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Hostage


ISSUE:  Summer 1943

He was looking at the Foxy Grandpa book that Mr. Richie had given him when he heard the lock click. Instantly he shoved the book under him and crowded back against the wall, his feet just sticking over the edge of the cot, his arms hugged tight around his body. In his terror his body felt small and insufficient, hardly enough to hang onto.

They came in just the way they had come in every day since they brought him here, Mr. Richie first, then the insurance detective from Montpelier, Mr. Richie’s sharp little face poked forward, smiling, his eyebrows moving up and down, and the detective behind him tall and solemn, red-nosed, with his handkerchief in his hand. The detective had hay fever and his eyes always looked red-rimmed, like a hound’s. The boy watched them come in and shut the door, feeling the rough plaster wall through his shirt, and the bulge of the overall straps up his spine.

Mr. Richie sat down and thumped his knees. “Well, Bub,” he said cheerfully. The detective also sat down, blowing his nose. It was all the same as it had been before. In a minute they would start asking him, and prodding him, and sticking their faces out at him, and trying to twist what he said into something he hadn’t said at all.

“Treating you all right?” Mr. Richie said. His little fox-face was grinning, and he twinkled under white eyebrows. He looked, the boy thought with surprise, a good deal like the pictures in the Foxy Grandpa book. The boy nodded.

“You like being in jail, uh?” the detective said.

The boy shook his head.

“Now looky here, Bub,” Mr. Richie said. “We ain’t trying to be mean to you. You just tell us the truth about how that fire started and you’ll be out of here in a minute.”

“I already told you,” the boy squeaked.

“You told us something,” the detective said. “How about telling us the truth?”

Without taking his sharp, blue, twinkling eyes off the boy’s, Mr. Richie dug into his coat pocket, got a cigar, bit off the end and spit it out, found a match, lighted it on his thumb nail, puffed, and said through the smoke, “Still an accident, was it?”

The boy nodded.

“You just went down with a candle to the barn and the swallows flapped around the light and scared you and you dropped the candle and run and that set the barn on fire.”

The boy nodded, swallowing.

“You lived on a farm all your life,” the detective said heavily, “and you don’t know better’n to go into a haymow with a candle. You don’t know swallows’ll fly at a light. You don’t know enough to make sure a light’s out before you go.”

The boy said nothing.

“Why’d they send you down there with a candle?” the detective said harshly, and stuck his face forward.

“There wasn’t any coal oil for the lantern.”

“ ‘Tisn’t as if Branch Willard was any kin of yours,” Mr. Richie said mildly. “He ain’t but your stepfather. You don’t have to protect him. He never treated you very good anyway, did he?”

The boy did not answer.

“Did he?” the detective said.

The boy jumped, but said nothing.

“Why hadn’t Willard put any hay in that barn yet?” the detective said.

“He had.”

“ ‘Bout five load,” the detective said. “You think we’re silly, boy? Everybody’s got his hay all in, and there’s Willard with a thirty-acre meadow he ain’t touched.”

“I guess he was busy,” the boy said, and drew his knees up under his chin, crowding against the wall. “He was trying to sell the calves.”

“And you know why,” the detective said. He blew his nose, wrenching the end harshly. “He wanted ‘em out of that barn when he burned it down. He wanted his insurance but he didn’t want to lose his stock.”

The boy hiccoughed. A nerve in his cheek twitched, and he put his hand over the side of his face. He looked at Mr. Richie for help, but Mr. Richie was rolling the cigar in his lips and looking out the window.

“He’s a slick one,” the detective said. “I never seen any slicker trick. Sending a kid down to the mow with a candle and then saying the swallows scared him. He sent you, didn’t he?”

The boy kept still.

“Didn’t he?”

“Yes, but . . .”

“What for?”

“The pitchforks.”

“What’d he want of them after dark?” “I don’t know.”

“Saving his pitchforks too,” the detective said. He leaned back and reached for his handkerchief.

Mr. Richie blew half a dozen rings and said, “ ‘Tisn’t as open and shut as all that, Rufe. How in thunder would he know the swallows’d fly down and scare the kid? How’d he know the kid’d drop the candle and run?”

“There’s a fifty-fifty chance of a fire whenever you send a kid into a mow with a candle,” the detective said.

