The boy squeezed out of the hollowed oak tree. Good, it’s still dark. “I’ll be back, Friend.” Friend chattered softly and twitched his gray tail. The boy moved quietly through the woods. He knew the path. His stomach rumbled. Yesterday, the sun was up before he woke. It was too risky once the sun came up. He slipped into the chicken coop first. The chickens clucked quietly undisturbed. He headed for the best layer, reached under her and pulled out two eggs. He stuffed them into his coat pocket. Shame pushed up into his throat. He shoved it back down. It’ll be my birthday soon. Just wait until Mom sees how good I took care of myself.
Lately, he had been lucky. One morning, he found a pail of apples just sitting in the barn, another time a string of green beans drying. The best find, however, was the box of matches and a wool blanket. It sure was nice to have a campfire at night. He had been trying to figure a way to cook his eggs. It was a little tiresome eating raw eggs every day. As he passed by the garden, he paid special mind to the watermelons. Soon, the watermelons will be ripe, maybe in time for my birthday. He couldn’t wait to chomp into a bite of juicy watermelon. He wondered once again about the man. Sometimes, he watched the man work. The farmer, often, whistled a little while he worked. I reckon he does alright on his own. The sun was starting to peek over the horizon. A rooster crowed. He broke for the woods. No barn today.
He spotted Friend foraging for his breakfast. It had been early spring, when the boy found the motherless squirrel. He was so small and cold. The boy had brought him into the tree, piled leaves and dry grass all around the tiny squirrel. He rubbed him gently. “Don’t die little friend.” He desperately wanted him to live. The boy added a few drops of maple sap to water that he collected in a contoured log. He fed the little squirrel drops of maple water from a rolled up leave. The farmer had put taps in a stand of maples. It was another lucky find for the squirrel and for the boy.
“Mom sure picked a good place. Didn’t she Friend?” He sucked the last of his egg. “She should be here any day. Yep, I reckon it is right close to my birthday.” In his mind he could still hear her. “You’ll be alright, now. You do as I told you and you’ll be just fine. I ‘spect, I’ll be back before your birthday.”
“She would have taken me if she could. Mr. Brandt is a good man. He’s going to take good care of us. He just needs to warm up to the idea of a family is all.”
A twig snapped behind him. The boy spun around. His heart thumped wildly.
“Well now, who might you be?” The voice towered over him but the man’s face seemed kind.
“My name’s Henry”, the boy answered in not quite a steady voice.
“Henry is a fine name. Now Henry, I ‘spect you’ll be glad to do some work to pay for that breakfast.” His eyes rested on the empty egg shells. Henry’s face colored.
“I might have enough work to take care of your meals for a time and a warm spot in the barn, if you’re interested.”
“I could work. I’m a hard worker. ‘Least till my birthday rolls around.”
“When might that be?”
“My birthday’s in May. I’ll be ten years old.”
“This is July, boy. I ‘spect you already had a birthday this year.”
Henry sucked in his breath hard. Hurt swelled in the pit of his stomach.
“Don’t you worry”, the man said, “I got plenty of work, might even have a little spot in the house. We’ll see. Guess it depends on if you turn out to be a working man or a thief.”
“I ain’t a thief and I can’t leave Friend! He needs me.”
“He’s my squirrel. I take care of him.”
“Well, I ‘spect we could find an empty nest for your squirrel. Matter fact, got quite a few nut trees around the place. One of these days, I might tell you about my friend. He’s a little like you are to that squirrel. Yep, one of these days I ‘spect I’ll tell you all about him.”
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