by
the neck and Rick by the arm.
         "Well, well, well," Big Billy said. "Look what I found."
         "Damon's mine," Davey wheezed, sitting up with his hands still carefully cradling his wounded
jewels. "I'm gonna kick his butt all the way to the bridge!"
         "Shut up," Billy snarled at him. To Rick, he said, "Got any money?"
         "N-no," he stammered.
         "What about you?" he asked Damon.
         Damon shook his head as well as he could with his neck lost in Billy's big hand.
         "Well, maybe I'll just take this," Billy said, letting go of Rick and reaching for the laces of
Damon's rabbitfur armband.
         "My dad gave me that," Damon said in a very small and meek voice. Hard to believe that this was
the same kid that had dared Davey Ramsey to come up a tree after him.
         Rick almost ran, but stopped himself. He hated the low, squirmy twist of fear in his belly, and he
hated to see another kid get beat up. He resolved to stay and get pounded right alongside Damon, if that was
what was in store for them. Someday, he told himself, I'll be even bigger than Billy Edgebrook. I'll show
him. He'll be sorry then.
         The image of himself, grown tall and powerful, filled him with a sense of rightness and purpose.
Hardly able to believe he was doing it, he stepped up so he was face to chest with Big Billy and punched
him in the tummy.
         The next thing he knew, he was laying flat on his back with a huge knot of pain where his jaw was
supposed to be. Billy was advancing on him, an unpleasant grin on his face. Behind Billy, Damon was
doubled over clutching his head, though the armband was still securely tied in place.
         Out of the corner of his eye, Rick saw Davey Ramsey moving up on Damon, moving in for the kill
with egg smeared all over him. He drew back his foot, ready to make good on his threat to kick Damon all
the way to the bridge.
         Though he hated to do it, Rick threw himself to his feet and ducked around the startled Billy, who
must have been expecting him to lay there and take it. He grabbed a handful of Damon's tunic.
         "Run for it!" he yelled into the smaller boy's ear, and immediately took his own advice.
         The speed of their escape took the bullies by surprise, but they were after them soon enough, the
very ground shaking under Billy's feet as if it was not just a nine-year-old boy but a mountain giant that
pursued them.
         They darted through the trees, leaping over rocks, and even in the extremity of his fear, Rick was
exhilerated. He imagined what it would be like to be galloping a horse through the woods, branches lashing
at him, the thunder of hoofbeats ringing in his ears instead of his own panicked heartbeat. Ahead of them, a
small stream burbled across the path and vanished under a large fallen log, thickly grown with moss and
         "There!" Damon gasped, pointing to the log.
         "What?" Rick panted.
         "The log! Over it!"
         They were momentarily out of sight of the bullies, and Damon veered from the rough path they'd
been following. Rick plunged after him, and when Damon planted both hands on the log and vaulted over,
he was only a step behind.
         On the other side of the log, the stream dropped into a steep, sloping mudlined chute. Damon hit it
feet-first, landing on his rear and sliding downward, neatly and in control. But Rick, not familiar with the
woods and not knowing what to expect, landed badly, skidded, recovered, lost it, and had the breath
knocked out of him as he landed on his chest and began sliding face-first over the slick mud and water.
         Roots poking out of the eroded banks of the chute threatened his eyes, and rocks gouged his hands,
but he didn't even notice the scrapes. He was shooting down, toward a dark muddy hole in the ground, faster
than he'd ever gone before. Water and mud got in his eyes, his mouth. Ahead of him, he saw Damon
slowing, and squeezed his eyes shut in anticipation of collision.
         He plowed into Damon with all the grace of a drunkard on ice skates, and both of them rolled to
the back of the hole in a tangle of arms and legs. They thudded into the damp earthy wall hard enough to
clack Rick's teeth together.
         "Wow," he said softly, sitting up and shoving Damon off of him. "What is this place?"
         "It's my hideout," Damon explained.
         The hideout was a low-ceilinged burrow, carved out of the earth by the stream. The exposed rocks
were damp and slick, and roots dangled from above, and there were worms and bugs, but it was completely
hidden from sight and far from the path.
         "It's neat," Rack said. "They'll never find us here!"
