Alterntate Universe - Strays
Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: Please not this story is set in 1938. Betaed and edited by LT.
The women walked briskly up the narrow gravel driveway, which lead to the front of the out of the way house. She was carrying a rather battered bag in one hand and the holding the hand of a small boy in the other.
"Now dear, you remember what I told you?"
"Yes mother," came the quiet response in an unmistakably southern accent, an accent that matched his mothers.
"I have to go and take care of some business, when I'm done I'll come back for you." She stopped in her tracks on hearing a small sniff beside her. "Why are you crying?" she demanded angrily. There was no reply; the boy lifted the sleeve of his plain corduroy jacket to his nose. "Ezra P Standish, don't you dare!"
With that, he dropped his sleeve and began to fish in his pocket for his handkerchief.
"I am still waiting for an answer young man," she reminded, once he had blown his nose.
"I don't want you to go," he managed to say between the sobs he was trying valiantly to hold back.
"Oh poppycock, you've been away from me many times, do pull your self together boy, except..." She turned and looked up at the house. "... as it happens darling boy, in this case, a few tears may help to set the scene. What are tears for, Ezra?" she asked.
Ezra looked up at his mother, who to him looked quite odd in her plain brown suit and flat sensible shoes, her hair pulled back into a simple pony tail, no make up at all.
"Tears are for suckers," he dutifully recited.
"Exactly, for getting something you want for nothing, don't forget it, and as it happens that is want we want now, so cry Ezra dear, cry away."
Now that she wanted him to, the tears refused to flow. However, as he trudged up the drive beside his mother, the evidence of recent tears was plainly visible on his morose face for any who cared enough to see them.
Neither Ezra or his mother were to know it yet, but the man they were about meet was such a man.
Four Corners House stood on a slight rise, to one side of a pretty, little, wooded valley, some forty miles south of Rochester. It had once been part of a large estate at the head of the valley. The last owner of the estate was a single man with no children, and while he left the land to some distant relatives, he gave the house and some money in trust to be used as an orphanage. The great house had burned to the ground almost thirty years ago, and the estate broken up into individual farms and sold off. Four Corners House was the largest of the farm houses, so named because from its elevated position you could see four counties. While most of the land had been sold off, a few acres remained around the house. There were a few houses and farms in the valley, the closet was at least a mile away, while Eagle Bend, some three miles way, was the nearest town.
Maude arrived at the house, Ezra in tow. It wasn't that big, not when you got up close to it, a rather plain weather board farmhouse, which had clearly been changed and added to over the years. It needed repainting and the garden was no more than scruffy grass and a few die hard shrubs clinging on around the edge of the house.
Maude gave her son's hand a rough shake. "Are you crying?" she asked.
"Yes Mother," he lied.
The two mounted the steps, having first stepped around the various bicycles, balls, baseball bats and other assorted toys, which littered the front path. Pausing only to 'tut tut' Maude moved to the door and rang the bell.
"Yes, hello?" The man who answered was in his forties, his close cropped, rather spiky hair, was just beginning to turn grey, there were deep laugher lines around his blue eyes, which seemed to twinkle behind wire frame glasses.
"I believe you take in boys?" Maude enquired.
"Well we do but..."
Without waiting to hear the 'but' Maude was passed the man and into the rather narrow, plain front hall.
"Wonderful, can I speak to whom ever is in charge?"
"That would be me, Doctor Phillips." He held out his hand.
Maude didn't bother to shake it; she looked the men up and down, slightly surprised at his relative youth.
"Oh, well, this is Ezra." She tugged at his arm. "Say hello, Ezra dear."
"Hello sir," Ezra whispered from beside his mother.
Doctor Phillips squatted down and held his hand out to the smallish boy. "Good to meet you."
With one glance up at his mother, Ezra shook hands with the doctor. Standing up again, Phillips once more turned to Maude, awaiting an explanation.
"I was widowed, very recently," she began. It was the truth, but Henry Ogden had only been her husband for three weeks. "We, poor dear fatherless Ezra - " Ezra was fatherless, but he'd been that since he was two years old. " - and I are quite alone in the world, and there is no more money. I, I ..." She pulled out her own handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. "I have to get a job, and find a place to live, you understand?" She looked up over the delicate lace. "I can't look after my darlin' boy while I do this."
"Ma'am, I do sympathise, but we are full, I just don't have the space," Phillips explained.
"Please, I was told this was the best place, it's only for a few weeks, a month at most."
Maude had no idea if Four Corners House was a good children's home or not; all she knew was, it was small and somewhat remote. She had left Ezra in at least two other homes when no relative or acquaintance could be found to take him in. On the last occasion, there had been some difficulty getting custody of him when she returned. In the end she had been forced to snatch him from the yard. To Maude's way of thinking, a small rural home would be less likely to cause problems or ask questions.
Ben Phillips looked back down to the small boy beside her; he hated to turn any child away. "How old is he?"
"Eight, please Doctor, I have to find a job, but if I can't get to interviews, I'll never find one. He's a good boy, he won't be any trouble." When Maude Standish turned on the pressure, she knew just how to push people's buttons.
Officially, Four Corners House had thirty four beds and was currently home to thirty three boys, so theoretically there was a spare bed. The trouble was that spare beds existed only on paper. There were actually thirty-five beds and they were all taken. Doctor Phillips was funding two boys out of his own pocket - strictly against the regulations - one because he was too young to be there and one who's presence broke the county's rules. The fact that one of the county's beds was being occupied without their knowledge, made it difficult to turn a boy away on the grounds of there being no room.
"Very well, if it is only for a month, I can find room." Maude favoured him with her best sugar sweet smile. "Come this way Mrs...?"
"Mrs Standish - and we'll fill out the paper work."
JD Dunne ran up the long drive, with only the kind of energy a hyperactive five-year-old can muster. It was Monday and it was the last week of school, before the long summer vacation. With the other boys walking up the drive in loose groups, JD was already running up the steps leading to the side entrance.
"H'llo!" he yelled, putting his lunch pail on the bench outside the kitchen.
Mrs Rose, the cook, came to the kitchen door.
"Hello dear," she greeted. Expectation and barely contained excitement lit up little JD's face. "Yes, I made them," she confirmed.
"Yes!" JD bounced on the spot.
Mrs Rose had promised to make chocolate chip cookies as a treat, but only if she had time. Chocolate chip were JD's favourite, and he was already moving forward.
"Oh no you don't, go and wash up, milk and cookies in ten minutes."
"Just one?" JD pleaded, giving her his best puppy dog eyes.
"No, not even one, now go, ten minuets, I made lots, they won't run out, even if Vin and Buck beat you down."
JD didn't wait, he could hear the older boys arriving and turned tail and ran for the stairs.
The other boys weren't far behind JD, dropping off their own pails they too headed for their rooms. Buck, with Vin just behind him, ran up to their attic dorm. When they reached it, what greeted them was the sight of the small boy pulling blankets off his bottom bunk bed and yelling at the top of his lungs.
"I'm not a baby, I'm not a baby, not! Not! Not!"
It took both boys a second or two to realise that the blanket now on the floor, wasn't JD's. Beside the wall was a new addition to the attic room's furniture, a small bed. It might not have any sides but nothing could hide the fact that it had once been a baby's crib. JD had slept in this small bed for some six months when he first arrived, and leaving it for a 'real' bed had been one of his happiest days. That 'real' bed was the bottom bunk under his best friend, Buck. The six year age difference between the two of them didn't seem to bother either boy, and they were inseparable.
