April 1st, 1655, (Monday):
Harper had convinced himself so thoroughly, that when Monday came, and he waited and waited for Blackman at the fork, he grew alarmed. Had Blackman's father gotten too rough? Had he beaten his son so badly this time that Blackman couldn't go to school? Or had the man finally decided to pull his son from his education? Harper was torn between going on to school and going to Blackman's cottage. His worry won out and he ran down the right fork towards the woods.
The woodcutter's dwelling gave every appearance of being desolate, deserted. Harper knocked. When no one answered, he pushed open the door and went in.
"Mr. Blackman?" Nothing ... "Billy?" Again, there was no reply.
Harper's footsteps echoed eerily through the unoccupied building. Relief waited on the sidelines, growing stronger as the youngster continued failing in his search for an injured friend. But ... if he wasn't injured, then, why wasn't he in school?
"Billy?" His voice shook with dread as he hesitated before the opening to the tiny cubicle where his friend slept. He nudged aside the old, faded curtain that was the only door to privacy Blackman claimed, and peered inside. Relief flooded the young boy; Blackman was not lying within.
But the question returned in full force ... where was he?
Harper noticed Blackman's clothing was not hanging on the pegs. It was then that the truth hit him; Blackman had run off to sea. Desolation struck hard. He had lost his friend. Billy had promised to wait but hadn't. Blackman had lied to him. Tears flooded Harper's green eyes. Blindly, he stumbled from the silent cottage.
He was calm when he reached the school, embittered and irate, but calm enough until he saw Kettle.
"You two are late. You'll stay after and make up for your tardiness."
"Mr. Kettle ... " There was something in his tone that made the teacher glance sharply toward him. The fragile dam of anger Harper had built around his heart broke and the agony of losing his best friend, of that pal's betrayal, returned fourfold.
"Raymond?" Kettle's tone was quiet, his walk toward his best student slow and easy, but his blue eyes contained concern.
"He's gone! Billy is gone! He told me he'd stay but he lied! He's gone!" Tears blinded him. He felt Kettle's hands on his arms and allowed the man to turn him around so he faced the hallway again. "He lied to me!"
"Aye, so you said. Murphy, you're in charge. I expect the work you're all doing now to be finished when I come back, and if I hear any noise, I shall be angry. Is that understood?"
"I'll keep them in line, Sir, " Murphy bragged pompously.
"See that you do." Kettle led Harper down the hallway and on to his private quarters. "I'll make you a warm cup of tea. Sit." Harper sat. He blinked rapidly to keep the tears at bay. "What happened?" Kettle inquired gently as he put water on to boil.
"Billy's gone." The tears overflowed again. "He lied to me; He said he would stay and he didn't."
"Where has he gone?" Kettle was a man who did not believe in wasted time; As he talked, he measured dark tea granules into his tea pot. Harper did not reply; He simply sat there, wiping at the moisture on his cheeks, in his eyes. "Harper, where did he go?"
"I promised I wouldn't say anything." The tears had ceased but the depression that darkened his life at that moment made his inflection dull.
"Aye, " Kettle murmured dryly, "you would." In a louder, clearer voice, he asked, "Does his father know?" He poured water into the teapot, covered it with a thick cloth. The teacher went to the small davenport and sat beside Harper. "I don't know." Grief altered the color of his eyes, darkening them. "Why did he do it?"
"Did he not say anything to you?"
"He said there was nothing for him here and that he was tired of getting struck by you and his father."
"What I did, I did for his own good. Someday, he'll realize that. I fear he'll not find it any easier at sea; most captains keep a tight hold on the men on board their vessels. Nay, I doubt he'll find an easier life."
"I would like to go home."
"Why?" At the perplexed, hurting shimmer in the green eyes, Kettle announced briskly, "Life is not an easy thing to face at times, but you'll not be doing yourself a service by running away and hiding whenever something's bothers you."
Harper bit his lower lip so hard, drops of blood appeared on the torn flesh.
"You'll go back into that classroom and continue with your education."
