The Collins dog gave a short bark as I came running up, but then he recognized me and started wagging his tail. Fortunately he barked at everything that moved, squirrels, owls, a piece of paper, so the Collins didn't pay too much attention to him anymore. But he would have set up a real racket for three people coming toward the house in the dark, so it was a good thing I went on ahead.
Johnny's room was on the first floor, just off the kitchen. In the summer it was easy for him to get out, or us to get in, but since it was getting colder and the windows were shut, we had to risk making some racket before he woke up and let us in.
"What's up?" he whispered. "Tex! Hey, what are you doing here, Lem?"
We climbed in the window one at a time. We were laughing so hard it wasn't easy keeping quiet.
"What's up?" Johnny kept whispering, and we couldn't get our breath to tell him. Across the room Bob sat up in bed and said sleepily, "What the...?"
We piled onto Johnny's bed, while he sat on the floor and leaned back against Bob's.
"Guess what I got?" Lem said finally.
"Measles," Johnny said. "Ticks. A job--" He broke off suddenly, trying to hush us up. "Be quiet you guys. I'm grounded for two weeks already. I don't want to try for a life sentence."
"I'm not afraid of Cole," Mason said. If he really wasn't, he was the only person in the room; at least the rest of us quieted down.
"A baby," Lem said. Johnny just looked at him blankly.
"A baby what?"
I shoved Lem off the bed, and he dragged me with him, and all of us were biting our sleeves to keep from howling.
"I wish I could tell Blackie and Jamie," Lem said.
"Blackie's moved out, he's in San Francisco now, painting," Johnny said. "And I'm not about to go get Jamie. Cole's still up. I'm in enough trouble."
"I'll go get her," I said.
Mason said, "More guts than brains, as usual." But he didn't really try to stop me.
I had to go past the kitchen to the stairway, which was just off the living room. I crawled down the hall on my hands and knees. I've been hunting since I was seven years old, so I know how to get some place without being seen. I peeked around the corner of the main hall into the living room. Cole was sitting at his big rolltop desk, writing, his wife, Mona, curled up in an overstuffed chair, reading.
I started crawling up the stairs. Man, I was putting something over on Cole Collins.
The first bedroom off the stairs was the one Charlie and Blackie had shared before they left home. Across the hall was Jamie's room. Cole and Mona's room was way down at the end of the hall. Like Lem said, we'd been in that house before without Cole knowing it.
I pushed Jamie's door open slowly, trying not to make any noise. Jamie lay face down on the bed, hugging a pillow. She looked so soft, laying there, curled up like a kitten. She'd probably feel like a kitten to touch. I had a funny feeling in my stomach, looking at her. It was like when you get out of a swimming pool and lay on hot cement and your belly caves in. I reached over to wake her up.
"Hey!" I whispered. I didn't have time to touch her Quick as lightning, she whipped a water pistol out from under her pillow and squirted me right in the face with it.
"Hey!" I said again, backing up into the door and slamming it shut.
"I thought you were Johnny!" she whispered. I was wiping my face with my sleeve. "Well, I ain't."
Then I froze. Somebody was coming up the stairs. And it was too heavy to be Mona. Jamie pointed frantically to the closet. I scooted in just as Cole opened the door. I stood there trying not to breathe or jingle a hanger. My heart was pounding so loud I thought sure he'd hear it.
"Jamie, did I hear something?"
"Oh," she sounded so sleepy I could almost believe she'd just woke up. "I guess the wind blew the door shut."
"I've told you not to leave your window open in this weather."
"I can't stand sleeping with closed windows."
"You won't be able to sit if you don't."
Cole walked right by me, over to the window to pull it down. If he glanced into the closet he'd see me. I hadn't had time to slide the door shut. I didn't even want to wonder what he'd do.
"Leave it shut, you hear?"
"I'm not deaf," Jamie muttered.
"Yessir," she said louder. Cole paused, like he was going to say something else, then sighed and went down the hall.
I waited a minute, then came out.
"I thought you were Johnny, playing ghost or something," she whispered.