"Hey, what's that doing back?" Buck asked, coming up behind JD.
"I'm not a baby!" JD stated again, turning to his surrogate big brother for support.
"I know that, you're a big boy." Buck stepped up and started to help JD.
"What's going on?" asked the fourth resident of the room, as he arrived.
Buck told him what he knew, while JD repeated that he wasn't a baby.
"Well, you better leave it, 'till we know what's going on," the thirteen-year-old advised. "Come on, let's that's find Doctor Ben and ask him."
"No Chris, no, help me," JD pleaded.
"JD, behave," Chris commanded.
For a second, the small boy thought about defying the undisputed leader of room seven, but quickly backed down. Chris wasn't as old as Josiah, but he was the boss, he'd been the boss before Josiah moved into the room, and nothing had changed. As usual, Vin said nothing.
"Come on guys, let's go and find out at least," Chris encouraged both JD and Buck, who would fight anything and anyone to protect JD.
The four of them turned around and trooped out of their room. As they headed down stairs, they met the director coming up.
"Doctor Ben, why's JD been moved?" Chris asked before the doctor had even reached the top of the stairs.
"I'm sorry boys, I was hoping to be back and explain before you came upstairs." He went on to explain about Ezra coming to join them, for a while at least. "I'm sorry JD, he's too big for the little bed, it's only for a while. Will you be kind and help out, by letting him come into your room?" JD shrugged. "I chose room seven, because you boys are always so friendly. I know you're a big boy JD, I know you're not a baby, babies don't go to school - do they?"
Finally JD's customary smile returned. "No, only big boys go to school and you know what?"
"No, what?" the kindly doctor prompted.
"Today Mrs Jarvis, she gived me a star, 'cause I got all my spellings right and she said I can be in the spelling bee, will you come see me?"
The spelling bee was part of the celebrations on the last day of school, and the doctor was going to be there, as he always was.
"She gave you a star, not gived," he corrected. "I wouldn't miss it. Now, why don't you guys come down and meet Ezra?"
JD nodded, then he and the others began to follow the doctor downstairs; all except Buck who ran back into the room and tried his best to make the bed look as nice as he knew Matron had, before he and JD pulled it apart. That done, he sprinted down the stairs two at a time.
Ezra had stood on the front step and watched Maude leave. He'd waved and called after her, but she never turned around or even waved. Doctor Phillips had left the boy alone on the step until his mother was out of sight.
"Ready to come in now?" he asked softly as he came out, and stood beside the little boy.
Ezra looked up, sighed and then nodded. "Yes sir," he admitted in a very small voice.
Phillips knelt down and smiled at his new charge. Ezra was a little on the small side for an eight-year-old, but appeared well looked after.
"You can call me Doctor Ben, everyone here calls me that," he explained.
The first thing Ben did was give Ezra a basic medical. He weighed and measured him, made him read letters from a chart, listened to his heart and took his blood pressure. The only bit Ezra really didn't like was when the doctor made him drop his drawers and cough, but at least it was over very quickly. As well as the doctor, the home's matron sat in on the medical exam. She was a small, elderly woman, wearing a plain skirt and blouse and an apron with flowers on it.
"There Ezra, all over." The doctor gave him a reassuring smile. "Go with Matron now and she'll see about unpacking your bag, while I sort out where you are to sleep."
So while the doctor headed out to find the custodian Mr Petrov, Nettie Wells took Ezra and his bag to the laundry. On the way, Ezra noticed a row of pegs, each one marked with a boy's name. The small nameplates in their brass holders had all been personalised with coloured pencil. There were coats on the hooks and sturdy looking boots lined up neatly under them. The laundry room at the back of the house was divided into two by a wood and glass partition. Through the open door Ezra could see several washing machines, and beyond them, a large covered porch. Out past the porch, washing blew in the late May breeze on half a dozen washing lines. In the front section of the laundry there was a long bench under the window, with a sewing machine at one end. In the middle of the room was an ironing board, one wall was covered with open shelving. All along the shelves were numbers and on each numbered self was a neat pile of clothing.
"Well now, young man, let's see what you have," Nettie smiled down at Ezra, noting how he was looking around and taking in the whole room. "All the boys clothes are stored in here. I'll put out on your bed the clothes what that you'll wear each day," she explained as she began to take clothes out of his bag and lay them on the table. "Well, you have some nice things here dear, plenty of under things, that's good, but were where are your play clothes?"
Ezra was now standing at the side of the table, watching his worldly goods spread out before him.
"And toys, dear? Don't you have any toys?"
Ezra shook his head, Maude said toys were for babies and took up too much space.
Nettie frowned at his negative response. "Oh, oh well, never mine, I expect we'll find you something."
Ezra watched and listened silently as the home's matron went on to explain that all the boys had a number and he would be number nine, this number would be sewn into all his clothes. Then she pulled out a huge wicker chest from under the table and began to rummage through it, eventually coming up with a pair of faded blue overalls and a pale blue shirt, with frayed collar and cuffs.
"You can have these for playing and working in the garden," she announced.
Work in a garden? Ezra's eyes grew wide. He'd never had to work in a garden, Maude said any work were you got dirty was menial labour and they did not do menial labour. Garden's were dirty, Ezra hated to get dirty.
Nettie noticed his reaction before he could mask it. "Have you never done any gardening?" she asked.
He shook his head.
"Well you'll learn, we grow almost all our own vegetables and lots of fruit here, as well as keeping chickens and pigs." She must have seen the look of near panic that flashed across Ezra's face. "Don't worry about the pigs, they live down at the bottom and only the older boys help with them," she assured.
While Ezra watched in silence, the elderly lady busily went about finding him a second set of play/work clothes, towels, face cloth and bedding. By the time she was done, it was lunch time and he joined the doctor and Mrs Rose in the kitchen for soup and sandwiches. After the meal, Ezra was lead upstairs by the doctor to see his new room.
He had been in two childrens' homes before. The first was when his father, his real father, died. He was two years old and had no memory of that time. On the second occasion, he had been just five, and he didn't remember much, just long dorms with bed after bed, all the same, all with grey blankets. He remembered a lot of rules and people shouting all the time and a smell, he didn't know what is was, but he didn't like it. This place was very different. The room he was to sleep in was in the roof. It had sloping ceilings and one big window at the far end. There were four simple beds and a set of bunk beds, which was set against the wall were the roof was highest. The last bed was against the wall directly in front of the door and was much smaller than all the other beds. Matron was busy taking blankets and sheets off the bottom bunk and putting them on this small bed.
"Now Ezra, this is room seven, and you'll be in here," Doctor Ben was saying as he came in behind them. "That will be your bed, there." He pointed to the bottom bunk.
Ezra frowned. "Sir?"
"I do not wish to be an inconvenience, I don't want anyone to loose their bed on my account." It hadn't taken much for him to work out what was going on. In his long experience of being sent to stay in places were he wasn't welcome, it was best not to upset anyone or take their space.
"Well, that is kind of you, but I'm afraid you're too big for that bed. JD can still fit into it, and your Mother will be back in a few weeks, so it's only temporary."
Ezra didn't say anything more, but he knew Maude rarely came back when she said she would, and she never, ever came early. He looked around some more. The blanket being placed on his bed was a bright blue, all the beds had different blankets or quilts, and not one was grey. The walls and slopping ceiling were decorated with numerous pictures, all apparently drawn by the boys in the room. Some were little more than childish scribbles and stick figures, while others were quite accomplished, yet none come close to the artistic standard his mother required. She had never pinned up any artwork of his, or even kept it, mostly she barely glanced at it, so that now he didn't bother to show her any picture he did.
