Twelve-year-old Ben Tom Lawless tossed and turned for two hours before sensing someone was in the room with him and his two brothers. When a shoe scuffed on one of the few remaining remnants of cheap linoleum on the pine floor he slept on, he was sure. His brothers, Willy, ten, and Trez, eight, asleep on matching army cots on both sides of Ben Tom, did not stir. Their breathing remained rhythmic, safe in the knowledge their older brother was a very light sleeper. And they knew he was armed.
Ben Tom had been more or less trapped all night between two quilts that smelled of mildew and the sweat of working men who seldom bathed before bedtime. Splinters grabbed the threadbare quilts each time he moved during the night.
Careful to keep his head still, he opened one eye and tried to locate the small billy club he laid beside his pallet. But the club had rolled out of reach on the unlevel floor. He pulled his switchblade from the back pocket of his Levi’s and used the quilt to muffle the sound as he flicked it open. Ben Tom heard the bedroom window open, the click of another switchblade, and the sound of the window screen being ripped. A strip of moonlight across the cobwebs and dust bunnies on the floor revealed a pair of black Converse basketball shoes that looked familiar.
When he heard the clank of metal in the corner where he had left his most prized possession, the gun his father had bought him, he risked a move of his head enough to see the dark figure pick up his new .410 shot-gun, Willy’s .22 bolt action, and Trez’s pellet gun—all gifts from their father when he went away.
He closed the blade on the switchblade and returned it to his pocket, lay back and tried to figure what had happened. He removed the wooden cross he kept in his other front pocket, the cross he had made from a piece of scrap soft pine rubbed smooth with Tung oil. He didn’t have the words to talk to God, so rubbing the cross was his way of praying, and Ben Tom felt compelled to pray a lot. The ritual usually put him to sleep, but not this night. He wondered why Uncle Clark had slit the screen in his own window and why he had taken their guns.
Over a breakfast of yesterday’s sausage and cold biscuits, Ben Tom asked his uncle where their new guns were. Clark’s eyes widened as he went into the bedroom where the boys had slept. The brothers looked at each other over cups filled with black coffee, the only thing hot about the meal. They heard their uncle’s curses from the bedroom.
Eyes cold, Clark returned to the table. “You boys leave that window open last night?”
They shook their heads.
“It’s open now. Screen’s been cut, too. Damn thief got off with your guns. You boys ought to know better than to leave a window open in this neighborhood. ”
Ben Tom stared at his uncle, disbelief in his eyes. Clark Mallory had been his hero. Next to his father, the man he looked up to most. Clark was athletic, tall and handsome with dark, thick hair. He had always seemed kind and generous. The man in their room last night could not have been Uncle Clark, but it was. Maybe he was just pulling a prank of some kind.
Clark erased all doubt as he returned Ben Tom’s stare with a warning look like nothing Ben Tom had ever witnessed from his uncle. “You boys leaving that window unlocked . . . your own damn fault you lost your guns. Clean up them dishes before you go to school.”
Ben Tom took a deep breath. He wanted the gun more than anything he had ever owned before. It was his only valuable possession. He stood and pushed back his chair as his uncle started to leave. “Why’d you cut your own screen?”
Clark paused at the kitchen door. He waved a hand dismissively toward the three boys as if erasing them. “You boys see this roof over your head; that grub on the table?”
Willy swelled with anger as he realized his uncle had taken their guns. His face warmed and contorted. Small for his age, he had been angry most of his life. He could not wait to get big enough to fight back. He im-agined sticking the fork he held in his hand into his uncle’s eye. Trez just stared at the floor.
Clark saw the anger and returned to the table. “Didn’t your mama or daddy ever tell you what I do for a living?”
Willy waited for Ben Tom to answer. When he didn’t, he pointed his fork at Clark. “They said you was a damn thief, but they didn’t tell us you was sorry enough to steal from your own family.”
Clark chuckled. “Hell, boy, about half the orders I get for merchandise comes from my own family. I been known to steal from one relative to sell to the other. I had an order for them guns and I filled it. Simple as that. Man came by to get ’em last night and slapped a hundred dollar bill in my hand.”
Ben Tom struggled to keep his voice from breaking. “I’d have given you a hundred.”
Clark scooted his chair back. “Now where in hell you gonna get a hundred? You ain’t got ten cents in your pocket and never have had.”
“I’d have found a way. Anything to keep our guns.”
Willy pointed the fork at Clark’s eye. “Daddy’s gonna kill you when he gets back. Hope he does.”
“Your daddy knows what I do for a living. I filled plenty of orders for him, too. I ain’t got no other skill, but I’m damn good at finding things people want and need.”