"Yes, sir." A wall of grayness grew around him, like a mist it was, growing thicker with each passing moment.
"I expect you to continue as you did before. I'll not allow you to slack off."
"Yes, sir." The tears had finally ceased but the mist of depression hung on.
Kettle's touch of understanding shocked the boy. "It is hard now, saying good-by, but I promise, it'll get easier."
Harper believed him, and that offered him a great deal of comfort. "Yes, sir."
The next day, Blackman, senior came stomping into the school room. "I heard my boy has run off! You, Harper, did you know he was going?!" The rage on his face made him appear uglier than he was. Fear froze Harper's voice. "I asked you a question!" The grown-up stepped further into the room.
Kettle stepped between the furious man and the youngster. "You cannot come into my class room with your wrath. I won't allow it."
"Step aside, schoolteacher," Blackman, senior said in disgust. He shoved the smaller man backwards and took two more steps toward Harper. The man's thick, strong hand went up. "Did you know?"
"I'll not let you batter someone's else's child." Kettle worked a miracle; one moment, Blackman, senior was standing, and the next, he was flying backwards into the wall. The huge man was up again instantly. The wrath he was experiencing had grown until his whole face was mottled. "You will act like a human, if you can, or you will leave my home."
Kettle's stance stopped him. "If you try to touch Ray Harper, I will trash you to the very inch of your life." Something in his voice told the huge, mountain of a man that he would ... and that he could. Blackman, senior tried to glare him down but Kettle would not be capitulate and it was the taller, heavier man who surrendered, angrily to be sure, but succumb he did. "I want my son." His inflection revealed his extreme rage.
"We shall go into my private quarters and speak. Harper, you will accompany us."
"Yes, sir." His voice, to his horror, was barely above a whisper.
"Hold your head up, Harper. You've done nothing wrong, " Kettle ordered firmly.
Harper wanted to believe but that repellent glower on Blackman, senior's face, produced icy dread within the ten year old's body. They went into the back room and Kettle shut the door.
"Did you know my son was leaving?"
Harper's mouth worked for a moment then, "Yes ... I mean ... he told me but I thought ... he promised he would wait." His was so cold with the fear he was experiencing, he trembled violently. His face was ashen.
"Where did he go?" Blackman, senior demanded.
"The sea; He ran off to become a cabin boy on a ship."
Blackman, senior's fist slammed into a small table. It broke into huge, splintered pieces of polished wood.
"You will kindly cease destroying my home." The warning look in George Kettle's expression informed the other man he meant business.
"If I find him ... "
"That...sir..." Kettle said sharply, bluntly, "is one reason why he ran off to sea." Blackman's father did not understand. "A child needs love, not violence."
"You! Oh, aye, you're with boys all day long, but what do you know about rearing one? Will would have spent his life playing if I had not kept a tight reign on him! Dallying doesn't provide a living; he has to be harder than the next man if he wants to get anywhere in this life! Aye, I smacked him around ... when he needed it. Love doesn't fill an empty belly." Blackman, senior shook his shaggy head. He turned hard, black eyes on Ray Harper. "You should have told me."
"I didn't think he'd do it. He promised me he'd think about it."
"If I find him ... " Blackman's father left, stomping from the room.
"I pity young Blackman if that man locates him, " Kettle murmured. Harper shivered in apprehension. "Go back to the class room. You have to finish your essay."
Three days later, Ray Harper was waylaid by Tommy Foley, the town bully, and Bolter, his crony. Foley jumped out of a tree right in Harper's path. Harper nearly swallowed his tongue. He clutched his books to his chest.
"You're alone, you are, " Foley said smugly. Harper inhaled raggedly. "Not so brave without that Blackman, are you? He's not here to fight your battles, now is he?"
"Let me pass."
"Or what? Will you cosh me? Huh?" He pushed Harper. "Will ya?" He viewed the younger boy's white countenance with conceited satisfaction. "Nah, not you. You're a coward, a regular peepbird, you are. I don't like your face." Foley struck Harper with an extremely accurate fist. Both boys jumped on the younger one then. They left Harper in the ground, weeping.
