No one seemed to know from whence he came. No one knew his parents or his name.
I saw him trudge up the road toward the old Berrick farm in mid-July and followed at a distance. The dust clouds that enveloped him disguised his youth but not his poverty. His bib overalls bagged over his skeletal frame.
The sun blazed down upon him. Sweat rivulets streaked his face. He stumbled at the steps of the sagging wooden porch.
Both Ma and Pa Berrick waited for him at the top of the steps. They had watched his approach from the windows facing the road.
“Who’re you?” Pa Berrick demanded.
The boy grunted and gestured toward his mouth, then shook his head.
“Th’ boy’s a mute,” muttered Ma. “Wonder if he’s lookin’ fer a job?”
The boy perked up at that. With animated motions he mimed hoeing a garden.
“Well,” snorted Pa, “Maybe we can use you somehow.”
That was how the boy came to live with Ma and Pa Berrick, and how he became known as ‘Chicken Boy’ to everyone.
The Berrick’s were renowned for their miserly ways. Mr. Schroeder, the feed mill operator, once said, “You don’t want t’get into a parley with Pa Berrick about the cost of chicken feed. If it warn’t for them supplyin’ me fresh eggs and poultry, I’da told him long ago t’go elsewhere!”
The owner of the general store, Mr. Jacobs, said the same about Ma. “She’ll argue over the price of a pinch of salt!”
When the boy first came into town with them, riding in the bed of the wagon, all of the town children clustered around the feed mill door. That was the couple’s usual first stop.
Pa reined up the mule and secured the wagon to a post. He motioned to the boy to begin loading while he went inside to ‘parley’.
“See you’ve got a helper, Hiram,” Mr. Schroeder commented.
The old man grunted, “Yup.”
“What’s his name?”
“Don’t know. Kid’s dumb, cain’t say a word.”
“Hey! Ain’t he a bit spare to be heftin’ them bags o’ corn?” Mr. Schroeder watched as the boy, staggering under the weight, shouldered a burlap sack onto the wagon.
“He better, or he’ll be down th’ road.” Pa Berrick scowled and began negotiating.
The same thing happened at the general store, only this time with Ma ‘parleying’ over price and the boy carrying her merchandise to the wagon.
I saw his face as he climbed up into the back of the wagon to return to the farm. The exertion had left him so white that I could count every freckle. He plopped down across the feed sacks, his thin chest rising and falling rapidly with his breath.
Behind me someone muttered, “How anyone with half a soul can treat another soul like that is more’n I can say.”
The next time I saw him was when Mama decided to get some eggs from Ma Berrick in exchange for two loaves of freshly baked bread and some produce from our garden. I went along out of curiosity.
While the two womenfolk visited, I searched out ‘Chicken Boy’. I opened the door and poked my head inside the chicken house. Sunlight shafted through dusty screened windows onto a mattress and pillow in one corner of the large room. Hens squawked complaints. When he saw me, ‘Chicken Boy’ scurried to hide something under his pillow.
“It’s alright. I won’t tell.” I motioned for him to show me his treasure. With uncertainty and fear in his eyes, he handed me the book he had hidden.
“It’s a Bible! Look here; on the front page it gives yer name.” I squinted at the writing. “James Davis, ‘n’ you were born. . . why, yer only seven! Do you know how to read this book?”
He nodded. A tear trickled down his face. It was then I saw the fresh welt across his cheek
Compassion surged in my teenaged heart. He had sold his body to the Berricks for shelter and food, but they had not taken his soul. He trusted the Lord.
My mother called for me.
“Read Psalm 23,” I whispered, and prayed for the Lord to watch over James. I vowed to help him somehow.
When I told Papa, he and some townspeople went to investigate. James had moved on by then. At least, that was the story the Berricks told. I had doubts, for I saw a fresh mound of dirt behind the chicken house.
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