<%@ Language=VBScript %> Keepgoing.org - Winter 2001 - Last Leg
The Farm

Last Leg

By Matt McCarthy

The Barn Scott was tired of waiting and he was beginning to get hungry. It was after lunchtime and he hadn’t had a bite since the Rice Krispies earlier that morning. His stomach was gurgling. He didn’t even understand what they were waiting around for anyway. Michael said they couldn’t go until he talked to Tommy. Stupid Tommy.

“Michael?” Scott turned to his brother. Both boys were lying on their backs in the summer grass.

“Yeah?”

“Why do we have to wait for Tommy?”

“Because I promised I’d meet him here,” Michael told him.

“Why?”

“Because he asked me to.”

“But why’d he ask you, Michael?” asked Scott, growing even more impatient.

Michael started to say something then stopped suddenly and looked his younger brother right in the eye. “What does Mom say to you every morning before she leaves?” he demanded sternly.

“That she’ll be home at six and that she loves us.”

“Not that,” Michael told his brother. “The other thing.”

Scott looked like he might cry for just a moment, then he turned away from his brother and answered in a small voice, “That you’re in charge.”

“That’s right!” said Michael triumphantly. “And what else?”

“That I should listen to you and do what you say.”

“Exactly,” said Michael. “I’m in charge and you do what I say, and right now I say we wait here for Tommy.”
Michael looked away from his little brother and back up at the summer sky. He was getting a little anxious himself for Tommy to arrive, truth be told, which was probably why he was a little sterner than usual with Scott. He tried to be patient with his brother, usually. Those were Mom’s words to him in the mornings before she’d leave for work: She’d tell him to make sure to be patient with Scotty, then she’d lean down, kiss him on the cheek or the top of the head, and add, “And don’t let him out of your sight – not even for a minute.”

“Michael?” asked Scott timidly, lying on his back looking straight up at the sky.

“Yeah?”

“Do you think Tommy will get here soon?”

“I bet he’ll be here any minute now,” said Michael in a tone of voice that made Scott feel a little better. “You know how Tommy is.”

Tommy Newman was a skinny, scrawny, blond-headed kid with glasses who lived in the neighborhood. He and Michael were in the same grade at school, and when Michael and Scott had first moved to town with their mom and didn’t know anyone, it was Tommy who befriended them and showed them around. Now that it was summer Michael and Tommy were spending most of their time hanging out together with Scott in tow.

So the brothers waited, lying in the grass and looking up at the sky, and just when Scott thought he would finally explode if he had to wait another minute, Tommy arrived. He was flushed and half out of breath and talking a hundred miles a minute.

“My bike …” he gasped. “Paul … he’s got my bike … Paul Mills … I know it.” Tommy shook his head, trying to calm down and catch his breath. “I’ve gotta get it back … I’ve got to … my dad … he’ll kill me.” “What do you mean?” asked Michael. “Are you sure?”

Tommy took a few deep breaths, adjusted his glasses, and continued. “My bike’s missing. I woke up this morning and it was gone. I was supposed to lock it up before I went in last night, but I forgot.” He shook his head, looking terrified. “My dad’s gonna kill me.” “And you’re sure Paul has it?” Michael asked.

“What do you think?”

Michael was silent for a moment. Yeah, he thought, pretty much anytime anything came up missing in their neighborhood, if it wasn’t lost or mislaid, it was by the courtesy of the thieving little hands of Paul Mills. “I’m hungry, Michael,” came a whine.

“In a minute, Scott,” Michael assured his brother.

“I have to get it back,” Tommy said, still panic-stricken. “My dad …” He could barely get the words out. “I have to get it back.” Not that Tommy’s bike was anything fancy – it was this really old, beat-up, lime green Schwinn with broken reflectors and no back brakes – but Michael didn’t doubt the repercussions from Tommy’s dad would be severe if he found out it was missing. One time Tommy’s glasses got broken at school: He took a basketball in the face (accidentally) from Joel Hershberger that bloodied his nose and knocked his glasses off, which Tommy then managed to step on in the ensuing confusion. When his dad found out Tommy broke his glasses, he hit him so hard he broke a bone in his cheek and gave him a wicked black-and-blue eye. Tommy told everyone it was from getting hit by the basketball, but Michael knew the truth. He’d often seen the cuts and bruises on Tommy’s back and legs that were the result of a special stick his father used for discipline.

