“Liam?! Liam! Lee-AMMMMMM!!!!”
Lord Lord, she sounded like a dingdong banshee, Livie did. He shimmied his skinny shoulders down a little further against the base of the ol’ pine perched up the hill from the house. He kept his resting eyes shut, and switched the long blade of grass he was a’ chewin’ to the other side of his mouth. Far as he was concerned, she could wail till the cows come home.
Reckon she only needed him for chores, anyhow. Best not upset the cart too much by hollerin’ back. They was her chores, after all. And like as not, she’ was bound to be madder’n a hornet if he came a’runnin’, or if he did not.
Liam chose not.
Truth be told, after this noontime, he didn’t owe her nothin’. Nope, no way , no how, nothin’. Mama’d drilled into their heads they walk home from the schoolhouse, all of ’em, in a family pack, that way nobody’d get left behind. And most every other day they’d all of ’em push and shove and laugh and spit and throw rocks at fence posts the mile and a half to their little tenent farm. But this day, Liam, he wouldn’t speak nor even look Livie’s way, save one long evil eye just before they entered the rickety gate to the dusty front walk. Now, she was bigger’n him, bein’ nearly two years older with her twelveth birthday a week ago Wednesday, and bein’ she was a girl. Livie’d proved herself tough as any boy around, runnin’ faster, ascendin’ the old oak down to the schoolyard faster’n anybody Liam heard tell of. Cross her? Why, she’d liable to toss a string of words so ugly didn’t nobody repeat, especially to Mama. Livie was so mean, she’d deck you for lookin’ crosseyed at a one-eyed cat. Didn’t nobody mess with Livie. She’d skin anyone alive without thinkin’ twice, you mess with her or any of her kin or any of her kin’s kin!
At least until today.
Today, come lunchtime a certain situation arose. Liam would admit to instigation but Lord knew high and mighty William Shackleford, Junior had long required bein’ taken down a peg or two. ‘Specially after continually spewing downright meanness about Liam and his family. It weren’t bad enough William Shackleford, Senior was the owner of the land Liam and his folks tended for now on a year. But his ministrations Liam allowed Daddy could handle right enough. But this day, big ol’ Junior had crossed a line, snickerin’ and wisecrackin’ the morning through about their hand-me-down clothes and homemade bread in their lunches.
This day, Liam, skinny, bony, brown as a berry, and knee high to a tall Indian, balled his fists and marched directly to where the doughy entitled boy was lounging with his minions beneath that big old oak. Liam’s bigger brothers, Lincoln and Laurence, they was ditching school today, off with Daddy at the livestock auction a county over. Older sister Luce was off somewhere readin’ a book, it’s what she was always doin’. But Liam knew Livie was right there, shadowed in the entry of the emptied schoolhouse. He’d seen her, sure, but better’n that, the air fairly crackled with her electricity, a’buzzin’ ‘cross the breeze. Her presence softened the prickles pokin’ the back of his neck. Knowin’ she was there, like she always was, made his move sure.
Therefore and forthwith, it was high time Junior heard from Liam.
Now most boys who’d stood up to Junior opted not to do it again. They’d tell you that plain, then show you the scar or the lump they’d sustained during their unpleasant encounter. Fact was, even Liam would have likely fought the urge to defend the honor of his family had he not had Livie just off his left shoulder.
Liam needed, no, he reckoned he expected Livie’s backin’ him up.
Now the pain of the punch to the belly made him want to throw up, and the taunting lip he endured during his tenure in the dust burned in his craw somethin’ awful. But those individual incidences paled when stood up against what Livie’d done.
Or what she’d not done.
She left him high and dry and mighty alone.
And that, to Liam, hurt worse than any slug to the gut or insult to his kith and kin.
Plumb unforgivable was what that was. Pure and simple and plain and true.
Now, Liam’d managed to stand up straight, after his breath come back. Stood as tall as the punch in his skinny belly would allow. Dusted hisself off, even, and walked head high back into the clapboard whitewashed hall to his desk. Endured the afternoon lessons without a whimper. Come goin’ home time, he even gathered the younger ones all about, and marched ’em all off down the road. Livie’d followed, puppy dog like. Had to. Mama’s rules. But there were no words for abandonin’ a brother in need. And Liam didn’t search too hard to find any, neither.
‘Ah, c’mon, Liam, ” she’d tried denyin’. “I didn’t see what was going on until it was over’n done with.”
Then she tried canoodlin’, even going so far as to sidle up and place an arm ‘cross his bony shoulders. “Now, Liam, we’re nearly twins, you and me. I just figured this was somethin’ you needed to do, man-like. If it’d gotten much worse, I’d of dove right in, you know that.”
Didn’t none of that work on him, though.
She even tried some big ol’ crocodile tears upon gettin’ back home, but he just shrugged those skinny shoulders and headed out, his own chores a’callin’.
Big sister’s was supposed to have your back. They was family, after all, like them Musketeers Miss Meadow read to them about, last week during a lazy afternoon when none of them could keep they eyes open. They was all for one and one for all, all day long. Never a moment they didn’t come to the other’s beck and call, swords unsheathed and glistenin’ shiny in the light of battle. Fightin’ for honor and comradeship, slicin’ and dicin’ sharpened steel and fancy words. All for one. All day long.
Still, a billow of bewilderment blossomed behind his eyes. Come to think of it, why they was called Musketeers when to his knowledge they never did once raise a weapon in defense of their brothers or countrymen other than the sword what dangled at their hip caused him some concern. No muskets were ever mentioned, though he’d admit readily he may have missed a piece or two having snuck in a short snooze here and there durin’ the readin’.
“‘Course, maybe they just had high hopes,” he said out loud.
Fine by him. The billow dispersed into so many little flashes of light and his head cleared right up.
He reckoned he missed a few more moments, as the next thing he noticed was the shadow of the big ol’ pine bein’ a little longer and the sun restin’ a little lower in the early evenin’ sky. And Livie he noticed, too, standin’ directly at the end of his battered and shattered boots, hands on her hips, lookin’ like thunder.
“You awake?” Her voice was strangely quiet and even. Calm before the tornado strikes, eerie and spooky. He was for it now.
She raised her hand to push back some windy wisps of her straw-colored hair and Liam admitted to starting just a bit. He’d been on the business end of her fists on more than one occasion. Mama’d throwed a fit had she known. They wasn’t reared to raise their fists in anger. It was just sometimes they forgot. Livie more’n most.
“You awake?” She asked again, her nearly black eyes borin’ a hole nearly through to the back of his brain.
Liam gauged he might gain some advantage if he could gather his wits, so straightened slow-like, scratchin’ both sides of his head, hard. Her eyes left him not once. She was not distracted. He strained for his next idea. Thinkin’ better of it, though, he decided his best course was to just meet her straight on.
“Yup. I’m awake.”
Silence. Livie tilted her head ever so little, considerin’. Liam was losing his earlier swagger and hoped she was considerin’ his livin’ verse his dyin’.
Still, silence. He was gettin’ worried. He looked up, squintin’.
“Said I was awake! Now what do you want?!” Liam felt sure he was hollerin’ loud enough for Mama down to the house to hear ,but Livie, she Just nodded once, then sat down right there at the end of his legs, tuckin’ her skinned knees up under her faded skirt, holdin’ them tight. He wanted to bring his own long legs in tight to his chest, she might go to pinchin’ him or somethin’, but he held fast instead, remembering his anger and fighting to regain his one up.
Finally, “I want to talk to you.”
He wrinkled his nose, who wants to have a talk with a girl? Who wants to have a talk with his own sister?
Still, “‘Bout what?” No eye contact now. His tank was a little low.
“‘Bout Junior.” He could feel her eyes. Be strong, boy.
What she thought she could tell him, he was durned if he knew. Durned blast, he was there, weren’t he? Liam could feel justified anger and malice, against both Junior and Livie, beginning to boil. His stomach wouldn’t quiet. He breathed hard through his nose, feeling his cheeks heat up.
“He was out’a line, Liam, I know that.”
Liam nearly spat. He puffed his cheeks out, “Surprises me some you think that.” He liked the cruel taste of those words. And that surprised him, too.
Her eyes softened just a whit.
“No, I know what he’d been sayin’ ’bout us, ’bout our family. He’s one ugly son of a buck. Don’t you think I know that?”
Ready to nearly burst, Liam kept his voice low and menacing, “He’s been givin’ us trouble since we come here, bad mouthin’ us, laughin’, makin’ us feel low. You never took it before. How come you stood by today?”
What he really wanted to ask was, why didn’t you fight with me, side by side. We coulda took him, us two. Couldn’t say the words somehow, they sounded sissified when they introduced themselves.
“You cain’t tell, Liam,”
Now this was a new twist. What was this talk? He sat up straighter, looked in her dark eyes, straight. Secrets was involved. There was things he didn’t know. His hurt feelin’s was put on a back burner, for now. Livie’d won this round. She’d got his attention, sure.
Wriggling ever so slightly, “Cain’t tell what, Livie?” He leaned in closer. “What’s he got on you?” And even better, what would he have on her once she told?
Had big ol’ Junior caught her stealin’ lunches?
Had big ol’ fluffy Junior seen her cheatin’ on a test?
Had big ol’ ugly, puffed up Junior heard her badmouthin’ Miss Meadow?
Had she been smokin’?
Had she stuck nails under Judge Slaughter’s new Studebaker?
None of them things would surprise him much.
Livie started, then shushed him real loud. “Hush, Liam, hush!”
Control wasn’t his strong suit, that was for plain certain.
“What?!” he hissed, pickin’ absently as the patches on the knees of his dungarees. “What’d you do?” Short of going to jail, he hoped beyond hope it was really really bad.
One second too long, then, “Alright, he was nice to me.”
Earth and sky and sun and wind stood still.
Liam shook his head, stuck a finger in his ear and wiggled it around a bit to loosen up whatever was blockin’ his hearing.
“What’d you say?”
Livie mumbled, pulling up yellow dandelions and a’growin’ ’round her sister’s old shoes, “I said, he was nice to me,” then defensively, “He didn’t have to be, you know.”
Now, being a ten-year-old boy, Liam didn’t have time for such nonsense. He scrambled to his feet, ready to flee. Smokin’ or cussin’ or cheatin’ he had all the time in the world for. But nice? Nice? Who on this side of the Pearly Gates even cared?
But then the Livie of old raised her ugly head, “Sit down, Liam,” she growled, ugly and glowering. And bein’ bigger’n him, Liam complied. Right quick. Bam. Bony buttocks slammed back into the ground. Hurt. Some.
“Now don’t you dare tell, ”
Fearful, now, just a little, “I won’t.”
She sighed deep, then, “I’d climbed up on the outhouse roof, loaded for bear, down to the school, yesterday morning, before the bell rung. Had me pockets full of them old walnuts we’d piled up last fall?”
Liam knew to nod, knowingly. He’d helped gather them, after all. Never could have too many ammo stashes. He grudgingly allowed himself to be impressed at her diabolical plan to pelt anyone going in or out. Good idea. He filed it away for future consideration.
“So I climbed right up, hid behind the tall eave in the front, when there was a full on squawkin’ racket coming from that big ol’ tree just behind.”
Again, Liam nodded, like he reckoned he was supposed to.
“Liam, some baby bird dropped right out onto the ground, out of its nest. I seen it down there, plain as day, just a flappin’ and tryin’ like the devil to get back up. And the mama? Big ol’ robin? She was squeakin’ and squawkin’ and carryin’ on somethin’ awful!”
Livie continued. “So I hightailed off that roof, jumped down right in front of that little baby, chirpin’ there in the dirt.” This is where she looked up from her dandelion pluckin’.
“I tried to save it, Liam, I really did. I held it real soft-like, real careful. I was going to put it back in the nest with its brothers and sisters. It made little squeaky noises, real quiet-like. And I swear it looked right at me. But right there in my hands?” Here she wiped what might have been a tear.
Lawsy, he hoped not. The heebie jeebies was comin’ back.
Nearly a whisper, “Right there in my hands, that itty bitty baby bird died. Right there in my hands.” She looked like her heart was broke, sorrowful. Cupping her hands, she appeared to be seeing that dying baby right there.
Liam squirmed. “What’d you do?”
Her shoulders slumped some more, “William was makin’ a beeline for the outhouse just then. I had nowhere to hide. I was standin’ there like a dimwit holdin’ a dead bird. You know William, ”
William? “Blockhead” was more like it. But again, he nodded. He was her prisoner, after all.
“I was sure he would snatch that bird, throw it clean over the privy, and spit in my face.”
Liam nodded hard, “‘Course!”
Livie glared hard.
“But he didn’t.”
Now, he couldn’t take back his nod, but, his head spun just a little.
“Know what he did?”
Okay, now it was time to shake. He shook his head “no,” with conviction.
Satisfied, “He took that little bird as gentle as nothing, cradled it real close, and we went back behind the hedgerow and buried it proper. He made a little hole and I filled it with soft grass and we covered it up careful-like, and put a big ol’ rock on it so the coyotes wouldn’t come dig it up.”
“Liam,” she looked at him plain, “He didn’t laugh or jeer nor nothin’. When we was done, he just popped me on the shoulder and walked away, silent. Far as I know, he never said nothin’ to nobody.”
Then, a little wonderingly, “He was nice to me.” She looked somewhere past Liam, which suited him just fine. What oh what had come over his tough-as-nails sister who he was sure was born from the bowels of demons?!
Have mercy on their souls!
He’d plenty to learn, he was sure.
But not today. Livie’s attention somewhere’s else but not on him, he made his move, leapt up like a puppet on a string, and hightailed it back down the hill.
He was sure, danged sure, he’d heard Mama callin’!
Fine by him.