Ezra was still looking at the pictures and hadn't realised that the doctor was still speaking. "And Matron tells me you have no boots? Is that right, Matron?" He looked over at Nettie, who was about to make JD's new bed.
"I'm afraid so, and I don't have a spare pair to fit him," she confirmed.
"Well no matter, we'll go into town and get some." He looked down at Ezra, who was beginning to feel very overwhelmed. "Would you like that, Ezra?"
Ezra gazed up, not sure what to say, so finally he just nodded. When unsure of the correct response, experience had taught him the best thing to do was agree with the most powerful person around, and that - right now - was the doctor.
Ezra sat in the dinning room with his uneaten cookie and still full mug of milk in front of him, as the other boys drank and ate and chatted around him. The room had two long refectory tables side by side with a long bench down each side and a chair at both ends. It was clear that the adults sat at the ends, because none of the boys did. Instead they clambered into their seats over the benches. Several said hello, one or two tried to start a conversation, but by now, after everything that had happened to him Ezra was too tired, too over loaded on new information and experiences to respond. He'd been to town with the doctor, been outfitted with boots, been treated to a small bag of candy - still in his pocket uneaten - and then stood quietly in several stores while his new guardian made some purchases and chatted with friends and acquaintances.
"Hey, you guys move over so we can sit next to him!"
Ezra looked up to see who was issuing orders. It turned out to be a slim, blond boy. He looked to be one of the oldest there and he seemed to be in charge, because most of the others moved away, so allowing the blond boy and his gang to sit sat down opposite and beside him.
One boy didn't move. "Why should I?" he challenged.
"'Cause he's in our room, so move it out of here," the blond boy threatened.
"Make me," the boy challenged.
As Ezra watched, the boy stared at the tall blond for a while longer, before sliding down the bench.
"Hello," the blond boy greeted, now that he was seated. "I'm Chris, and you're in our room."
"Hello," Ezra greeted back tentatively.
"That's Nathan." Ezra hadn't even registered that there was a Negro boy in the room until now and was mentally kicking himself for this failure, his mother would be ashamed of him. Before he could worry about this anymore, Chris was pointing out another boy who looked even more out of place. "That there is Vin, he's a real cowboy, all the way from Oklahoma."
"Texas," Vin corrected.
All Ezra could think was, that the boy needed a haircut.
"You lived in Oklahoma," Chris pointed out.
"I's born in Texas and so was my daddy." Vin's blue eyes blazed with pride as he said it, and it was clear, even to Ezra, that this was an old argument.
"So, Buck was born in a swamp, don't make him an alligator," Chris countered.
Vin responded with some word Ezra didn't understand, to which Chris just winked. "Where is Buck anyway?" he asked looking around.
"D'no," the little dark haired boy opposite Ezra answered. "What about me Chris? Tell him my name."
"Okay, Ezra that there little squirt is JD."
"Hello, my real name's John but everyone calls me JD 'cause that's what it says on my clothes - see?" With that JD pulled on his shirt so that Ezra could see the back of his collar. Whether the letters J D really were marked on it was impossible to determine, because as soon as he pulled it out JD let go of the collar again. "And you're sleeping in my bed and I have t' sleep in the little bed again, but that's okay 'cause I can still fit in it an' Doctor Ben says you're not gonna be here very long. Is that right?"
Suddenly, the other boys were all looking at him. Ezra looked around at the expectant faces. Finally, he nodded. He had the feeling the older boys were about to ask him more questions, but at that moment, another boy arrived, carrying a mug of milk with a cookie held in is teeth. He was a tallish, thin lad, with a shock of unruly dark hair. Putting the mug and the cookie down, he climbed over the bench to sit next to Ezra.
"Hi, you must be Ezra, I'm Buck," he announced, with a wide smile.
"Where have you been?" Chris asked.
Ezra was looking Buck up and down. He'd never met anyone who was born in a swamp before.
"You okay there, Ezra?" Buck asked, suddenly aware he was the object of scrutiny. "Is there something wrong with me?"
"Do you have webbed toes?" came the response.
"What? No, course not, why would I?"
Nathan laughed, and then explained that Chris and Vin had been having the Texas argument - again. "Chris told Ezra you were born in a swamp," he finished.
Buck turned dark blue eyes on his friend. "Oh he did, did he?"
"Is that true?" Ezra wanted to know.
"It was a bayou not a swamp, but yeah it's true and my toes are just like yours."
"A bayou? In Louisiana?" Ezra asked hopefully.
"Yeah. Hey, you talk funny, bit like my Ma used to," Buck suddenly noticed.
"I'm from Lafayette myself." It was the first bit of information Ezra had volunteered.
"Well, good to know ya, Ezra." Buck slapped him on the back. "They're all Yankees, well 'cept fer Vin I guess, but they're okay."
"Vincent!" The room instantly fell silent at the sound of the director's voice; all eyes fell on Vin.
"Yes sir?" Vin looked up at Doctor Phillips, confusion on his face.
"I'm told you were cursing in Comanche again - is it true?"
Ezra cast an eye around the room, quickly picking out the smirk on the face of the boy Chris had the run in with moments before. Clearly he had told on Vin.
"I'm waiting, young man," Doctor Ben prompted.
"Yes sir," Vin finally admitted.
"I will not permit cursing, in any language - are you listening, Buck Wilmington?"
Buck's head shot up. "Me sir? I didn't say nothin'," he protested.
"Anything, you didn't say anything - this time." Phillips turned his attention back to Vin. "Whose turn is it to wash up the mugs?" he asked.
"Me sir," a boy behind Ezra shouted.
"No longer, Vin will be doing it for you. The rest of you hand in your mugs and get your school work out. Ezra, you come here with me. Nathan?"
"Come and show me what you have been doing today."
Nathan smiled and headed out of the room
"Yes, Doctor Ben?"
"Get your reading book."
JD's face lit up with excitement and he scooted off his seat and ran out of the room. Having witnessed the, until now, soft spoken and genial doctor deal so firmly with Vin and exercise such command over all the assembled boys, Ezra had been apprehensive about being summoned to him, but Nathan and JD's evident joy, lessened some of his fear.
While the rest of the boys did their homework, Ezra was given some test papers to fill out. "Don't worry about them, just do your best. They're just to give me an idea of where you're at in school. There's no point in you going to school for just the last week so, along with Nathan, I'll be tutoring the two of you at home."
Ezra nodded his understanding and, taking the pencil he was offered, set about the assigned tasks. While he and the other boys worked, Nathan had shown the doctor all the drawings and notes he had made while studying the pond at the bottom of the orchard. Once Nathan had finished and been dispatched to look something up in the encyclopaedia, JD sat on the doctor's lap and read his book. Ezra finished the papers quickly; they were - for him at least - easy. Not knowing what to do next, he looked about the crowded room, while he watched the boys at work, he naturally concentrated on the few he now knew. At the other end of the table, from where he was sitting, both Chris and Vin were working hard on their homework. Chris seemed to be having no problem but Vin, Ezra could tell, was struggling. Every once in a while, the blond would lean close to the long haired boy and whisper, causing Vin to nod and write something down on his paper. Whenever he looked at Buck, the dark boy was looking at him, and smiling. It gave Ezra a strange feeling inside, he wasn't sure what the feeling was, but he liked it.
All too quickly, homework was over and it was time for chores. Ezra was sent to change into the overalls Matron had given him and the boots he had just acquired. Most of the boys trooped down to the gardens, where they were met by Mr. Petrov. He was a small, compact man in his fifties, with thick greying hair and a salt and pepper beard. He handed out hoes, rakes, forks and trowels to the boys as they filed past him. The garden was divided up into sections; each was about six yards by three and raised up slightly with low wooden retaining walls. All manner of things were growing in the beds, fruits, vegetables, potatoes, and even herbs. As Ezra watched, the boys divided into groups and everyone seemed to know were he was meant to go and what he had to do.
"So, you are new boy?" someone asked, in a thick, unfamiliar accent.
Ezra looked around to find the gardener and custodian looking down at him, dark eyes twinkling.
"Yes Sir," Ezra confirmed.
"Tomorrow we give you work to do - yes? But today you help my little one with his chickens." He pointed across the garden to the orchard, where Ezra could see JD. When Ezra didn't move, the man leaned down and gave his back side a playful tap. "Go, chickens will not hurt you."
JD beamed at him was as he approached. "You helping me tonight?" he asked.
"It would seem so," Ezra replied cautiously.
JD picked up a pail of corn and began walking toward the wire enclosure, which was located close to the gate leading to the orchard. As Ezra followed, the small boy prattled on about collecting eggs in the morning and cleaning out the hen house at the weekend and how to call the chickens. He didn't seem to notice the face Ezra made as they ducked into the coop and the inevitable smell assaulted him.
"See, this is where the chickens sleep and lay their eggs, otherwise the mean ol' fox would get them."
Even as he spoke, JD was shoving his arm under the straw on the perching shelves looking for any eggs that had been laid since the morning. He found four.
"Here, you hold them, I'm not supposed to, case I drop them, 'cause my hands is too small and I trip over lots on account of my shoes."
Ezra cast his eyes down to the boys boots which seemed to be quite normal, the laces firmly done up. JD was still holding out the eggs, and still talking.
"Then, we put the corn in here and we call them in and you count them, I can count real good but Mr P says someone has to help me, usually Buck helps me or sometimes Nafean. Here you are."
Before he could react, the eggs, still warm, were pressed into his hands and JD began pouring corn into the feed troughs in front of the perches. When there was only a little left, he looked up.
"We have t' go outside now," he explained.
The two boys trooped back outside to the orchard.
"You stand here." JD pointed to a spot by the door to the coop. "and count them when they goes past - okay?" Ezra nodded. With that JD wandered into the middle of the orchard and began to call the hens, as he rattled the last remaining corn in the bucket. "Choock, choock, choock!" he called as he rattled the bucket. "Come on Ezra you have to call them. Choock, choock, choock!"
Ezra did not call the chickens, he just stood there, with the four late eggs in his hands, in stunned, if not horrified, silence. As JD rattled his bucket and called, the chickens came to him, running over the lush grass under the trees. The little brunet turned back toward the coop, strolling along with the hens behind him like the Pied Piper. Ezra remembered to count them as they passed him.
"How many?" JD asked.
"That's right, good. Now I have to shut the gate and pull the latch down." JD stood on tip toe to do this. "And you have to check that it's done right." Ezra frowned at the latch; it looked okay to him. "No you have to push it to make sure, Buck pushes read hard." JD looked up at him expectantly.
Ezra managed to balance all four eggs in one hand, then lifted the now free hand and pushed on the edge of the wood and wire mesh door, it held firm.
"Ok, we can go in now." JD turned toward the orchard gate. "You can put the eggs in here if you want." He held out the bucket.
With the eggs safely in the bucket, Ezra decided to ask a question. He knew eggs came from chickens, but he had no idea how.
"JD?" he asked.
JD was skipping some ways ahead of him. "Yeah?" he answered without looking back.
"How do the chickens make eggs?"
JD shrugged. "They just do, they come out of their bottoms."
"What?" Ezra spluttered.
Now JD turned around. "The eggs come out of the chickens bottoms."
"And you touch them?"
"I have to collect them," JD told him, clearly not comprehending what he was being asked.
Ezra froze, he put the bucket down and looked at his own hands in horror, then he just took off toward the house at a run, leaving the bucket and its eggs behind him.
Mrs Rose, the live in cook, come house keeper, come cleaner, had dealt with a lot of small boys in her time, but a boy in near hysteria because he didn't know were to wash his hands, was a new one.
"It's alright dear," she soothed, pulling out a chair. "Climb up here and use the kitchen sink."
As she watched, Ezra scrubbed at his hands, never had she seen a boy so desperate to get clean.
"What's the matter?" she asked softly. "What did you touch?"
"Yes, did you know they come out of the chicken's bottoms and then people touch them before they are washed?" he asked, clearly incredulous that anyone could do this.
"Well," Martha Rose began. "yes I did know that, you'll get used to it."
Ezra shot her a look that clearly said no I won't.
Just then, JD came in. With eggs to carry, he was walking with deliberate slowness. He handed over the eggs and asked how Ezra was. Martha Rose decided the new boy had had enough of the garden and JD's unremitting energy for one day.
"He's fine dear, but I need a bit of a hand here getting supper ready, so you go out and help in the garden and Ezra will stay here with me - okay?"
"'K, see ya Ezra."
Once JD was gone, Ezra found himself at the big kitchen table with a glass of water in front of him.
"You just sit there, while me and the boy's get on with supper," Mrs Rose explained.
Ezra looked around, he hadn't noticed that there were other boys in the kitchen as well. With only four staff and over thirty boys, it was inevitable that everyone had to lend a hand. Chores were divided fairly and rotated, some jobs were reserved for the oldest, some the youngest. Older boys helped in the kitchen every night, different boys washed the dishes. In the morning, everyone had to make their own bed and each room had to be swept before breakfast. One day a week, they had to put everything on to their bed, books, toys, chairs, pictures anything that could be moved, that way it didn't take Mrs Rose or Matron anytime at all to give the room a good dust and polish. Once a fortnight, the laundry came to take away the dirty sheets and towels and return the clean ones. All the other washing was done in the school and the boys had to help. Socks had to be pinned together before they were washed, shirts had to be unbuttoned and the right way out, the same for trousers, pockets emptied. Underwear was washed everyday, other clothes on a rotation. At the weekends, boys helped put the clothes through the mangle and pin them out on the line. Then there were boots and shoes to clean, communal rooms to dust and sweep and, of course, the garden and livestock to see to. Yet, despite their many chores, the boys still had time to play and have fun, especially during the long summer vacation.
Most of this, Doctor Ben and Matron had explained to Ezra during the day, but until now it hadn't meant much to him. However, as he began look around him, it all came into focus. He watched a tall, thin boy with large, blue eyes turn fresh baked biscuits out onto a rack. He turned his head to see another boy with a mischievous smile and spiky hair fill jugs with water and then take them into the dining room. Everyone had a chore to do but him. Suddenly there were tears in Ezra's eyes and he didn't know why, he didn't want anything from anyone, he wasn't sick, he wasn't in pain and he didn't want his mother, yet the tears still fell, rolling silently down his cheeks.
"Hey there," Mrs Rose came and knelt down beside him. "What's wrong?"
He couldn't answer, he couldn't articulate what he was feeling, huge green eyes just turned on her, tears welling up and over flowing, as fast as he wiped them away.
"Is he okay?" the tall boy asked.