“So what do you want to do?” Michael asked, afraid he already knew the answer. There was a pause that lasted more than a moment, then Tommy spoke. “I’ve gotta get my bike back, Michael. And I don’t think Small Paul’s gonna just hand it over. I’m gonna have a look around the Mills’ property and see if he’s stashed it somewhere.” Everyone called Paul Mills “Small Paul,” but only behind his back. He was only about 4'8"or 4'9" at 14 years old, and he had the thick, stumpy features of someone afflicted with dwarfism. He bullied the younger kids and had a reputation for thievery and extortion. He was shorter than most of the other boys, but older and stronger than most too – low to the ground, powerful, mean.

“Michaellllllll,” groaned Scott. “I wanna go home and eeeeeat.” He was nearly at the end of his rope. The older boys ignored him for the moment and continued. “So you just wanna start poking around over at the Mills’ place?” Michael knew this wasn’t a good idea. The Mills were a strange bunch, and anyone who had any sense at all wanted nothing to do with them. Mr. Mills slept all day because he worked nights at the terra-cotta tile factory, and the boys never saw him except when he occasionally drove the family’s beat-up old blue Chevy or when he stuck his head out the bedroom window to holler at the kids to keep it down. Mrs. Mills worked the day shift at the factory, where she had formerly been employed as a cutter until she lost part of a hand in the machine. Now she worked as a custodian at the same factory, and every time Michael or any of the other boys saw her she was smoking a cigarette that she would transport to and from her lips in the mangled hand, the cigarette resting between her pinky and the part of her ring finger that was left intact.

The Mills’ oldest son, Alan, had spent the last two years in the county jail, serving five years for auto theft. Their daughter, Tammy, got pregnant and ran away with her boyfriend; she was 17 and he was 30. Steve had dropped out of high school and was seldom seen around the neighborhood anymore. There had been a scandal a year or so ago, something about inappropriate behavior with some of the young (grammar-school young) girls who lived in the neighborhood. Then there was Paul, the mean little stocky monster who inherited his turf from his older siblings. Even the Mills’ dog was creepy and maladjusted, a lean little knee-high mutt they called Charlie. Like Mrs. Mills, Charlie had suffered an accident that had separated him from a part of an appendage: He was missing most of his left hind leg, the result of frostbite turned gangrenous after a couple of particularly harsh winter nights he spent outside as a puppy. Charlie’s handicap, however, did not slow him down; he got around at least as fast as most other dogs with four whole legs, but with a strange gait that made it look like he was hopping. He would hop around after any neighbor kid unfortunate enough to cross the little fiend’s path, terrorizing them with his high-pitched yapping and biting at their legs.

Tommy looked down at the ground, fidgeted with his glasses for a second, and then said, slowly, “Michael, you gotta help me.” He sounded desperate. “If you’ll look out for trouble, I can check that shed behind the Mills’ place. You know that’s where he’s got it stashed if he took it.” “BUT I WANNA EEEEEEAT!” shouted Scott, who had finally had enough. He turned to his brother, nearly hysterical now. “MICHAEL! IT’S TIME FOR LUNCH, MICHAEL – I’M STARVING!” He balled his fists and stomped his feet and stuck out his lower lip defiantly. “I have to make lunch for Scott,” Michael said.

“Fine,” Tommy chirped, gaining a little confidence. “The Mills’ place is on the way back to your house. We can just stop by there for a minute and check it out.”

###


The Mills family had owned their land for generations, a nice big spot with plenty of trees that made for good shade in the summer. The original Mills to inhabit the property were among the state’s first settlers, and one ancestor had supposedly even been governor a few years prior to the Civil War. But all the old money was long since gone. The house was in a sorry state of disrepair and badly in need of a coat of paint; the grass, long and shaggy, hadn’t been cut all summer; the yard was littered with generations of unrecognizable junk, piles of old bricks and lumber, parts of old cars; and Charlie, the little three-legged terror, left surprises in the tall grass that were rarely detected until it was too late.

Tommy and Michael surveyed the scene while Scott tried to ignore the rumbling in his stomach. Everything seemed quiet. “We gotta get around back and get a peek in that shed,” said Tommy.

Michael had reservations. “We can’t bring Scott back there,” he said, worried. “No way.”

Tommy thought for a moment, then had an idea. “Leave him by the mulberry tree,” he said. There was a nice, big mulberry tree on the edge of the Mills’ property line, its branches bent low with plenty of ripe berries. Michael began to protest, but Tommy added, “We’ll only be a minute.” Then, to Scott, “Do you want to eat some mulberries, or what?”

“MULBERRIES!” Scott nodded his head enthusiastically.