The boy was looking gratefully at Mr. Richie. Mr. Richie lived in the village, and even if he did sell insurance and even if he had been with the detective when they came to take him to jail, he was somebody familiar, at least. And he wasn’t as rough as the detective, and he smiled all the time.

“Just the same,” Mr. Richie said, standing up and pointing the cigar at him, “we know Branch Willard burned that barn down a-purpose. You might as well tell us.”

“I told you already,” the boy said. “Honest, Mr. Richie . . .”

“We might’s well go,” Mr. Richie said, and put the cigar back in his mouth.

The detective rose, grumbling. “Three days,” he said. “Three days already in this damn place where every meadow looks like it’d been planted to goldenrod. You’ll never get anything out of this kid.”

“Never did expect to,” Mr. Richie said cheerfully.

“Then what are we keeping him for?”

“Got a right to hold him,” Mr. Richie said. “Long as he says it was him burned down the barn we got a right to hold him.”

“What good will that do?”

“Trouble with you,” Mr. Richie said, holding the door open and twinkling past the detective at the boy, as if they shared a joke, “you ain’t got enough imagination to bait a hook.” The door closed behind him, the lock snapped, and the boy heard Mr. Richie’s voice going down the hall. “What would you do, if you was Martha Mount, and you’d married a good-for-nothing like Branch, and he had an insurance fire, and they come and stuck your boy in jail for it? You’d stand it a day or so, maybe, depending on how much. . . .”

The voice dwindled and went away, and the boy relaxed a little away from the wall. He pulled the Foxy Grandpa book from under him and looked at it stupidly. What if Branch had wanted the barn burned down? But he couldn’t have. It was just like he’d told them. Big with terror as that night was, he went over it, trying to remember. He went out with the candle after Branch shook the kerosene can and found it empty, and he went creeping through the blackness that blanketed sky and ground, holding his hand around the candle flame to shield it from the wind that wandered down off the hill toward the swamp. He went in the cow stable and through the milk room and up the ladder to the high drive, and just as he stuck the candle on the beam the Things came, beating at the light, at his head, with fluttering, squeaking noises, and he screamed and ran through the black mow, banging into the double doors, ripping his fingernail trying to get the bars up. Then he ran across the back lot toward the lighted kitchen window, and slammed into a fence post in the dark, knocking his wind out, and the next he remembered was Mumma picking him up off the back stoop and carrying him inside. He was still crying a little, and his chest was still sore, when Branch came in the back door and said the barn was afire, his candle must have dropped off the beam into the hay.

So it had been an accident, plain as that. How was he to know the fluttering things were swallows? The memory of the terrible black loom of the mow above the dim candle-glow, and the squeaking, beating things that swooped down, contracted his whole body in a shiver. He flapped the pages of the Foxy Grandpa book.

He wondered if the detective would put him in jail for a long time. Mr. Richie wouldn’t let him. Mr. Richie was too jolly to let a boy get put in jail for an accident. He remembered the way the men in the store at the village had laughed one day when Mr. Richie was telling them a joke he played on a city man. The city man had bought a cow and brought it to Mr. Richie to make sure he hadn’t got stung. And Mr. Richie had looked the cow over, opened its mouth and looked in, and said, “My gosh, man, this cow ain’t got any teeth in her upper jaw. She’ll starve to death in a week.” So he ended up by buying a hundred and thirty dollar cow for forty dollars, to make beef out of, and when the city man found out how he’d been fooled, he was so ashamed he sold his camp and moved somewhere else. Mr. Richie, he assured himself, wouldn’t let him get put in jail. Maybe Mumma would come down and get him out. That was what Mr. Richie seemed to expect. Only why should he just wait down here? Mumma was up at the farm. He could go see her if he wanted to. The memory of Mumma hanging onto him and crying and looking around in every direction as if she expected help to come from somewhere, when the detective and Mr. Richie came and took him away, made the boy swallow. He shut his eyes tight to squeeze the two big tears that oozed into his eyes.

Lying down on the cot, he craned under to look at the rusty springs, put his hand tentatively around the iron leg. Then he sat up, listening. Somebody was coming again.

The door opened, and it was Mumma. “Andy!” she said. “Little Andy boy!” She grabbed him in her arms and hugged him, and he smelled the store smell of her shirtwaist. “Have they scared you?” she said. “Have they been mean to you?”

“They keep trying to make me say Branch burned down the barn a-purpose,” he said.