"I think it's just all been a bit much," Mrs Rose ventured as she handed Ezra something to wipe the tears away.
"Hey kid?" The boy leaned over the table and smiled at him. "It gets better, honest."
Ezra managed a small smile, still wiping tears away. Mother would be ashamed of him, she had taught him to accept new situations and use them, and here he was crying like a baby. Thinking on how he'd let his mother down, only made him cry harder.
"It's alright dear, you cry if you need to, you have good reason, just sit there until you feel better."
With that, the cook and her two helpers went back to getting the food ready for the rapidly approaching meal. Since it was Friday, it was fish; tuna bake with mashed potato topping, followed by butterscotch pie.
The rest of the evening past passed in a blur. Ezra toyed with his food, picked at it a bit and finally passed it to Vin, who it seemed was permanently hungry. After supper, he was sent with the younger boys to get ready for bed.
"Go and collect your night things," Miss Nettie told him. "Just follow JD and Vin."
The other two boys were already heading upstairs.
"You can go down like that," Vin began to explain as he was pulling his shirt off. "But then you have to bring your pants back up here. Mostly we just go down in our shorts."
As Ezra watched, both boys removed their work pants and folded them up, placing them on one of the chairs in the room.
"There's only six chairs, so you can share with me, 'cause my stuff is small," JD offered.
There was no way Ezra was going to parade though the building without his pants on. So he followed his two new companions back downstairs fully clothed, holding on to his white cotton nightshirt. Ezra had used what his mother called 'the facilities' a couple of times during the day. They were located at the back of the building. To reach it them you had not only to go down stairs, but walk past the front door, past the doors to the dining room and the parlour, not to mention the kitchen. Each time he had past a closed door.
Once past this big door, the one that had been closed before, he found a long line of wash basins on the wall. Above them, a shelf held a row of numbered cups, each with a tooth brush in it. Tubes of tooth paste lay on the shelf at regular intervals. Below the shelf were hooks, also numbered and from each hook hung a face cloth. Each basin had a bar of soap above it in a little metal holder. On the opposite wall were more numbered hooks, each with a towel hanging from it. A door, which stood open, broke the row of towel hooks, and beside the door were three wicker baskets.
"There you are," Nettie greeted, her floral apron of before had been replaced by a white rubber one, and her sleeves had been rolled up.
"Shirts in the first basket, socks in the second - be sure to pin them together, under things in the last one." Now, as a horror struck Ezra watched, JD and Vin began to peel off their remaining clothing.
"Come on," JD encouraged. "It's our turn t' have a bath, you just get a wash on the other nights, unless you get really, really muddy."
Now quite naked, the little boy plucked his towel from his hook and attempted to place his night cloths on the now empty hook, except they kept falling down, after two attempts he abandoned the idea and left it on the floor, all but running into the bathroom.
"JD has a lot of extra baths," Vin explained. He was having more success hanging up his blue and white pajamas, and at least he had wound his towel around his waist. The long haired Texan looked back at Ezra, who hadn't moved.
Ezra just stood in horrified silence! In his world, washing and undressing were something you did in private, behind closed doors. He couldn't remember a time when he hadn't washed himself.
"Come on you two!" Nettie called. "Hurry up!"
Vin just looked at him, his head cocked on one side, then he smiled. "You never washed with other folk before - did ya?"
Ezra shook his head.
"Ain't so bad, you'll get used to it."
Accepting the inevitable, Ezra began to undress, thankful that Vin didn't stay to watch. If he thought undressing in public was bad - worse was to follow. The bathroom was a large room containing four cast iron baths, a shelf and little else. There were no partitions, no curtains, and no privacy. JD was sitting in a steaming bath happily playing with a toy boat, beside him another boy was having his hair washed by Nettie.
"There you are, you two are the last ones, come on, the next group 'll be here soon," she chided.
Vin dropped his towel and climbed into the hot bath next to JD. Ezra managed to slip into the far bath, while still keeping himself covered. By now Nettie had finished with the other boy, who, wrapped in his towel, was heading out. She missed out JD and came to Vin.
"Is it hair washing?" the young Texan asked.
"Vin, if it's bath night, it's hair washing, you ask me that every time." With that, she filled an enamel jug and used it to thoroughly wet Vin's over long hair, then began to work the shampoo in. As Ezra watched, the elderly woman used some of the excess suds to wash his back, then rinsed his hair. In the Mean time, Vin was using a cloth and a bar of soap to wash his hands, arms and legs. Nettie stood back, stretching her back.
"Under your arms," she reminded Vin. With that, she bent back down and took the cloth from him.
Eyes firmly shut, Vin tilted his head up so that she could wash his face, giving his neck a good washing at the same time.
"Ok honey, wash down below and out you get." She looked over at Ezra and smiled.
"Ma'am?" he began.
"I can wash myself, and my mother washed my hair this morning," he lied smoothly.
Nettie pondered this for a moment. "Very well, you do that, when I'm done with Vin and JD, I'll come check on you."
As he fastidiously washed himself, Ezra watched Vin; he stood by the bath and let the old lady dry his hair, seemingly uncaring about his naked state. As Vin headed out to get into his pajamas, Nettie washed JD and persuaded him to leave the bath; it seemed the small boy was particularly fond of baths. He finally stood up and was wrapped in a towel.
"Flying papoose!" he cried as Nettie lifted him out and swung him around, before setting him down.
For some reason, this simple interaction between adult and child made Ezra smile. He managed to wash and dry himself before Nettie reached him. Once dressed in their night clothes, the younger boys trooped into the parlour. There they made themselves comfortable while Dr Ben read them a story. Ezra thought this was probably the best thing that had happened to him all day. The kindly doctor took the time to quickly explain the story so far, before he continued the tale of 'The Sword in the Stone'. All the time the younger boys were having their story, the older ones were bathing and changing. When they came into the parlour, it was time for the youngest to go to bed.
"They get to listen the radio," JD informed Ezra sadly.
"We only get to listen on weekends, and sometimes in the vacation, if it rains," Vin explained further.
After returning to the bath room area to brush their teeth and visit the lavatories, they headed up to bed. The doctor came to each room and saw each boy to his bed, made sure he'd brushed his teeth and reminded them to say their prayers. Vin and JD happily promised they would, Ezra remained silent.
"Don't you say good night prayers, Ezra?" he asked.
"No sir," came the honest reply.
"That's alright, God knows what's in your heart anyway. Good night boys."
"Night Doc," Vin called.
"Night, night," JD added.
"Good night sir," Ezra joined in from his new bed.
With that, the doctor withdrew from the room. He left the door slightly ajar, a small tongue of light striking out across the polished wooden floor. For a long time no one said anything. Ezra looked at the light spilling out across the floor and across the corner of his bed. He was used to sleeping in the dark, his mother never left the door open, but then again, he was used to sleeping alone too. As he listened, he found he could hear someone talking, very, very softly - JD was still saying his prayers. Ezra forced himself to listen. The little boy seemed to be listing everyone he knew and asking God to look after them. When he started on the chickens, Ezra was about to give up and say something. Then, he heard something that made him stop.
"And please God can you make it alright for Ezra to stay here, 'cause he's nice, he talks funny and he's my friend."