He walked back to the door and turned again. “You boys need to get your heads screwed on right. Your daddy and mama split up, married other people. My sister, your mama, married a sorry bastard makes me look like a Sunday School teacher. You want to go live with him? He’ll beat hell out of you every morning when he gets up and every night before he goes to bed. Just for the hell of it. He gets off on doing shit like that and she damn well knows it.”
Trez ducked his head and started to sniffle.
“Well, boys. What’s it gonna be. Here, your stepdaddy, or the orphan’s home?”
The kitchen faucet’s constant drip was the only sound for several seconds after Clark uttered his ultimatum. Ben Tom knew his uncle spoke the truth about Buck Blanton, his mother’s new husband. He was meaner than a junkyard dog. But that did not excuse Uncle Clark’s theft. “How you gonna explain to Daddy how you stole the guns he bought for us?”
“First place, your daddy’s long gone. When that bitch he married after your mama left him ran out on him too, he went off the deep end. Left you boys behind to go off chasing her and her new man. He should have left me money to pay for your keep instead of buying those guns. I just did what he should have done in the first place.”
Ben Tom’s chest swelled. “That ain’t so. He’s got a job traveling for a big oil company. Said he would send money, that he would come back for us and bring her with him.”
“You believe that crap about working for an oil company as a mud-man? Even if he did have such a job, which I doubt, he’s off looking for his woman. When he finds her, he’s likely to kill her or her boyfriend or both.”
All the boys’ eyes filled with tears. Trez started to sob.
Clark pointed at Trez. “Let’s say your daddy does bring that bitch back. Only one of you she ever wanted was Trez there. You ever wonder why she just wanted him?”
He nodded as if to affirm his own unfinished accusation. “I knew that woman before your daddy did. He don’t even know she’s got an unnatural attraction to little boys.”
Clark bent and put large hands on the table. His hands looked more like a musician’s than the sometimes violent thief they belonged to. He stared at his manicured fingernails and thought of the home safe he had cracked the night before. He might not have much education, but he was cunning, skilled at his craft, and knew it. “Look here, boys. I’m the only thing standing between you and Buckner Orphans’ Home. Your daddy told you that. I heard him.”
He straightened and filled his chest. “I’m just doing this for your mama out of the goodness of my heart. I ain’t got no kids to take care of myself. Thought you boys would be grateful and maybe help out around here. Instead, you’re giving me grief about the way I make a living.”
The boys had heard threats about orphanages most of their lives. As their parents struggled with abject poverty, trouble with the law, and marital infidelity, it had seemed the only resort on many occasions. The constant reminders had left them with an unnatural fear of such places.
Trez looked at Ben Tom. Willy looked into his uncle’s eyes, still pointing the fork. Ben Tom stood and picked up the chipped plates and coffee cups. He scraped the remnants into an open garbage can by the kitchen sink. “We’ll stay here.”
Clark took a deep breath and nodded. “Well, that’s settled then. Best get on to school.”
The boys stared at each other. Ben Tom shrugged. “We don’t know where the school is.”
“Then you better get started a little early. I don’t know anything about schools, but anybody on the street can probably tell you where one is. I think there’s one about ten blocks south of here.”
They ran hot water over Clark’s toothbrush and shared it. They took turns in the illegal outhouse because the water in the bathroom did not work. There was no hot water heater, so Ben Tom hauled water heated on the stove to the bathtub. Willy refused to bathe, then Trez, so Ben Tom set an example.
When he finished, he forced Trez into the used water and ducked his head under it. When he tried to do the same with Willy, he was met with a steak knife Willy had taken from the kitchen. Ben Tom started to take it away, but thought better of it. “Go to school nasty, then. You’ll embarrass me and Trez.”
Willy waved the knife. “What’s the use of bathing? We ain’t got no clean clothes.”
Ben Tom dropped their filthy underwear in the tub, thinking to leave them there to soak. But when he saw how full of holes they were, he dropped them all in the trash. They walked out in the street wearing the clothes they had slept in, without underwear.
Even in wrinkled and dirty clothes, the three boys walking in stair-step formation like soldiers going to war made quite a sight. They were all handsome, blessed with broad shoulders and narrow hips, olive unblemished skin, dark brown eyes protected by long eyelashes. Though Willy’s was greasy and matted, each boy had thick, black hair with enough curl to make it look even better when it was windblown or mussed. It was as if God had given them the gift of good looks and good bodies to compensate for hard times.
But the boys were unaware of their good looks, only of their shabby clothes and lack of a real home. They knew what awaited them in another new school. Ben Tom had to restrain his two brothers from turning back twice. After six blocks, they spotted another group of children about their age walking with books and followed them.
Without an adult to enroll them, they spent most of the morning sitting in the principal’s outer office. Ben Tom sneaked out as soon as they were left alone and ran to the phone booth he had spotted next to a nearby A&P grocery.
He dug the crumpled wad of paper with his mother’s phone number out of his pocket, deposited a dime and dialed.