Michael looked over at the tree in question and debated inwardly for a moment. “Not too many berries, Scotty, and no climbing,” he said finally, relenting. “Stay on the ground.” Then Michael pointed to a large pile of red bricks right next to the mulberry tree and added, knowing his little brother all too well, “And no climbing on the bricks either. That’s dangerous. Do you understand?”

Scott nodded and smiled, “I promise, Michael.”

“Go,” said Michael. “We’ll be back in just a minute, so stay right there.” Scott trotted off toward the tree while Michael and Tommy began the task of sneaking behind the Mills’ house undetected. They casually made their way to the edge of the property pretending like they were taking a shortcut. Then, when they were satisfied no one was looking, they stealthily crept to within 15 feet of the shed that Tommy was convinced concealed his bicycle.

They were crouched behind some bushes, staring at the shed, waiting for their moment to advance. Then they heard a noise from behind, a horrible, low growl. Both boys knew that sound. They turned around to see Small Paul standing a few feet away with Charlie growling by his side.

“What d’ya think you’re doing?” asked Small Paul.

The boys were silent. Charlie continued to growl, his ears pinned back and his sharp little teeth bared. “What are you doing here?” Paul asked again. Michael spoke up. “We were just cutting through,” he lied. Tommy remained silent.

“I don’t think so,” responded Paul.

“Well,” said Michael coolly, “that’s all we were doing.” Michael and Paul stared at each other.

Suddenly Charlie stopped growling, looked up quizzically, and sniffed the air. Then the mean little mutt hopped quickly away, apparently bored by these boys and their goings-on. Michael and Tommy relaxed slightly, but only for a moment. “You were looking at the shed,” Paul accused sternly. “What were you looking at the shed for?” “Like I said,” Michael told him, “we were just cutting through.”

“Right,” snorted Paul, shaking his dwarfish head from side to side. Then he stopped. There was barking in the not-so-far-off distance: the familiar, ferocious yapping of Charlie. Then came the screaming, the terrible, hysterical, frightened screams of a young child.

It was Scott.

Michael responded immediately. The other business was forgotten; he exploded into a full-out run, leaving Paul and Tommy looking after him. As fast as he could, he sprinted toward the mulberry tree where he’d left his brother. The screaming grew louder as he approached.

Scott, through the tears and the hysteria, saw his older brother coming. “MICHAELLLLLLLLLL!” He screamed at the top of his lungs, “HELP ME, MICHAELLLLLLLLLL!”

Charlie had Scott’s ankle between his jaws, gnawing away and growling. Michael could see the blood soaking through his little brother’s white gym socks. Scott looked terrified and continued squirming and wailing. Charlie wouldn’t let up.

Without hesitation Michael stooped down to pick up one of the red bricks from the pile next to the mulberry tree. It was cool and heavy in his sweaty hand. He lifted the brick over his head and brought it down as hard as he could, aiming for the spot where the back of the dog’s head met with its neck.

His aim was perfect.

There was a loud crack and half a whimper from the dog. Charlie’s jaws loosened their grip enough for Scott to escape and scurry a few feet away, still crying. Charlie emitted a low, sickly gurgle for just a moment, then nothing. He lay perfectly motionless beneath the shade of the mulberry tree.

###


The boys had gotten out of there as fast as they could. As soon as Michael had taken off to Scott’s rescue, Tommy bolted. He wasn’t about to face Small Paul all on his own. Tommy went right home, where his father was waiting.

It turns out Tommy’s bike wasn’t stolen after all. His father had seen it left out unlocked the night before, and had hidden it from Tommy to teach him a lesson about responsibility. The rest of the lesson came later that night, and no one saw Tommy around the neighborhood for a couple of days.

Michael had taken Scotty home immediately to clean and dress his ankle. When his mother came home that night he told her everything. He promised her that when he was watching Scott he would never let his younger brother out of his sight again, and he meant it. His mother forgave him.

Scotty wasn’t hurt too badly by Charlie’s attack. His ankle had a deep cut that left a scar, but he never even got any stitches. He was mostly over the whole affair in a couple of weeks, and about the worst to be said for Scott is that he never quite regained his former passion for mulberries.

As for the Mills, it’s true that Small Paul hadn’t stolen Tommy’s bike, but his “secret” shed did contain other spoils of his bullying – objects, some actually worth quite a bit, that linked him to crimes nobody would have ever guessed that sneaky little midget had any part of. When his parents asked him if he knew what happened to Charlie he said he had no idea, because he was convinced that Michael and Tommy knew about the contents of his shed and would turn him in if questioned about the incident. So when Paul discovered his dog’s broken little body lying under the tree, he buried him right there, and never told a soul what really happened.




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Copyright©2001 by Matt McCarthy.

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