Authors: Terry Kroenung
Tags: #Humor, #Fantasy
After some time in the shade back of the theatre—and about a gallon of Ma’s lemonade—we beat the lobby rugs till we almost choked to death. The beaters made good pretend-swords, so we performed Macduff vs. Macbeth for Romulus, poor old Mad Molly, and a few scruffy alley cats. Eddie got to win that time—his last victory, come to think of it. Shaved head shining in the sun like a big buckeye, Romulus clapped his giant paws as he watched. Sitting in that odd way of his, upright on his toes with his hands between his knees, he looked like a happy old mutt, tongue lolling.
Ma let us loose after chores, so long as we got back at five for supper. Dress rehearsal started at six and we had to help. I’d shift scenery and Eddie’d work with Ma and the costumes. That gave us over an hour. We ran west to the Potomac, my horrid boots left at home.
Woo! My tootsies can breathe!
We waved at the guards around the President’s House on the way. They were used to seeing us. Once Mr. Lincoln had even said hello while watching Willie ride his pony on the South Lawn. Willie had been the same age as us. The typhoid got him just four months before. Now the poor President didn’t come out much anymore.
President Washington’s monument-to-be rose a ways to our left, a whitish mess that didn’t look like something dedicated to a great man. Seemed more like a gravestone. In fact, some kids we knew said it was haunted. Weird things happened there, they said. People would come out of it wearing clothes from long ago: Napoleon’s Gaulle, or the Middle Ages, or the Thirty Years War. We laughed, of course. ‘About as believable as the Headless Horseman’. But with the smell of the nearby sewage Canal smacking you in the face, you could believe it a half-built castle from Ivanhoe’s time.
Hoping to see the
, we peered at the river from a high point near one of the Heavy Artillery batteries that pointed downstream and toward the Virginia side.
had run pictures of the new iron gunboat, wonder of the Navy, and we itched to catch sight of it. No such luck. It probably cruised down by Richmond, making sure that the Confederates’ ironclad couldn’t do any mischief against McClellan’s army. Seemed like he needed all the help he could get. The papers said his siege had turned into a retreat, thanks to the new Rebel general, that Lee. Big battles brewed that could decide the war.
We gave up looking for the wonder weapon and sprinted along the shore. Funny how the heat is intolerable when there’s work to be done, but you can play in the same sun forever and never feel it. Pretending we were the giant guns of the battery, Eddie gave me orders like he’d heard their officers doing. I’d go through the loading drill for a 100-pound Parrot rifle, then cock my arm. When he’d shout, “Fire!” my rock would blast out to sink the enemy. Many a driftwood gunboat suffered our righteous wrath. Once I misfired and the shot landed amidst a bunch of bathing soldiers. They seemed to think that Southern sharpshooters had found their range, for they dove under the water like frantic ducks. Laughing at the sight of so many naked fish-belly-white bums, we tore off back through town.
Our laughter faded quick when we saw that we’d made a dumb decision. To save time after being held up by a slow-marching regiment, we turned off our normal route. Trying to cut across the grounds of St. Bartholomew’s, a posh school for Senators’ sons and the like, we hoped we wouldn’t be spotted. Our previous dealings with those kids had taught us not to truck with them. “Mean” must’ve been a required class there. Once they’d stripped Eddie’s trousers and sent him home with a whipped bottom. What is it about money and power that makes some people so cruel?
We figured we were pretty safe, it being summer and no school, so we didn’t take it as careful as we should have. Three-quarters of the way through we started to relax. No one had jumped us or even yelled, “Boo!” The big sandstone building that the boys lived and studied in sat there like a forgotten mausoleum, all shadowy and dead. Weaving between the spooky old oaks on the lawn, Eddie and me started giggling from released nerves.
The first one dropped out of a tree behind us like a well-dressed monkey. His three friends popped up from behind a woodpile and a trash heap, cutting us off in all directions and closing in. Two carried sticks. Another had a length of chain. Eddie already started to shake beside me. As the noose constricted I recognized their leader, the one who’d been up in the tree.
Time to apply some butter.
“H’lo, Horace,” I said with as big and goofy a grin as I could manage. Our best chance would be to act stupid and harmless, maybe disarm them enough to make them drop their guard and then we could run for it. “How ya doin’? Nice suit.”