Bleeding, clothes torn and dirty, Harper picked up his soiled hat, plopped it wearily back on his head. He limped home. His father demanded the names but Harper refused to tell. Fear was the major reason behind the silence; if Foley was accused, he'd be even rougher the next time.
The next day, Kettle viewed the battered features, the withdrawn manner of the youngster in hidden dismay. "Stay after school." Harper nodded, too depressed to talk. At four, Kettle inquired, "What happened?"
"Nothing." Bright cheeked, Harper kept his eyes downward, centered on his scratched hands.
"I'll not have you lying to me. Falsehoods are one thing I will not abide. Do you grasp my words?" Harper nodded. "What happened?"
Panic made the boy's voice tremble. "I have to go home!" He shot up. Kettle grabbed his upper arm but just as quickly let go when Harper flinched in pain. "Please, Mr. Kettle." Green eyes pleaded with the man.
"Go then." Worried, he watched the ten year old Ray Harper run from the room.
Ray's footsteps slowed as he neared the spot where the boys had met him yesterday. Surely they wouldn't be here again today. Surely once was enough.
They were there.
"Cor, if it ain't the peepbird."
Foley moved forward in relish as Harper backed up. The older boys were rougher than yesterday and Harper finally grabbed a branch from the ground. "Put it down, peepbird."
"Leave me alone!" His panic and terror could not be hid.
"I said, put it down, peepbird." Foley's mouth twisted. "I don't like that stick in your hand." He shot forward and jerked the branch from Harper. "Nah, I don't like it at all." He swung the large branch at the younger boy's face and Harper's right cheekbone was broken, the flesh split and gaping. The pain was so intense, he fell unconscious to the ground. He lay there bleeding. His father, concerned over the beatings and the lateness, went in search and found him comatose on the ground. He brought him home, called the doctor, the constable who spoke with the father, but Mr. Harper did not know who had done it. Even Mr. Kettle came to his house.
When Harper had recovered enough that the laudanum could be halted, Kettle brought homework for Harper to do. "This should keep your mind occupied while you finish recuperating."
Harper glanced apathetically at the books.
"When you're better, I'll teach you how to defend yourself. I don't believe in fisticuffs but a little training in dirty boxing will do you well. Aye, and we'll build your strength as well. You're too skinny and weak. Your father agrees that these beatings canna go on." Dull eyes glittered with humiliation as they gazed, briefly, into discerning blue ones. Kettle's heart ached for the young lad but he did not show it. It was not the teacher's way. "Who did it?" Harper closed his bruised eyes. "Was it Blackman's father?"
It was difficult for him to talk. His speech was slow and slightly slurred. IF he moved the muscles in his face too much or too fast, the pain returned. He reopened his eyes, met Kettle's scrutiny with numbness. If he did not think then he did not truly feel.
"You'll not do them nor yourself any favors by hiding their identities."
"I thank you for the books."
"Wicked creatures they are to take advantage of an innocent such as yourself, but you'll not be staying that way. I'll see to that. I'll teach you self-defense." "I don't ... " Harper took in a deep breath, "I don't like to fight."
"I don't imagine you're overly fond of being battered either. It's settled then. When you're well enough, when that cheekbone has healed, I'll start the lessons. Until then, I'll be bringing your work here. Your father will be keeping you home."
"And I'll not let you be slacking of because you're in a little pain."
"See that you do all that work. I shall return tomorrow evening to fetch it and answer any questions you might have."
Kettle hesitated then said in a perceptive voice. "Aye, I know things are dark right now but they'll not be staying that way."
Ah, but did the boy believe the man?
"You're a good lad, Ray Harper; Aye, a good lad, and I'm proud of you."
"Yes, sir, thank you." What did it matter? Blackman was gone; Blackman had lied to him. He tried to grit his teeth to keep the tears at bay but the pain of that action nearly over-whelmed him. Sickness churned in his stomach.
"Tomorrow is another day, Raymond."
Kettle hesitated then said, "I will be back."
To be continued.
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