"Well, that's as close to being a ghost as I want to get," I said. "Boy howdy, you are always prepared, ain't you?"
"You'd better believe it. What's going on?"
"Oh, yeah, Lem's here, down in Johnny's room."
"Lem? Oh, I guess he's had his blessed event, huh?"
"How'd you know?"
"Well, it wasn't a big secret he was expecting one, was it? I get A's in math, I can count to nine."
"Come on," I said, "let's go see him." I was still a little shaky from that close call. If I had to get caught in that house, I figured I'd be much better off getting caught in Johnny's room than Jamie's.
We got back down the stairs okay. Johnny and Bob and Mason were sitting on one bed, while Lem was showing them how he'd paced the floor in the waiting room, smoking cigarettes, just like you see expectant fathers in cartoons. Everybody was laughing and trying not to make any noise.
"Get in a rain storm on the way?" Mason asked me.
"Trigger happy Jamie strikes again," Johnny said. "Be thankful it wasn't loaded with ink."
And when Bob started to open his mouth, Jamie cut him off by saying, "It could have been my BB gun instead of my water pistol. So skip the lecture, Bobby."
"Maybe you better go back and try getting out of the other side of bed," Bob said. I didn't want him fussing at Jamie, so I said, "Cole almost caught me in Jamie's room."
"Man, can you imagine?" Jamie said. "Instant death."
"Well, you are a little young to be keeping men in the closet," Johnny said.
"If I had my way, that's where they'd all be." She turned to Lem. "So what was it?"
"A boy," Lem said proudly.
"Yeah?" said Jamie. "Well, don't worry. If it'd been a girl you could have just tried again until you got what you wanted."
"Geez, don't get her started on her women's lib stuff," Johnny groaned.
"I ought to know something about discrimination--look who has a motorcycle and who doesn't," Jamie said.
"I'm glad Connie doesn't mess around with that stuff," Lem remarked. "I think women ought to stay home and take care of their husbands and kids."
Jamie's eyes widened, then narrowed down like a fighting cat's. Johnny gave me a look that said, "Oh, brother, now he's done it!"
"If Connie can figure out which end to diaper, she'll be doing better than most people expected, so I'm not surprised she doesn't 'mess around with that stuff.' "
Lem, like Mason, was used to treating Jamie like a little kid. I was the one who noticed she wasn't a little kid anymore.
"Jamie, you don't know nothin' about being a wife and mother, so just hush."
Jamie started to say something, caught a warning glance from Bob, and stopped for a second. Then she said, "Well, good luck with the prince and heir, Lem. You're going to need it. Personally, I don't think you two could raise a cat."
Everybody sat there, the fun drained out of them. Nobody had wanted to think about the serious part of having a little kid. Lem looked tired all of a sudden, older, like he'd been reminded of things he'd been trying hard to forget
"You sure know how to cheer people up," Mason said to Jamie.
"Lay off," I said sharply. Mason gave me a funny look.
Jamie jumped up. "I was only telling the truth and you know it!"
She stomped out and slammed the door, on purpose.
"Great," said Johnny.
We didn't need any more encouragement for leaving, but
Cole's voice on the stairway, talking to Jamie, gave us a good motive for speeding it up. We climbed out the window in a much bigger hurry than we climbed in it.
"Here comes Cole!" Johnny whispered. "Seeya." He almost closed the window down on Lem's leg. We flattened ourselves up against the side of the house. If Cole looked out the window he'd better not see anybody.
We walked back across the field in silence. Mason and Lem were covering a lot of ground, the way long-legged people usually do, but I could have run circles around them. Night air affects me like that. I didn't, because it seemed like it would be disrespectful to Lem, he looked so sad and tired.
He stopped on the porch instead of coming in with us. "I better get back. I got to get up early and go to work."
"Tell Little Lem hey for us, huh?" I said.
"Sure," Lem grinned a little. "I forgot to hand out my cigars."
He took a handful of joints out of his shirt pocket. "Made up special, too. A guy I know at work gets it for me now. Real good stuff."
I took one. It was almost as big as a cigar. Mason shook his head. "I'm in training."