Horace returned my smile with one of his own. Since it looked like a hyena licking its chops, it didn’t reassure me much. “Verity…Eddie.” He looked down at his blue velvet jacket. “This old thing? Just the rags I like to wear on days like this so I don’t get the blood of interlopers on my really nice clothes.”
Interlopers? Somebody’s been payin’ attention in Britannic class.
“We’re just tryin’ to get home fer supper. No need to make a fuss.”
His greased dark hair looked like a shiny skullcap. He lacked a front tooth, but otherwise looked the rich kid, a banker’s boy from New York. “Fuss? No fuss needed to teach you two your place. And because it’s so hot, I think Eddie might appreciate being stripped buck naked this time.”
The trio lurking between us and home snickered along with him. Wilbur and Woodrow, the pair with sticks who dressed like Horace except more sloppy, took a couple of steps toward us. Eddie started to whimper. I nudged him with my hip to be quiet and to start sidling toward home. When he began to move I followed right behind him, but backing up to keep my eye on Horace.
“Y’all ought to be home. School’s out. Why ya hangin’ ‘round here?” I said, as cool as I could manage. To be honest, I felt like making Eddie-noises myself.
“My father has a position with the War Department now,” Horace announced in a grand tone.
Means he’s sellin’ rations to the Commissary, emphasis on the
“Yeah? That’s swell.” The boy with the chain slid sideways. Our move hadn’t been as slick as we’d thought. Looked like we wouldn’t be able to dash after all. Oh, well. I had a back-up plan, but it depended on some luck. And on Eddie not fainting before we started.
“Swell…that’s what your heads are going to do when we break them,” whispered Wilbur, thumping his stick into his empty palm. Some folks said Wilbur had been thrown out of public school for setting fires, so his wealthy family had got him out of Pennsylvania and dumped him at St. Bart’s. They never visited, I heard.
Horace played the leader, the cool customer. Woodrow and the kid with the chain seemed to be followers, trying to be popular. Wilbur looked like the one I could get to make a mistake. Anyhow, he stood closest and I wanted his stick.
Oh, please, let this work. Oh, please…
I turned toward him. “You’re clever. You must be the boss here.”
Thanks for being predictable.
Wilbur puffed himself up and looked at the three kids beside him. “Well, ya know how it is…”
“No”, said Horace in a dark voice. “Suppose you tell us how it is, Little Willie.”
Oho! A snotty nickname.
Better than I’d hoped. I could feel the heat rise from Wilbur’s wounded pride. “Shut yer trap, Horace!” he spat. “I do what I want, when I want.”
“That so? And what do you want, Little Willie? Huh?”
“I want to whale on these two fer a bit, then I’ll tan your hide!”
“Well, get to it, then. I’m waiting.”
Wilbur eyed me, almost with an unspoken apology. He preferred going after Horace, but he’d been boxed in.
I could see him wavering. But I needed him to go after me first. Otherwise his two buddies might just charge at us while he attacked Horace. So I helped him make up his tiny mind.
“Afraid ya might lose to a girl?” I smiled. Then I blew him a kiss.
Of course he swung at my face as hard as he could, like a batter playing rounders. I counted on it. Blood thumping in my ears, I dropped into the same split I’d done with Eddie earlier that day. My coveralls just let me do it. The stick whooshed over my dipping head in such a big circle that it forced Woodrow to hop back.
So far, so good.
Before Wilbur could recover from his stroke I took him out of the fight as only a ruthless girl can: I punched his boy-bits with all of my might.
Just so you know, it hurts a girl to be hit there, too, but it seems to
more to a boy, somehow.
Wilbur’s yard of oak plopped onto the grass as his knees buckled. Pushing him as hard as I could, I scrambled forward quick as a bobcat and grabbed the club. Woodrow almost fell over him as Little Willie staggered backwards clutching his groin, then dropped. Chain-Boy reacted quicker than I’d expected. He ignored me and went for Eddie, who just stood there paralyzed in terror, eyes wide as a frightened bunny’s. That hunk of chain zizzed through the sultry air. Try as I might, I couldn’t get up fast enough to stop it.
But it didn’t hit Eddie’s noggin. My stage brother justified Mr. Ford’s confidence in his acting skills.
You were pretendin’, you sneak!
His scrawny form dove straight at his attacker, inside the arc of the chain. Chain-Boy’s swing had been a bit lazy, counting on Eddie’s staying frozen. They looked like attendees at one of those dances the soldiers sometimes had when there were no girls around. Swirling together, they spun away from the rest of us and crashed into a tree.
I couldn’t watch anymore, because Woodrow and Horace had recovered from their surprise. Now they played it more careful, their overconfidence replaced by cunning. Woodrow scooted around to cut me off from home. Wilbur struggled to his feet and headed my way. He looked real mad.
OK, Verity, now you’re in trouble.
I let Woody have it with my new weapon, but he blocked it with a neat wrist snap.
Darn!St. Bart’s must have a single stick class.
I tried again, feinting this time and jabbing at his breadbasket. That worked, but he hopped back just enough so that the thrust landed weak.
Crud!Time for my secret Verity the Valiant attack, a combination of cleverness and grace that’ll stun the world.
Before I had a chance to think of anything close to that, Wilbur screamed like a banshee and hurled his nasty self at me. My stick smacking his shoulder didn’t even make him flinch. I hit the grass hard, his weight knocking my wind out. In a second he had straddled me, knees pinning my arms down tight. No amount of squirming helped shake him loose. I relaxed, hoping he’d think I’d given up and lower his guard. No such luck. He may have looked creepy and dumb, but refused to be fooled twice. While he gloated over me, Chain-Boy drug poor Eddie over and dumped him next to us. Each of them had a swollen lip.
Good for you, Eddie.
“I’m gonna enjoy every minute of this,” sneered Wilbur, raising his fist.
Horace grabbed his arm. “Wait.” He looked over at Eddie’s captor. “Clarence, move Pretty Boy over here next to her.”
Eddie’s bruised face appeared next to mine. His fear looked real now.
With a nasty chuckle Horace stood over us like an over-dressed Colossus. “Since you two stuck your big noses where they don’t belong, I think I’ll trim them a little.” His delicate rich-boy fingers drew a long knife out of his coat.
A knife? Jiminy, Horace, this is just a kids’ fight!
“Come on, Horace, what are you doin’?” I said, more hoarse than I’d planned.
“I’m slitting your nostrils, that’s what I’m doing. We’ve been ordered to keep all trespassers away from St. Bart’s.”
“Ordered?” asked Eddie, wriggling. No use. “By who?”
Horace got an odd look in his eye, like someone testifying in church. “We’re Merchantry men now.”
While I digested what that might mean, he leaned down, knife tip hovering over my sweating face. I craned my neck to get away from the evil-looking blade. Just as it almost touched me Eddie pleaded, “Get away from her!”
Horace Hadleyburg flew back a full thirty feet, landing on the lawn in a screaming heap.
Whoa! How’d you do that, Eddie?
Wilbur rose straight up as if levitated by a stage magician. He squeaked out a froggy croak, feet kicking like a hanged man, then crumpled sideways off of me.
What on earth’s goin’ on?
I wrenched myself to a sit and looked around in a daze. Woodrow and Clarence scrambled away from us, shakily brandishing their weapons as something huge and dark growled above my head.
Romulus towered there, almost smoking with rage. I’d never seen him like that, or ever imagined such a thing. He snarled in a way that you’d imagine Cerberus would do in the Underworld. His eyes had lost their calm loving look and almost seemed to glow. Our hired man crouched low, almost on all fours. Where had he come from, without making a sound or being seen? The man stood as tall as President Lincoln and weighed close to 300 pounds. Stealth shouldn’t have been in his vocabulary.
I had to give Wilbur credit, he didn’t back down once he got over the first shock. With a howl and a curse word or two he brought his oak cudgel down. I flinched as it caught Romulus square on the head…and snapped clean in two like a straw. Blinking, I felt my jaw drop.
That should’ve laid him out cold.
Romulus just shook his head and howled at Wilbur. The boy’s pants darkened as he wet himself and sprinted off toward the school building, Woodrow at his heels. Clarence half-dragged Horace in the same direction.
Eddie and I got to our feet, shaky but not hurt too much. We stared at each other, then at Romulus. Now that our attackers had fled, he seemed to be shrinking somehow. His breathing got back to near normal and that ungodly light left his eyes. There stood our old Romulus again, harmless as a new puppy.