Ogg’s eyes opened and he turned toward the warmth of the coals of last night’s fire. Where was he? A boy was tending the fire, stirring the coals and placing sticks to start a blaze. Dusty. He was in the eating-place where he had burned the barn. He got up quietly and waved to Dusty as he headed out to take care of his morning business. The blackened remains of the barn stilled smoked and glowed. The smell dominated the yard.
He thought back to last night. The barn burning. The good meal. And the warm place by the fire. The apron wearing man was Keeper Flak. He was Dusty’s daddy. There was still no sign of Box or Spar. He would have to hurry to catch up. Keeper Flak had asked him where he was going and Ogg was pleased that he remembered the place named Sunflower. Three day’s ride, four, probably more, to walk. It was off to the west after a two-day’s travel north on the road. The morning fog was lifting and Ogg decided he better get started.
When he returned to the eating-place Keeper Flak was up and about in the kitchen along with a lady. Ogg knew about mothers even though he had never had one. His Daddy would not allow Queedle or Bosco to talk about their mother. She was Ogg’s mother too, of course, but he never knew her because, like Daddy said, he killed her by being born. Ogg learned to stay away from questions about her because it always made everyone angry if he asked. He remembered how Daddy would say, ‘We got no need for women here now,’ and how upset Daddy was when Durn went away with that lady.
The lady, Dusty’s mother, gave him a bundle as he was warming by the fire.
“Here’s a morning meal and something for later.” She smiled a friendly smile.
“Thank you.” Ogg took the bundle and smelled the ham. He looked at the woman. She was wrapped up against the morning chill and had a big pile of hair tied in a knot on the top of her head. She had a soft face and a soft looking mustache. Like his own, only no beard.
Goodbyes were exchanged as Ogg stuffed the bundle into his shirt. He gathered his axe and stepped into the morning chill. Sunflower. Four or five days, maybe more. Those were numbers for more days than this bundle of food would last. He promised himself to be careful and not eat too much too soon. He had, on occasion, eaten his mid day meal in the wagon on the way to work in the morning and it always made for a very long workday. He reached into his shirt and wormed his hand into the bundle, finding, by feel, a biscuit. It was still warm. He worked it out of the bundle and out of his shirt and nibbled as he walked along.
. . .
It was past mid-day. The road made for an easy walk. The land was flat and the sun was warm on his back. He had, however, not kept his promise to himself. He had finished the food in the bundle at his mid-day meal. He hadn’t stopped to rest, just ate a bite or two along the way. But before he knew it he was savoring the last bite of ham and carefully shaking the crumbs from the cloth of the bundle into his mouth.
There were houses along the way, off the road. Not many. Most looked empty. It looked like there had been fields growing something along here. But not now. There were wood rail fences and some stone markers showing the boundary of one man’s land from another. Like his Daddy put up. Markers he and his brothers had to check from time to time to be sure they hadn’t been torn down or moved by others wanting to take their land.
There were fights with neighbors sometimes. About who was on whose land. There hadn’t been much fighting in a while though, since he had gotten old enough to join his brothers and Daddy when they were “called out” to settle these disputes.
But the fences and boundary stones Ogg could see from the road were overgrown or falling down and no one was working the land or tending any animals near the houses. Chicken was a favorite of his and he was hoping he might find some nearby if one or another of these houses was occupied.
He knew he would have to steal a chicken if he found any. He was a traveler and a stranger to this land. His Daddy always turned travelers away. Ogg knew he was like those men now, asking for a cup of water or a bite to eat. “You’ll get no handouts here, move on.” was what his Daddy always said, so he would have to take what he needed.
“Folks won’t give you nothing in life.” his Daddy said. “You got to look out for yourself.” Ogg thought back to the man and the woman in the wagon and the basket of food. And Dusty’s mom who gave him the bundle of food this morning. Maybe women gave you things. Maybe that’s what was missing from Daddy’s saying.
Just a bit later his eye caught a whisp of smoke from a chimney at a house up ahead. He smiled to himself and gave a little whoop. Evening was approaching and a fire had been lit here and this might be a house that had a yard full of chickens. Ogg turned off the road and began to work his way around to approach the house from behind.
. . .
The smell of chicken roasting was more than he could stand. Ogg reached into the flames and pulled a strip of flesh off the breast of the chicken as it hung above the fire. He had been lucky at the house. There was no dog to chase him after he had cornered and grabbed two chickens. He had taken off running when a door opened and a voice shouted, “Hey, stop.” Then some other yelling, but he was too far away by then to tell what they were saying. By then Ogg was pushing his long stride hard across the field, over a fence where it had fallen to only two rails and across the road, then down the road, legs and chest pumping, two chickens in one hand and his axe in the other. Once out of sight of the house he had turned off the road and headed to a tree lined creek. He slowed his sprint to a lope, but kept moving hard until he got to the shelter of the brushy creek.
Having worked his way up the creek and away from the road, he found a small sand bar and a high creek bank against which to build a small fire. He would not be seen here, this far up the creek in this tangle of brush. He hoped. He plucked and cleaned the chickens, gathered some kindling and was now sitting down for a well earned meal. Both chickens were spitted and roasted. The fire had burned to coals and there was no blaze to draw attention of travelers on the road.
He had just finished the first chicken and was sucking the grease from his fingers. He was contemplating whether to eat the second one now or to put it aside for his morning meal when he caught sight of movement in the brush up the creek. He froze and listened. His fire was barely a glow and it wasn’t dark enough yet to make it noticeable. An animal? No further sound. He stood and took his axe in hand. Listening. He stood up and edged a small step toward the noise he was sure he had heard. Stop. Listen.
“Please, I’m hungry.” The voice startled him. A boy’s voice. Young. He peered up the creek. Listen. Were there others? Down the creek? Was someone sneaking up on him while this boy talked to him?
“Quiet.” he ordered. Limbs rustled. He could see a figure now, standing and holding a branch down to make himself visible to Ogg.
“Be still.” Ogg commanded again. He held his breath. Nothing but the creek noise. Downstream a bird called its territory. Ogg nodded his approval. If anyone had been coming from that direction the bird would have flown or at least been silent.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I’m hungry,” the boy answered.
“Come where I can see you better.” Ogg stood listening. Was this boy alone?
The figure stepped out of the brush and onto the edge of the creek. It was getting dark, but Ogg could still see well enough. A tall boy. Thin. Dirty, with torn pants and sleeves and a cloth hat. And a soft face.
“Are you a woman?” he asked.
“Yes, and I’m hungry.” she answered.
This was different.