         "They haven't yet," Damon said. "But whenever I come here, I get muddy, and you should hear my
mom yell. Yours is gonna too, when we go home."
         "Oh. Yeah." Rick looked down at himself. What he could see was a mud-streaked mess. He was
soaked through, and now that the thrill of the descent was over, he felt the stinging in his palms, knees,
elbows, and everyplace else he'd bashed. His jaw ached from Billy's wallop, and his ear still hurt from his
encounter with Galen Trelane. He was probably bruised head to foot, but he felt great.
         "How'd you find it?"
         "I was following a rabbit and I fell in."
         "Do those guys chase you a lot?"
         "Yeah," Damon nodded. "I hate them, but what can I do? They're bigger than me, and older. I
mean, someday I'll be famous and important, a reeve, maybe, and then they'll have to do what I say, but
that's a long way from now."
         "Someday I'm gonna be important too," Rick declared. "A knight like in the stories, maybe, with a
big horse and a sword!"
         "That'd be good. You're Rick Avery, right?"
         "Yeah. And you're Damon Forrester. You live next door."
         "What were you doing out here? I didn't see you in the woods before."
         "I was gonna look for eggs, because I dropped the ones my mom wanted. But you chucked 'em all
at Davey, so I guess I might have to go to the Hillsbys' after all. Gosh, that was a good shot! You hit him
right where it counts!"
         "You hit Billy!" Damon said, with something like awe. "I've never seen nobody do that before."
         "He hates me," Rick shrugged, trying to show bravery. "But I'm not scared of him."
         "You're not?"
         "Heck, no!"
         "Me, either," Damon said boldly. "We showed him, didn't we? He can't push us around."
         "Right! Oh, hey, I saw Janey Shearer. She's your girlfriend, right?"
         "She's not my girlfriend!" Damon said disgustedly. "She says she is, but she isn't! Girls are icky,
and Jane's worse!"
         "She's kinda cute," Rick pointed out.
         "She is not. She's a pest."
         "Well, yeah, but all girls are pests."
         "Yeah," Damon agreed, and they grinned at each other, two men of the world.
         "So, you wanna come to the Hillsbys' with me?" Rick asked.
         "Sure. Do you know Taren?"
         "There's so many Hillsbys, I don't know who's who."
         "Taren's a kid like us. He's got a dog. Those guys beat up on him, too. Especially Davey. He hates
Taren 'cause there was this time that Taren put a piece of cow poop in his milk, and Davey drank some
before he knew."
         "Wow," Rick said, impressed. "How'd he find out?"
         "Well, Taren's got neat ideas sometimes, but he can't keep a secret very good, and he'll do
whatever you tell him to, so Davey figured out it was him."
         "What'd he do?"
         "Whacked him with a piece of stovewood so bad that he was out cold for half a day."
         "Yeah. Taren was always kind of funny before, but ever since, he's been even stranger. Still, he's a
good guy. I bet he could help us get some eggs."
         "All right. Do you think those guys are gone yet?"
         "Who cares? Maybe they'll get lost in the woods and we'll never have to see them again."
         They clambered out of Damon's hideout. Rick cast an admiring glance over his shoulder as they
trudged back up the hill.
         "That's really neat."
         "You can use it if you want," Damon offered. "Big Billy chases you a lot, doesn't he?"
         "Yeah. He hates me 'cause I'm different."
         "Me, too. He says I've got a weird name."
         "Well, you do have a weird name. Nobody else in town is called Damon."
         "But it's the god of night! I was born right at midnight, and that means I'm special. It's a omen. My
grandma said so."
         Rick started to say something he'd overheard Mrs. Brewster say about Damon's grandma, but
thought better of it. "What's a omen? Is that like what you say in church?"
         "That's amen, orcbrains. A omen is something different. A sign."
         "Like the one over the mill door?"
         "No, like when you hear an owl hoot at sunrise instead of a rooster crow. Hoo, hoo! Like that,
instead of ee-er-ee-er-oo!"
         "Are those s'posed to sound like real animals?"
         "Sure they do!"
         "Oh." He fell silent, thinking it over. "So, a omen is something weird that happens?"
         "That's right."
         "I get it."
         "There's lots of omens. I saw one last night. There was the moon, right --"
         "There's always the moon," Rick said. "That's not weird."