Ezra hadn't thought of himself as JD's friend. He'd collected eggs with him; did that make you someone your friend? He wasn't sure how he felt about that, he's never had a friend before. JD had said Amen. If Vin was praying, he was doing it silently. Ezra wondered if he prayed to the same God as JD. If Vin was an Indian, would he be safe? If Vin didn't like him, would he scalp him? No, that was a foolish notion, Vin was just a boy, like him, and he had light hair and blue eyes, maybe he was only part Indian, that would be okay. Still no one spoke, and after a while, Ezra decided the other two had gone to sleep. The light was bothering him, so he slid out of bed and crossed to the door.
"Where ya goin?" Vin asked.
"I am not going anywhere, I am merely going to shut the door, the doctor left open."
"No, we have to leave the door open," Vin informed him.
"Some people don't like the dark," Vin informed him.
Ezra turned around to face him, why would anyone be afraid of the dark? "There is nothing in the dark that is not there in light."
"I know that."
"So why are you afraid of it?"
"Didn't say I was, some folk are is all."
"He's asleep, he always goes t' sleep straight away, he'll wake up when the others come up." Ezra had almost forgotten that the older boys would be coming up to join them at some point. "You better get back t' bed, Doc gets mad if we're out of bed after lights out and Chris don't like it if we get in trouble."
Though Ezra was still learning to read people, his mother's tutelage had been diligent thus far, so he was fairly sure that that it was Chris' disapproval and not Doctor Ben's that should worry him.
"Why is that?" he asked as he crossed back to his own bed.
"Chris 'll explain when he gets here," Vin stated. "Won't be long now."
As Ezra waited for the arrival of the other boys, he began to wonder about the seventh bed in the room, so far he had met five other boys.
Josiah didn't attended the local school, he was going to the high school in the next town, that meant setting out half an hour before the other boys so he could catch the bus to school, and not getting home until much later. Friday night was practice night for his baseball team. Four Corners was set up to care for boys aged six to fifteen. The State didn't fund children in its care once they turned fifteen; after that they were placed in apprenticeships, or found jobs. Ben Phillips thought it a crime that bright intelligent children had their education cut short, simply because no one would support them. Josiah Sanchez was a very bright and able boy. He deserved an education, so he Ben planned to let him stay on, and - like JD and Nathan - fund him himself. Two was expensive enough, three would be a real strain, but it would only be for the few months, between Josiah turning fifteen in the fall and JD turning six in the spring. Once JD was six, he could officially be a resident of Four Corners and the county would fund him, not that county funding covered much more than the basics. If Four Corners didn't grow most of its own food, and even some to sell, the boys' lives would be very drab indeed.
Chris mounted the stairs to the attic with Josiah, Buck and Nathan behind him. In his five years there so far, no one had ever wanted to adopt him, and over the years he had formed very definite ideas about life in an orphanage. Ezra was about to be indoctrinated into the Larabee philosophy of surviving as an orphan.
Making no attempt to be quiet, the four older boys came to bed. Buck crossed over to the little bed against the wall and gently shook the little form. It took some time for JD to wake up, but when he did, Buck didn't return to his top bunk . Instead, he remained beside his little friend, sitting on the bed, which visibly sagged under his weight.
"Ezra," Chris began.
"Yes," Ezra responded hesitantly, not sure what was coming.
"You're in room seven, and we have rules, our own rules."
"Chris," Josiah prompted softly.
"Oh yeah, Ezra, I don't think you met Josiah, he's the one over in the corner."
In the gloom, all Ezra could see was a large shadowy figure with a deep voice.
"So Ezra," Chris began again. "First rule is, we don't keep secrets. So we're gonna tell you about us and you're gonna tell us about you."
"See Ezra," Josiah continued. "We only have each other, so we have to be our own family."
"And family don't have secrets," Buck finished. "Right squirt?"
"Right," JD confirmed.
In turn, each boy told Ezra what had happened to their family and how they came to be at Four Corners. Chris went first. He quietly and simply told how his father had been a deputy sheriff, in a small town to the north, close to the Canadian boarder. When he was six, his father and mother were killed in a house fire.
"Pa got me out and then he went back for my mom. That's when the roof fell down, they were both killed. The town's folk took up a collection, that's what they told me. It paid for the headstones, got me some new clothes. Pa didn't have no family and Mom's father... well he didn't want me, so then they sent me to an orphanage. Later, I got sent here.
Josiah went next, his father had been a missionary, until his wife, Josiah's mother, died of cholera in India, after which he moved the family back to America. Not long after they returned, Josiah's older sister became ill, he admitted he wasn't sure what was wrong with her, only that his father couldn't take care of her and now she was in a home.
"Hannah had been looking after us, doing the cooking and such, when she left, my Father couldn't take care of me on his own. He brought me here. They told me he died last year, the Doc didn't say it, but I know he drank himself to death."
"Can I tell my story now Chris?" JD asked, even as he yawned.
"Go on then kid," Chris told him.
"My mama was real sick, but she tooked care of me anyway, but then she was too sick to look after me, even though I was as good as gold, so she brought me here to Doctor Ben then she went to the hossipal," he explained, then he sighed sadly. "Mamma's with the angles now."
He didn't mention his father or what was wrong with his mother and no one added any information, Ezra guessed, that, as young as he was, he probably didn't know.
Buck was still sitting on the little bed beside his friend, even in the limited light, Ezra could see him hugging the little boy, he even kissed the top of his head.
When all the others were finished, it was Ezra's turn. Chris' doctrine of honesty was all very well, but Ezra wasn't about to explain how Maude made her money, or how he helped her. Yet, he had to tell them something. The question was, how much? His mother always counselled against revealing too much about yourself. 'What people know about you can hurt you' she would warn him. But then he remembered what Maude had told the doctor only that morning. It seemed so long ago, yet it had only been that day. There was no point hiding what was common knowledge.
"My father died when I was very little, I don't know how. Mother had to get a job. Then she married Mr Ogden, but he died recently," he explained.
"Gosh, I'm sorry Ez," Buck piped up from the corner.
"Please, don't concern yourself, they were only married for a few weeks and I didn't care for him much. Mother is seeking new employment, I will be joining her very soon, once she has funds and a place to live."
"Well I hope she comes soon, for your sake, but while you're with us, you need to follow our rules. We have to stick together, protect each other, watch each other's backs. We don't break the rules, and we don't get people mad at us. Even if you're not here long, for now you're one of us," Chris stated firmly. "If you have a problem with anyone here, we deal with it ourselves, okay?"
"Yes sir," Ezra agreed.
"My name's Chris, you don't call me sir. I'm just a boy - like you."
"Yes Chris," Ezra agreed, not that he thought Chris was a boy like him at all.
After that, the room settled down. While they had been talking, JD had fallen asleep again and now, Ezra watched as Buck carefully tucked him in, before coming back to the bunk bed.
"Night Ezra," he whispered.
After that no one spoke and the room was soon filled with the sounds of deep even breathing, soft snores and rustling bed clothes. Ezra wasn't used to sleeping with others, he had, on occasion, shared a room with his mother, but when he did, he was already asleep long before she came to bed. He lay there and listened. After some time, he heard someone come up the stairs, the door was pushed open a little, then a dark figure looked in. Ezra pretended to be asleep, but he could see it was the doctor. He couldn't understand it, but just knowing that someone was looking in and checking on them - on him; made him feel good. Young Ezra had been left with strangers many times in is short life, but never had he felt so safe on his first night in a new home, as he did now.
Little did he or any of the others know but hundreds of miles away, decisions were being made that would dramatically change all their lives.