"Oh, yeah, basketball star. You'll have to teach Lem Jr. the fast break."
"Sure," Mason said. Everybody was trying to sound cheerful, but it wasn't real like it was before.
"I'll see you guys real soon. Come by when you get to the city."
We watched Lem drive off. Mason went on in the house, but I stayed on the porch and thought about smoking the joint.
"If you smoke that thing don't come hollerin' to me in the middle of the night, dreaming something crazy," called Mason from inside.
I thought about last night and put the joint in my pocket. Grass never did do much for me anyway. One of the few times I ever fell off a horse (not thrown off) I was high. A spunky horse on a cold morning was the best kind of high for me.
"You know," I said, coming into the house, "I never notice how beat up our stuff is till I been at the Collins' for a visit."
The stuffing was coming out of a sofa cushion, and I hadn't even seen it before.
"I notice it all the time," Mace said dryly. He sat in the arm chair, biting at his lower lip and rubbing his stomach. That was a habit he'd just come up with recently.
"I wonder why Jamie was so hateful. I guess Lem can have a baby if he wants to."
"Apparently he can even if he doesn't want to." Mason paused, then he said, "She's right. Jamie's pretty smart for a spoiled brat."
"But you sounded like you was happy for him."
"Happy for him? Scrounging around, beating the bushes for money, married to an empty-headed bottle of peroxide. Jamie was right. They aren't fit to raise a cat. Sure, I'm tickled pink for him."
"What is with you, Mace? You always sound mad lately," I said. "Lem ain't mad about it."
"He's scared silly."
"He looked happy to me, till Jamie started in on him," I said stubbornly.
Mason stood up and started to stretch, stopping suddenly. "Tex, you are not stupid, and you're not all that ignorant. But how anybody as simple-minded as you are has managed to survive for fourteen years is beyond me."
"Well, I had a wonderful smart sweet brother lookin' out for me," I said. I'm not sarcastic by nature, but I reckon you can learn anything if you're around it long enough.
"What a comedown." Jamie hung over the back of our seat and mocked us. "Having to ride the bus like other mere mortals."
"A whole week, too," Johnny grumbled. "No cycle for a whole week."
"At least Cole didn't haul it off to the junk yard like he threatened to at first. Bob's lucky, Mason can give him a ride."
"Yeah," I said, "if he wants to get there an hour early and stay two hours late. Mace is getting to be a fanatic about basketball."
Johnny sighed. Having a cycle at our school, where not too many people had them, really had done a lot for his ego. "You bring any snakes or frogs today, Tex?" he asked.
"Nope. Everything is hibernating."
"There's nothing to do. We already liberated the ant colony and it's too cold for a water-gun war."
"Aren't you in enough trouble?" Jamie asked. Johnny shrugged. "I don't know. I'm just so sick of Cole bossing me around. I feel like really giving him something to worry about."
Jamie settled back in her seat. "You can always go out and get drunk again. That worked real well."
Johnny didn't look too inclined to take that suggestion. I didn't tell him my idea for finishing my art project. I could tell it would just make him glum for not being able to do it himself.
I usually like art class. Most of the time I draw horses, which I happen to be real good at, or paint landscapes, which I can do well enough. Mostly I get C's in art, though, because Mrs. Germanie counts off for behavior.
The last three weeks had been driving me crazy. We were supposed to be making a free-form sculpture by gluing toothpicks together. Some of the kids really got off on that. I'm not much on free-form sculpture. As a matter of fact the whole project bored me out of my mind, until the last few days, when I thought of how I was going to finish it. I went nuts gluing toothpicks. Used lots of glue. Now I had a huge sticky mess about three feet high.
"Today is the final day of this project," Mrs. Germanie announced.
"Thank the Lord," I whispered, and the girl sitting at the next table giggled.
"I'll be passing by each desk during the hour to give you your final grade on it. So have it ready."
I was ready. When she got to the table just before mine, I set a match to my pile of toothpicks and jumped back as the flames shot up. "Grade it! Quick, grade it!" I hollered. I thought I'd crack up at the look on her face. Then she just stood there, watched it, wrote a grade down in her little book, and said, "Texas, make sure it's out before you go see Mrs. Johnson."
Mrs. Johnson was the vice-principal, and guidance counselor, and she was also the person to see when you got into trouble.
Mrs. Johnson wasn't real surprised to see me. I'd been to her office before.
I got the usual lecture and a swat with the board of education (that's what Mrs. Johnson called it), and finally she said, "Let's not see you in here again, Texas."
"Not this year, anyway," I said. "Maybe not anymore this month."
"Try to stay away until next week, anyway."
I nodded and waved as I left. Mrs. Johnson was real nice. I know that sounds funny coming from me, since I was the next-to-the-most swatted kid in the school. Roger Genet was the most, but he was mean. I always knew when I was doing something I could get swatted for. It was never any big surprise. See, Mrs. Johnson might swat me once in a while, but she always asked me how we were getting along, if we'd heard from Pop, and once she told me about some trouble Mason had been in when he was my age that I had never heard anything about from anyone else. She'd always say hi to me in the halls, and when I came to school after that fight me and Mason had, she spent five minutes trying to find out what happened (I wouldn't tell) and then another five telling me the best thing to do for a black eye. If you get the feeling somebody cares about what happens to you, then you don't mind it if they swat you once in a while.
It just wasn't my day. Miss Carlson asked me to stay after English class.
"Tex, you can't do two book reports on Smokey the Cowhorse."
"But I read it two times." I didn't tell her I'd read it two times last year, too. Smokey the Cowhorse was my favorite book. It had some real good pictures in it, too.
"Why don't you read another book by the same author?"
"You mean the same person might have wrote something else?" I don't know why I never thought of that. I guess I figured writing one book ought to last somebody a lifetime. I don't know how they sat still that long. A two-page book report wore me out.
"Written." Miss Carlson was always correcting our grammar. She was pretty young for a teacher. I don't know, once they get past twenty it's hard to tell how old they are, unless they're really old.
"Yes, Will James wrote several books. He did his own illustrations, too. I think you'd enjoy Lone Cowboy. Tex, have you ever thought about writing poetry?"
Poetry! Holy cow! I glanced around to make sure nobody had heard her say that. What had I ever done to make Miss Carlson think I ought to write poetry?
"No," I said finally.
"You might be good at it. Until you hand in another book report, I'll have to put down an incomplete for your grade."
"Okay. I'll do you another one," I said hastily. I was anxious to get out of there, not because of her, or what she was talking about--even though the poetry thing shook me. I really meant to get that book out of the library. But I was on my way to gym, and I didn't want to be late.
I hated gym. In some classes the teacher is mean to everybody, I can take that. And in some classes the teacher likes a couple of kids and is nice to them and everybody else can go jump in the lake. That's easy to live with, too. But sometimes a teacher has it in for just one or two people and I never liked that, even before I was one of the one or two people.
Coach McCollough had it in for me, because I wouldn't go out for basketball. He had it in his head that I could be the next McCormick Basketball Hero, another Mace the Ace. He took a lot of credit for Mason's playing, even though Mace didn't really get going good until high school. I would have rather gone out for track, but not going out for anything was the thing that would bug Coach most, so that's what I did. I love to bug people like him.
That day got off to a flying start, me coming in late. Then I had to do more push-ups than anybody else. Then during basketball practice I copied a Harlem Globetrotters routine and got everybody laughing. Then I had to go around the track two more laps than everybody else did. Then I got a lecture on getting a new gym shirt, since mine was torn up pretty bad. That wasn't too surprising, since, like most of my clothes, it'd been worn by Mason before me.
Then Coach got down to what he really wanted to say.
"You know what your trouble is, Mac? You have no competitive spirit."
The way he said it, not having any competitive spirit was like not having the sense God gave a goat. Well, maybe he was right. I don't know that much about it.
"If you didn't have the potential," he went on, "I wouldn't care what kind of lazy turkey you were. But you could be just as good a player as Mason if you'd cut the crap and work at it."