The Boy Next Door
by Ron Van Sweringen
Things are not always black and white. Sometimes they are the color of love.
When Big John was finished setting the new glass panes, with Billy Joe’s help, it was lunch time. Erthelene served up a fine chicken stew with cornbread and baked apples. Everyone enjoyed the meal, especially Snake Dog. He rolled over after licking his pie tin clean and took a nap on the front porch.
Before he left, Big John replaced a length of rope which had rotted away on the large black iron alarm bell, mounted on a wooden post by the back door.
“You might need this one day,” he said to Erthelene, “having no telephone and living here alone with the boy. Just ring this a good five or six times. I’ll hear it. My place is less than a mile away. Other folks who hear it too, will know you need help.”
Erthelene thanked him and tried to pay him two dollars, but to no avail.
“Can’t accept your money, ma’am,” Big John said, “but I would be grateful for a home-cooked meal every now and again. In as much as I ain’t got a touch in the kitchen, living alone and all.”
Erthelene smiled, wiping her hands on her apron. “We’d be glad to have you come over on Saturday night. Uncle Mabus will be here. Can’t promise you much, but you’ll be welcome.”
A few minutes later, she watched the wagon slowly make its way down the gravel drive and disappear. She was glad the alarm bell had been repaired and that Big John was near enough to hear it.
* * *
Uncle Mabus reached out of the truck window and shook the black man’s hand. “Good morning Mr. Coats,” he said smiling. “How you feeling?”
“Pretty fair, Mr. Mabus,” was the reply. “What can I do for you?”
“My brother’s daughter, Erthelene, has moved into his old cabin out by Black Water Lake. Good Lord willing, she plans on staying and working the place,” Uncle Mabus answered, climbing out of the truck. “I’d like to set her up with about eight or nine good layers and a strong crowing cock.”
“The layers won’t be a problem,” Mr. Coats smiled, leading the way to a large wire enclosed chicken yard. “The problem is, the only cock I have for sale right now is Big Red over there,” he continued, pointing to a large red rooster strutting among a group of hens.
“He looks pretty good to me,” Uncle Mabus said. “Can he get the job done?”
“No trouble on that account,” the black man smiled, “but you need to know, he don’t care much for people or dogs.”
An hour later, the old red pick-up pulled into the cabin driveway and Erthelene came out on the porch to greet it.
“What have you got there?” she asked, nearing the truck for a closer look. Her hands flew up over her mouth in surprise when she saw the three chicken crates. “Oh Lord! they’re beautiful, Uncle Mabus,” she laughed, throwing her arms around the old man.
“This is my housewarming gift to you and the boy,” Uncle Mabus said as Erthelene danced around him. “You might even do well enough with these hens to sell a few eggs down the line,” he laughed, happy to see Erthelene’s joy.
“First though, I need to see about fixing up that old coop,” Uncle Mabus said. “Got my tools here, but I could use some help. Where’s Billy Joe?”
Erthelene raised her hand to shield her eyes from the sun and pointed across a nearby field. “About to break a leg getting here.” She smiled. They both watched the laughing boy, with the big yellow lab at his side, racing through the knee-high weeds, his arms flailing in the air.
“He loves you, Uncle Mabus, and so do I,” she said softly to the old man, taking his hand.
The next morning a new voice was heard at sun-up and it was loud! It was Big Red, standing on the roof of the chicken coop, surveying his domain and crowing his heart out.
Billy Joe pulled on his overalls and raced downstairs with Snake Dog at his heels. Today he was going to whitewash the old chicken coop all by himself. Uncle Mabus was set to inspect the job that afternoon.
Erthelene had a hard time keeping him at the kitchen table. He was finished with his oatmeal and half a glass of milk before she gave in and let him go racing out to the bucket of whitewash Uncle Mabus had mixed.
“Be careful splattering that paint around,” Erthelene called from the back porch. “I’m going to be hanging out the wash soon and I don’t want any mess,” she warned. Then she tied her head up in a bandanna, the way she watched her mother do a thousand times.
“Yes, ma’am,” Billy Joe answered, his arms already white up to the elbows.
The hens were freely roaming the yard, scratching for worms and bugs. The big red rooster stood right in the middle of them, watching over his harem. Billy Joe finished whitewashing one side of the coop, except for a few spots that needed redoing, and Snake Dog rested in the grass watching the boy work.
It was nearing lunch time and getting hot. Erthelene finished hanging out the last of the wash when suddenly there was a loud screech from Big Red. The big rooster jumped up in the air, his talons out in fighting position, the hens running for safety. Snake dog was up in an instant as Big Red came down on a large rattlesnake. The dog caught the rattler near its tail, but backed off when the snake turned to strike, its rattles giving a loud warning.
Billy Joe, seeing the snake heading straight for him, tripped over the whitewash bucket, splattering himself with paint. Erthelene ran from the back porch with a garden hoe, but Snake Dog had already severed the snake’s head. In the confusion, Erthelene managed to trip over the paint bucket herself, and to make matters worse, Big Red flew into the chicken yard, attacking the snake’s severed head and flapping whitewash everywhere.
Erthelene and Billy Joe sat in the grass laughing while Snake Dog ran circles around them, dragging the dead snake in his mouth. Then they witnessed something hard to believe. The big rooster jumped up on the lab’s back, flapping its wings for balance, while riding around the yard crowing.
In all the melee, no one noticed Uncle Mabus standing on the back porch with a big grin on his face. “Well I guess I know what we’re having for dinner tonight,” he said, winking at Billy Joe.
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen