Weeks Mills, Maine: Summer, 1851
Both boys stood at the edge of a cliff, Bobby Sproule with a chicken under his arm.
“Come on, Bobby, we gotta jump!”
The water below was roiling and Bobby wasn’t much of a swimmer.
“I’ve jumped down there lots of times, Bobby. It’s plenty deep. Besides Old Man Palmer’s comin’. We gotta hurry!”
Bobby didn’t care for Old Man Palmer or his dog, but for jumping into unknown waters, he cared even less. He glared at Theodore Patterson who was nine, almost a foot taller, and plagued with freckles. “This your idea of a shortcut?”
“Don’t tell me you’re scared of heights?”
“Never said I was.”
“Then what’re you waitin’ for?”
Bobby almost didn’t answer. “Look, Theo, if you’re so hot on jumping, why don’t you go first?”
“We’re blood brothers, ain’t we? That means we jump together.”
It was true; they’d used Theo’s knife and each boy had scratched a little cut into his palm, and then they’d shaken hands.
“Damn it!” Bobby yelled. “That chicken just pecked me!” This, in spite of the fact that Bobby had gone to the trouble of christening the creature. He’d named it Charlie, not taking into consideration its gender.
Theo rolled his eyes. “It probably don’t like the idea of meeting up with that dog any more than we do.”
Bobby continued to wrestle with his charge. “How come I’m the one has to carry it?”
“Don’t you understand nothing?”
Reacting to the insult, Bobby squeezed the startled chicken.
“It’s part of the initiation. I’m already in the club and you ain’t. You can’t get in unless you steal a chicken. We already discussed all that.”
His bladder full of indignation, Bobby was hopping from foot to foot. “What are we gonna do with it anyway?”
Sighing, Theo looked up. Buster and Old Man Palmer were getting close. “Eat it. Now let’s go.”
“What if it don’t wanna be eaten?”
Theo put his hands on his hips. “You just gotta wring his neck is all . . . like my pa says he’s always gonna do to me!” Theo was bossy and unreasonable but, when it came to jumping off cliffs, he had the heart of a lion. “Are you comin’ or not?”
“What am I supposed to do with Charlie?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
Old Man Palmer’s wobbly voice was closing fast. “They got no place to go, Buster. After ’em, boy! Bring them down!”
Bobby had only Theo’s word about the depth of the river, and Theo was known to get his facts muddled. There might be piranhas down there, and it might be only a puddle, not a pool. At best it was gonna be freezing cold and the chicken might peck his eyes out on the way down.
Theo began to count, “One . . . .”
Bobby clutched Charlie harder. Old Man Palmer cursed as he tripped on a root.
“Two . . . .” Theo stepped right to the cliff’s edge and lifted a foot. What in blazes was he smiling about? “Three!”
A pause filled the air . . . .
So much for jumping together. Still standing at the cliff's edge, Theo looked at Bobby and mournfully shook his head. “You can forget about being in the club.”
There was a final rustle in the bush. A great black dog was suddenly upon them. All that lay between Bobby and a painful mauling was Old Man Palmer with his hand on Buster’s collar. Man and dog both licked their lips.
“So . . . caught the chicken thief red-handed!”
Bobby froze. All his senses were keen, and he could hear the sound of Theo’s splash and the insane clucking of his feathered hostage. Gasping, Bobby called upon his last reserves and stepped towards the cliff and empty air. At the same moment a huge wrinkled hand clamped on to his shoulder. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Then, to Bobby’s utter astonishment, the tormented chicken broke free, scrambling up the nearest tree like a resurrected creature.