         "But it is when there's a black bird on it."
         "There's no birds on the moon."
         "Not on it. In front of it. A big black bird with big black wings. It's a omen. My grandma says
black birds carry dreams. So I saw the bird, then I had this dream that I was falling and falling, and just
before I hit the ground, I woke up."
         "And that's a omen?"
         "Of course it is."
         "Oh," he said again.
         They left the woods, went way around the houses so their moms didn't see them and call them to
do chores or ask about the eggs, and ran all the way down the road to the bridge instead of crossing at the
mill like they might have normally done. Their porches looked right at the mill, and they didn't want to get
         Rick thought about what Damon had said. He had dreams sometimes, strange dreams about things
that later really happened just like he'd dreamed them. Like the time he dreamed he was at Mrs. Bywell's
house and she reached for a jar and there was a big wasp on it and she got stung, and then the next day she
really did get stung by a wasp. Or the time he dreamed his brother John was going to drown in the river, and
woke up and told his mom about it, and she made John take Mike Oakwood and Logan Hillsby with him,
and John fell in the river and would have drowned but Mike pulled him out. He remembered how funny
Mama had looked at him, and how she had told Papa all about it when he came home from the fields that
day. He'd gone around all the rest of the week, thinking they were watching him, wondering if he did
something bad, waiting to get in trouble. He hadn't made John fall in the river. He hadn't even been there.
But he'd felt like it was his fault.
         He and Damon trotted across the bridge. It was huge, made of grey rocks that had been cut and put
together in smooth shapes. Everybody said dwarves had made it hundreds and hundreds of years ago, and
the stone bridge was how the town got its name. Stonebridge.
         It was almost suppertime now, and the men were coming back from the fields. Adam Smith, the
biggest guy in town, was crossing the bridge going the other was with his girlfriend Doreen.
         "Hello, little fellows!" he hollered at them.
         They yelled back in unison, "Hi, Mr. Smith!" He bellowed a lot, but it wasn't because he was mean
or mad. It was just becuase his dad was the town blacksmith, and they were all deaf as posts from pounding
horseshoes and plowshares on the anvils all day. It was kind of funny, because Doreen had a soft whispery
voice. Rick wondered how she ever said anything to him. But maybe that was why he liked her. She was too
quiet to boss him the way lots of the town moms bossed the dads.
         They cut through the Greensward's yard, waving at Mrs. Greensward and little Roger, then ran
through the pretty tree place that was called Manor Park and got on the path, Manor Lane, that led up to the
big house where big fat Lordling Edmund lived. Damon kicked a rock laying in the road, and they ran back
and forth, kicking it ahead of them, until Rick kicked it too hard and it bounced into a ditch. Laughing, their
ordeal in the woods forgotten for the time being, they ran to the edge of Hill's Brook and disdained the
wooden footbridge, going upstream and wading through the shallows, splashing each other until the worst
of the mud was off and the cool water eased their aches. Then they hurried up the hill toward the huge house
where all the Hillsbys lived.
         There sure were a lot of Hillsbys. Old Man Hillsby was the oldest person Rick had ever seen, the
oldest person in the world. He had white hair and more wrinkles than a walnut. Ashton Hillsby always had a
good story to tell, if you liked listening to stories about birds, and he could do some neat woodcarvings.
Julia Hillsby was eighteen, and pretty, with soft grey eyes and curves in all the right places, but she didn't
have a boyfriend yet and some of the kids whispered that she might grow up to be an old maid. Sarah
Hillsby was ten, fat and grouchy, and sometimes teased littler kids just for fun.
         Taren Hillsby turned out to be a kid Rick had seen before, and remembered now that he actually
saw him. He had straw-colored hair and an open, smiling face that looked ready to believe anything. He was
the one that had gotten lost at the Days of Spring Welcoming Festival, and his mom threw a fit, so they had
to stop all the festivals and dances and have everyone go out and search. They found him asleep in a
haystack, or something. Rick's Mama once said that Mrs. Hillsby ought to keep that boy on a leash, because
he always wandered off.
         "Hi, Taren," Damon hailed.