Orin Travis walked on to the back porch of his large county house. It was already dark, and since the summer was still, young there was now a distinct chill in the air. His wife Evie was already outside, gazing at the stars. She was rubbing her arms so Orin took off his jacket and draped it over her shoulders.
"You're going to quit, aren't you?" she said without looking around.
Orin had been a judge for only four years, but he hated the business of being elected, he hated the politics, and he hated not being the one arguing the case. He'd been approached more than once to stand as a judge, but had always turned it down, he wanted to wait until his son, his only child, Steven, joined the family law firm. Travis, Lewis and Gordon had been around for over seventy years, founded by Orin's grandfather. There had always been a Travis in the firm, but now Orin would be the last. When Steven won his place at law school, Orin had finally agreed to let his name be put forward for the position of judge. Steven had been an outstanding student, winning a place at Harvard Law School a year ahead of his peers, but he was also an idealist and passionate about social justice. In 1937, Steven left home to fight in the International Brigade against Franco's fascists. He was killed less than two weeks after he arrived in Spain. A year on from this tragedy, his grieving parents were ready to move on with their lives.
"I've been thinking too," Evie stated softly.
Orin wasn't surprised, even before Steven died, his wife had thrown herself into various charities, almost all of them do with children. However, what came next did surprise him.
"I want some more," she continued.
Eve had almost died when Steven was born, and could no longer have children; added to that, they were both in their late forties.
"I don't mean babies, I mean children." She turned to face her husband. "We were good parents, we raised a fine, honest, brave and principled young man, and ... we enjoyed it."
"Oh now, come on," Orin cut in.
"Now you know you did most of the time, remember how much fun you two used to have, riding, fishing, playing chess, I know you miss that. We have a huge house, we have more money than we need, we have land. There are hundreds of children looking for homes, older children, the one's no one ever wants to adopt, we could give at least three of them a home."
"Three!" Orin spluttered.
"We put two in the second guest room and one in the box room. We don't have to use Steven's room," she assured softly.
Orin looked at his wife intently. "You've got it all worked out already, haven't you?"
"I've done a lot of thinking, yes."
"And you didn't feel you could share any of this with me?"
"I just did."
"Evie don't, I know you, you've got your heart set on it now."
"We could make a real difference in the lives of some boys."
"Boys are all I know about," she explained apologetically.
Orin turned away, looking out across the now moonlit lawns toward the barn. "Think I'll go check on the horses," he announced.
Evie didn't say anything, she knew that meant he was going to have a think, he always worked out problems by 'discussing' them with the horses. When Evie was a girl, there had been lots of horses. This house, their house, had once been her family home. She had been born Evelyn Lonsdale, her father Fredrick, had been a famous horse breeder. He didn't breed racehorses, the Lonsdale stud was famous for what were called 'sporting horses' - hunters, jumpers and even fine carriage horses. When Evie was just twenty one, her father went to England to check out some new blood stock; he never returned home, having chosen to travel back on the White Star line's newest ship, the Titanic.
Just five years later her younger brother, the apple of her mother's eye, was killed fighting in France. Only now, now that she had lost her own son to war, did Evie understand her mother's grief. Only now did she understand why her mother had shut herself away from the world and lost interest in life, dying of influenza just two years later. By then, Evie was married and expecting her first child. She had tried to keep the stud going, but with Orin working long hours building a reputation as a successful lawyer and a baby on the way, it was just too much for her. All but a few of the horses were sold and most of the paddocks leased out. Evie and Orin moved out of their lovely, but rather small, rented house and into the big house at the stud.
These days there were three horses, Orin's big gelding, her mare and Steven's horse. They couldn't bring themselves to sell him. The horse was so much a one man horse, the chances were no one else could ride him safely and he would end up being destroyed, but that was something neither of them could face, so he remained, being exercised on a walker or a lead rain.
Orin finally returned from the barn at about one A.M. Evie was still awake and waiting for him.
"What about Gloria?" he asked.
Gloria Potter was their housekeeper, she came in five days a week, though in truth there really wasn't enough work to justify her hours. However, she was a widow who needed the money, her own children had grown up with Steven and had been good friends and playmates to him.
"We've talked about it, and she's all in favour."
"You talked to the housekeeper, but not your husband?" Evie gave him her innocent look. "Alright, we'll look into it."
"Oh thank you darling!" She threw her arms around him.
"I'm not promising anything you understand, it will depend on a lot of things."
"Yes dear." But she knew he would agree, she had always known he would. Under his gruff exterior, Orin Travis was a big softly and he loved children. "Now I don't want to go to any of the homes I'm connected with, it would look like favouritism, so I want us to go to this place near Rochester, it's..." Evie gushed.
"Wow, hold up there dear, Rochester? That's more than two hundred miles from here, it's not even in the same state!"
"I know, but this place takes in boys who often can't get a place anywhere else, the difficult ones, those are the ones who need us the most."
Orin shook his head and pulled his wife back into his arms. Once she got an idea set in her mind, there was no wavering; she was single minded in pursuit of her goal. The idea may have come out of left field, but once he had thought about it, he really warmed to the idea. The house had been horribly quiet and empty ever since Steven went away to collage. He'd been worried that he and Evie were drifting into the safe, easy, predictable life they had always professed to hate.
They lived just outside the bustling town of Millers Junction in New Jersey and it was here that Orin sat as a judge, in the county courtroom. The law firm was in Trenton, a twenty minute train journey away. And while he didn't look forward to once more commuting into the city everyday, he was looking forward to returning to practising law and, yes, he had to admit, he was looking forward to having children in the house again.
The tests Dr Phillips had given Ezra showed the doctor that the boy was exceptionally fluent in reading, spelling and vocabulary. He had excellent handwriting and was proficient in math. That morning he had taken some time to chat to the young southerner, testing his general knowledge, which turned out to be sketchy at best. American geography he was good at, with a fair understanding of the location of the major cities and many states on a map. World geography was a different matter; he had only the sketchiest idea of the world beyond America. For an eight-year-old, he had a good knowledge of current affairs, but outside the basics of the Civil War from the southern point of view; he had little knowledge of history. As to the natural world, Ezra knew almost nothing.
"Son, were have you been going to school?" Ben asked.
"Mother and I often had to move to a new town, where Mother could find work, so it was hard to attend school. Mother has been tutoring me," he explained.
It was partly true, but even when they were settled, Maude hadn't let him go to school.
She would say. 'Darlin' boy, those places will fill that wonderfully agile brain of yours with useless information, I will teach you what you need to know.'
"Well, this week I am going to tutor you. Nathan is doing a project on the local wildlife, you can join him."
Unfortunately for Ezra, this project involved visiting a different part of the grounds each day and trying catch, count and identify the wildlife that lived there. Since most of this wildlife was of the small and creepy variety, Ezra was less than enthusiastic. Eventually, the boys came to an understanding, Nathan hunted bugs, Ezra wrote down what he found. Wednesday afternoon was hot, and the bugs were hiding, so the two boys sat back under a tree.
"Nathan, why don't you go to school with the others?" Ezra asked.
Nathan turned to look at his young companion, not quite sure the question had been asked seriously or if Ezra genuinely didn't understand.
"Because it's a white school, they wouldn't let me attend."
Ezra frowned, but didn't respond. He had never been to school, but when he had stayed at his uncle's house in Alabama, he had played with the children of the staff. No one said anything or tried to stop them. The staff were, in fact, the only people who ever seemed to notice him, certainly they were the only one's who took care of him.
"That doesn't seem fair," he finally stated.