Her arms tightened around him; she kissed the top of his head and then held him away to look at him. There were tear streaks in the flour she had used to powder her face. “Did they feed you?” she said. “Have you had enough to eat? You look thin.”

“Oh yuh,” he said vaguely. He looked at the faces of Mr. Richie and the detective in the doorway. Mr. Richie winked at him.

“Do you mind staying here a little while longer?” Mumma said. “I want to talk to Mr. Richie.”

“Can’t I go?”

“I’d rather you stayed here,” she said. He saw her lips pucker over her upper plate as if they had a drawstring in them.

“Mumma!” he said. “Don’t you tell them anything just to get me out. They tried to make me say it wasn’t an accident, but it was.”

“Don’t you worry,” Mumma said. Her eyes blinked rapidly and she turned away. “I’ll be back in a minute, Andy.” She turned back, took him and shook his shoulders gently. “You won’t mind, just for a minute, will you?”

They were a long time coming back, and when they came in he saw that she had been crying again. The boy stood up slowly. His mother came across the room very fast and hugged him tight again. Her voice sounded choked. “You’ll hate your Mumma,” she said. “That’s what I can’t stand, you’ll hate your Mumma.”

He clung to her, trying to look in her face, but she kept her face turned. Mr. Richie had lighted another cigar.

“They’re going to put Mumma in jail,” she said.

Andy’s eyes went from his mother’s averted, twisted face to Mr. Richie’s. “You don’t have to pretend any more, Bub,” Mr. Richie said. “Your Mumma’s told us all about it.”

“But it was the Things!” Andy said. “The swallows, they came down and knocked the candle out of my hand . . .”

“And it went out,” the detective said. “Branch went down there afterwards and stuck a match in the hay, like he’d been planning all the time and then planning to lay it on you for being careless.”

Andy’s hands clenched in his mother’s coat. “Mumma, he didn’t, did he?”

She nodded.

“But why are they going to put you in jail?” he said. “You never did it. It was Branch.”

“I helped him,” she said. “You’ll never forgive me, Andy, but I was even going to help him lay it on you, because I thought if it was an accident, and we didn’t blame you for it, you wouldn’t feel too bad. But if there’d been any other way we could see . . . We were awful hard up, Andy.”

The boy wet his lips. “Why don’t they put Branch in jail?”

“He’s left. I don’t know where. They’ll put him in too if they can catch him.”

He stood very still, letting the detective’s long face and hound-eyes, Mr. Richie’s lips with the cigar between them, his mother’s pale flour-streaked face twisted with crying, go round him in a confused blur. It was all a part, a continuation, of the terror that had first come on him when he went out into the pitch darkness with his candle, that had sent him blind and screaming across the high drive under the black loft full of nameless fluttering Things, that had left him throat-dry and frozen when he looked out the door and saw the flames licking high from the open doors of the barn and knew he had done it, that had been with him for three days in the jail while the detective’s face and Mr. Richie’s face poked out at him, sharp-lipped, saying sharp words.

“I’m ashamed, Andy,” his mother said. “I’m so ashamed I could die.”

He swallowed, only half hearing her, and a thought came beating down like the terrifying wings from the dark mow. “What’ll I do?” he said. “Where’ll I go, Mumma?” He looked from her to Mr. Richie, and Mr. Richie smiled and winked.

“Your Mumma and I talked it over,” Mr. Richie said. “You’re coming to live with me. I ain’t so mean I can see a boy thrown out in the world like that. You’ll go to school in the village. Think you can make yourself useful enough to earn your keep?” He smiled more widely, and winked again, his fox face full of good humor and friendliness, as if to say, “Sure you can, we’ll get along fine.”

Andy tugged at his mother’s coat, still looking at Mr. Richie. “Mumma?”

“Mr. Richie’s very kind to offer it,” his mother said. “He’ll take good care of you, and you’ll be a good boy. Won’t you?”

Andy looked at Mr. Richie’s lips. Mr. Richie’s hand came up and took the cigar out of them, and the lips smiled.

Andy stared at him, hardly seeing him at all, seeing only the smiling lips. There was a mist over everything else. He smelled the store smell of his mother’s clothes.

“Yes,” he said. He laid his face against the store smell, and his fingers dragged at the coat. With his eyes shut tight he screamed into the muffling cloth, “But I’ll hate him! I’ll hate him as long as I live!”

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