         "Oh, hi," he said, looking not the least surprised by their soaked and bedraggled condition. It was
nearly impossibly to surprise Taren Hillsby, who regarded everything with the same expression of vague
         "Hi," Rick said hesitantly. He'd seen Taren around, but they hadn't ever really met. "I'm Rick
Avery. I live over there."
         "I'm Taren Hillsby, and I live right there," he said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder toward the
big house. "This is Sukie," he added as a rangy shaggy dog bounded up to them and started sniffing the new
         "Wow, is he yours?"
         "She. Sukie is a bitch," Taren corrected.
         "You shouldn't say that!" Damon gasped.
         "Well, she is," Taren said, looking at him patiently. "She's a girl dog."
         "Does that mean it's all right to say that word?" Rick asked.
         "When you're talking about dogs, I guess," Taren said. "Were you fighting?"
         "Yeah," Rick said. "Not each other, though. We were fighting Billy Edgebrook."
         "And Davey Ramsey," Damon added.
         "And Galen Trelane," Rick finished.
         Taren goggled at them. "Really?"
         "Yeah," Damon said. "They won't mess with us anymore. See, I was up in a tree ... um, not 'cause
Davey chased me there but 'cause I was ... um ..."
         "'Cause you were being smart," Rick cut in. "Davey couldn't get him, 'cause he's too dumb and
slow to climb a tree. He couldn't climb a ladder without his mommy to help him."
         "Yeah," Damon said again, more surely. "And I had these eggs, and I really let him have it."
         "There were eggs flying everywhere," Rick agreed enthusiastically. "And then I went and knocked
him down, and Damon had this one last egg, and whack! got him right where it counts."
         "Where?" Taren asked.
         "You know," Rick said. "Where Lucas Kettleton kicked Andrew Darby when they were wrestling,
and everyone said it was a dirty shot."
         "Oh, there," Taren said. "I bet that hurt."
         "And you shoulda seen it, Taren," Damon chimed in. "Rick punched Billy! Right in his big fat gut!
Pow! Just like that!"
         "Then what happened?"
         "He clobbered me," Rick admitted, rubbing his jaw. "So we decided they'd had enough."
         "Aren't they gonna come after you?"
         "Naw," Damon said. "They learned their lesson."
         "Yeah," Rick said. "Hey, Taren, you got any eggs?"
         Taren reached into the small sack tied to the cord around his waist. He pulled out a dead lizard, a
wad of chewed sweet vetch, two marbles, a wooden top, a frog, and a handful of wool. "Nope."
         "How about in the henhouse?" Damon asked patiently.
         "Oh, there'd be eggs there, I guess," Taren said, nodding.
         "Can I have some?" Rick asked.
         "Sure," he shrugged.
         The three of them went to the Hillsby family henhouse, which was almost as big as the house
where the Sodburys lived. Old Mr. Sodbury was the biggest grump in Stonebridge, especially since his son
got killed when the Peterson's team spooked and ran over him with the plow. Mr. Sodbury lived all by
himself, except for his son's wife and her kid, Sarah, who might have been pretty except she always wore
the rattiest clothes and was too skinny.
         Rows and rows of chickens regarded them as they came in. Taren got a basket from beside the
door and quickly gathered a bunch of eggs. He gave several to Rick, who resolved to carry them more
carefully this time.
         "Taren! Taren? Where are you?"
         "It's my mom," Taren said. "In here!" he called.
         Rick tucked the eggs into his tunic, so Mrs. Hillsby wouldn't see them, and followed Taren and
Damon into the yard.
         Annabelle Hillsby, matronly and pregnant, stood on the porch with her hands on her hips. She
frowned as she saw Damon, and her frown deepened as she saw Rick.
         "Taren Hillsby, what are you doing?"
         "Getting eggs," he replied, holding up the basket.
         "That isn't what I mean. What are you doing with those two?"
         "Nothing. Just playing."
         Rick and Damon shuffled their feet, both suddenly aware of the soggy state of their clothes and the
vivid scrapes and bruises beginning to stand out against their skin. Big Billy had left a pretty good handprint
in the soft flesh of Damon's neck.
         Taren's mom looked them over, sniffing scornfully. "Why don't you play with Logan?"
         "He doesn't let me," Taren said matter-of-factly. "He says I'm too little."