Nathan shrugged. "Guess not, they're s'pposed to take me, law says so, but the school board said it would cause too many problems. Doctor Ben kicked up a fuss, so they said they'd pay my bus fair, to go to Rochester, where there's a school for coloured kids, but the Doc said it was too far, so that's why he teaches me here. I still get the bus money; the Doc uses it to buy my school books and stuff. You really never been t' school, not ever?"
Ezra shook his head.
"Guess we're two of a kind, 'till September anyway, then you'll go to the school with the others."
"I won't be here in September, Mother will return for me before then," Ezra stated, with a confidence he didn't feel.
Nathan didn't respond either, he'd heard that before, boys were always coming to Four Corners 'just for a little while', their mother, father, big brother, sister, or grandparents were always coming to get them 'soon', but of course they never did.
As well as helping Nathan with his project in the afternoons, Phillips set Ezra a project of his own. Each morning, he gave him a topic and asked him to study it in the encyclopaedia and - over lunch - he had to report what he had learned. Ezra loved this, he was used to working alone, and he was - to his surprise - fascinated by the topics the doctor chose for him. In the evenings he had to help in the garden. After the incident with the chickens, Mr Petrov decided not to wait until the next week, and had already given Ezra a small plot and helped him to plant lettuce, as well as teaching him how to tend the peas and spring onions already growing in it. No one made him help JD with the chickens again, that was left to Buck. Ezra still wasn't keen on gardening, for - despite his best efforts - doing gardening without getting dirty didn't seem to be possible.
On Friday afternoon, Nathan, Ezra, Nettie and the doctor drove into town to attend the end of year celebrations at the school. There had been a buzz of excitement that morning at breakfast that had infected everyone, even the weather seemed to already be in the holiday mood, as the day promised to be bright and sunny with just enough breeze to make it pleasurably warm.
The school proved to be a rather squat looking building, no taller than it was wide. The sides were covered in white clapboard, under a pitched roof, a single brick chimney rose from its centre. On top of the gable, over the front door, was a small cupola with the school bell clearly visible inside. A small row of windows at ground level indicated there must be a basement. But what struck Ezra first, were the windows. There were huge, long windows either side of the front door. Inside he discovered these windows illuminated two of the four classrooms, each one occupying a corner of the building and each lit by two banks of long, large windows. There were neat rows of desks in each room facing the ingenious sliding blackboards.
As he followed the doctor around the building, Ezra began to wonder what his mother had objected to. He thought the school looked interesting, it was clean and bright, not at all how he imagined it would be. He did note that some people looked disparagingly at Nathan, some even made quiet comments to their companion, yet despite this, Ezra found himself wishing he could attend school, just like the other boys.
JD didn't win the spelling bee, but he did very well, especially considering he was a year younger than the next youngest and three years younger than the eventual winner.
After the spelling bee there was a gym display by the girls and two baseball games, one for the older boys and one for the younger. Ezra noted that Buck swung his bat with great gusto, he wasn't very accurate, but when he did hit it, the ball it went a very long way. Chris seemed better at pitching, concentrating with such intensity that Ezra thought he must surely give himself a headache. Vin didn't pitch, he hit the ball tolerably well, but his real forte seemed to be catching. He stood deep in left field and never seemed to drop any lofted ball that came his way. The two teams for the game had been chosen randomly by pulling names from a hat, which is how Buck came to be in the opposite team to Chris. Too small even to play with the youngest boys, JD confined himself to very verbal support, shouting and jumping up and down, he didn't support any particular team, just his friends, though it was clear to Ezra that his most vocal the and enthusiastic support was reserved for Buck. Nathan, Nettie and the Doctor also supported the other Four Corners boys who were playing. Ezra, not wanting to seem out of place, just followed their lead. He understood the basics of the game but none of the detail, so he wasn't always sure what it was he was applauding. Nevertheless, he found himself enjoying the spectacle, just watching little JD's animated antics was entertainment enough, even if there had been no game to watch.
After the baseball, everyone settled down to listen to the principal make a speech about the past school year and congratulate the boys and girls who were graduating. Then the principal awarded prizes and merit badges. JD won awards for spelling, math and reading. Buck was given a merit badge for helpfulness and kindness. Many other children, including Vin and Chris, won badges for perfect attendance. As other children were rewarded, Ezra lost interest and found himself listening in on the conversations of the adults around him.
"I am constantly reminded just how lucky we are to have such a good school for the boys." He over heard Phillips say. "If only we could send young Nathan here as well."
"You know my views on the subject Doctor, and that is an end to the matter." Ezra looked up to see who it was Phillips was talking to. He was somewhat surprised to find it was a minister of some kind.
"The world is changing, mark my words, and it's a change that can't come too soon."
"Not while I am on the school board, not while I have breath in my body."
Just then applause broke out as the principle said good-bye and wished everyone a good summer. With that, anything the doctor was going to say was forgotten. Nettie made sure Nathan and Ezra didn't get lost in the crush as the children streamed out.
Like most of the children, the Four Corners boys had to walk home. It was a good three miles back to the house. Not that far really, the doctor made sure they all had boots and kept them in good repair. They were also supplied with oilcloth coats to keep the rain out, as well as hats, gloves and scarves in the winter.
"Doctor Ben?" Nathan asked. "Can I walk back with the others?"
"Sure you can, run along." Ben looked down at Ezra. "What about you?"
No lover of unnecessary physical effort, Ezra hesitated, until Buck bounded up beside him.
"You coming with us?" he asked. Not waiting for a reply, he just clapped Ezra on the shoulder. "Great, we've got a great short cut, I'll show you!"
Ben hadn't been aware there were any short cuts on the way back from school and was about to ask where it was when Buck turned his big blue eyes on him.
"Doc, can you take JD's stuff home in the car, his satchel's real heavy today." Buck held up the satchel.
"I don't see why not." He took the leather satchel from Buck. "Why are you carrying it anyway?" he asked.
"'Cause I always do, well almost always, if it's heavy or he's real tired. Come on Ezra, we better hurry or Chris an' the others 'll be too far ahead."
Before he knew it, a bewildered Ezra had been all but dragged away from the doctor and the car. As Ben watched, he could pick out Nathan, who had now found Vin, the two of them walking and laughing together. In the lead - as ever - was Chris, with JD on his shoulders. The young doctor was suddenly struck by a pang of guilt. How often did Buck carry two satchels home? How often did Chris carry the little five-year-old some or all of the way home? Phillip's had pressed the school board hard to have them admit JD a year early. He recognised quickly on that the boy was very bright and needed more stimulation and more distractions than he could offer at home. Tutoring Nathan was one thing, he could be set an assignment and left to work on it for a few hours or even a whole afternoon, but JD needed constant attention. Now he wondered if he had done the right thing. Was it all too much for such a small boy? JD wouldn't be six until the spring of next year. How would he cope with the winter weather on the long walk home?
I'll just have to drive him when the weather's bad, God knows where the gas money will come from.
Just then another thought struck him. If he could carry JD's satchel, he could carry all of them. With the car full of leather satchels, he and Nettie made another stop in town before starting out for home. They had expected to pass the boys on the road, but didn't. None the less, just twenty minutes after they reached the house, the boys began to arrive. No doubt the short cut had something to do with this, but Ben decided not to investigate too much. Besides, when he told the children he had ice cream for all of them, pandemonium broke out and all thoughts of short cuts were forgotten, as boys dashed to wash their hands and then pile into the dining room to sit at the table and await their treat.