         "Well, what about your cousin Robert?"
         "He plays with Logan."
         "I think you'd better come in now, Taren. You don't want to miss supper."
         "Can't I stay out a little longer?"
         "No," she said firmly. She turned to Rick and Damon. "You two run along home. I won't have you
getting my Taren involved in whatever trouble you've been into."
         "We haven't done anything," Damon ventured bravely.
         "Well, you're certainly a sight for not having done anything. What your mother must be thinking to
let you run wild in the woods like a wolf cub is beyond me. Serves her right for listening to that daft old
woman. And you," she said, fixing her merciless blue eyes on Rick. "You've been nothing but trouble since
the day you were born."
         He swallowed. He wasn't afraid of her, but he still decided it would be smarter to keep his mouth
         "Now, Taren," Mrs. Hillsby continued, "I want you to promise me you'll stay away from these two.
They're dangerous. You know how you get confused sometimes, and I won't have these scamps talking you
into doing something wrong."
         "I don't get confused --" he began.
         "Yes you do," she declared.
         "Oh, yeah. I forgot."
         "Now, come along. I want you to wash up before dinner. Thank the gods I don't have to take a
bristle-brush to you to get the mud off, not like some people's mothers that I could mention. Some people's
mothers might not do too badly to scrub first, then turn that brush right around and deliver a couple of good
smacks, I think."
         Damon looked at Rick, his eyes wide. Dorus Benjamin always said that hitting kids was bad,
unless they needed it for discipline. Rick had been spanked once, when Papa had asked him to bring in the
pigs before supper and Rick had said no. Once had been enough. He wasn't eager to go through that again.
         "See you later, Taren," Damon said.
         "Yeah. 'Bye," Rick said.
         Taren waved at them as his mom tugged him toward the house.
         "She doesn't like me," Damon said. "She thinks I'm a bad ... a bad ... flooens on Taren."
         "Why? He seems all right to me."
         "He's different too. Like us. He likes to wander around and stuff."
         "There's nothing wrong with that," Rick protested.
         "I know. But his mom doesn't like it. She says he's gonna fall down a hole and die one day. That's
why she doesn't like to let him go play very much. But you know what?"
         "I play with him anyway."
         "Then I will too. If we're all weird as a group, maybe we won't get picked on so bad."
         "We're not weird!" Damon insisted. "It's everybody else that's messed up."
         "I bet you're right." Rick glanced up at the Hillsby house, the door now closed. He could hear the
sounds of all the Hillsbys assembling for supper. "Guess I'd better go home. I got the eggs. Thanks. That
was smart, asking Taren to help."
         "Come on. If we hurry, we can go over the mill bridge before Mr. Miller closes it."
         Not running this time, mindful of his fragile burden of eggs, Rick followed Damon down the hill
and over the wooden bridge by the mill. Mama was waiting on the porch.
         "Rick! There you are! I've been waiting for those eggs all day. Oh, hello, Damon."
         "Hi, Mrs. Avery. Me and Rick were playing."
         "Were you? That's nice. Say hello to your mother for me."
         "Maybe you can come in the woods with me again tomorrow," Damon suggested.
         "Yeah," said Rick. "That'll be neat."
         As Damon left, Mama came down and took the eggs as he carefully removed them from his tunic.
"So you and Damon are friends?"
         "Yeah. I guess so."
         She ruffled his dark hair. "Good. I'm glad not everyone in the village is as thick-headed as Andrew
         "What, Mama?"
         "Nothing, dear. Now, come inside and let me have a look at your face. Did you fall down?"
         "Um ..."
         "You were in a fight, weren't you?"
         He nodded, waiting for the yelling to start. Instead, Mama sighed heavily.
         "How'd you know?"
         "It doesn't take a fortune-teller to figure that one out," she said. She smiled sadly at him. "Don't
worry. It won't be like this forever."
         "Nope," he said cheerily, realizing that he wasn't going to get in trouble after all. No spankings
with a brush for him tonight. Mrs. Hillsby would be mad. "'Cause someday I'll be bigger and stronger than
him, and nobody'll chase me anymore."
         Mama leaned down and kissed his cheek. "Someday," she promised.

Copyright 1996 by Christine Morgan