I'm being hounded by my many long-suffering (and permanently biased) family and friends for this book. So at last, I give you chapter one of my recently polished middle-grade tall-tale: The Many Adventures of Courtesy and Patience.
Chapter 1. Patience Takes the Blame
The drying earth and pig refuse chafed Patty’s backside, up into her petticoat. She itched at the spot and several boys snickered behind her. She would have to remind them of their mistake later, once she was cleaner and more confident. Through a curtain of mud-caked hair she glowered at them. Two of the boys shifted warily.
“Patience Tabitha Cowdery, come here at once,” called Mrs. Hibberd, steel in her voice.
The boys snickered again and Patty gritted her teeth. Now she would have to pay them double, this time for laughing at her name. Nobody but The Hibberd had the courage to call her Patience. She wondered how long it would take to make the boys cry when she and her best friend, Court, pinned them down and pounded their flabby bellies. Manky wouldn’t last long. For all the help his height gave him, he wasn’t the toughest of sorts.
“You boys too,” The Hibberd commanded.
That shut them up quick enough. They followed Patty around the side of the two-story ramshackle house. Keeping her back to them, Patty trudged from the backyard to the front, stepping clear of the boards that supported the home for displaced orphans like a crutch.
Patty halted below the front porch steps and picked at the old blue paint on the banister, avoiding the look of dismay on The Hibberd’s face above her. Behind her she could hear the boys shuffle their feet.
The orphan’s guardian sucked in her breath and propped her hands on her considerable hips. Ursula Hibberd towered over most men, but to runty Patty, she seemed taller than the balsam firs that blanketed the Maine landscape. Court was already there behind their guardian’s wide girth, his shoulders slumped contritely. He wasn’t sorry for himself or afraid of The Hibberd, Patty knew. He felt guilty for the trouble he’d now put Patty in.
“What have you done to your clothes, young lady?” cried Mrs. Hibberd.
Patty shrugged. “Fell.”
“Fell where? A pig pen?”
Patty squirmed. The old broad had guessed and Patty wished for the thousandth time that she could pull off a convincing lie like Court could.
But The Hibberd had already read her face. “You didn’t… you just wouldn’t… would you?”
Patty squirmed again. The smelly mud and pig dung began to dry in the front now too.
“You had better answer me,” ordered The Hibberd.
“I tried to ride that old sow of Mr. McCready’s for a laugh, only the gate came loose and the thing bolted.”
Hibberd’s mouth made a perfect O-shape and her graying hair, up in its loose bun, seemed to stand on end.
“You rode…?” she faltered, then collected herself to her full height. “That is the last straw!”
Hibberd grabbed her by the arm and for a moment Patty saw Molly Ringabow’s exultant face standing in the door frame, watching on. Patty was in for it, and nothing could make Molly happier. And what’s more—Patty’s heart burned—she was likely the gab that told on her.
Hibberd set Patty under the pump and hosed her down with water so cold Patty was sure it still had snow in it. The Hibberd stormed into the house, leaving Patty standing there, sopping and shivering in the wind. A moment later she was back with a pair of scissors in hand.
Gasps fell from the other orphan’s mouths like stones in the Penobscot River. Hibberd turned Patty around and began to hack away at her long, dark red hair. Patty stood still and stiff and bit back the tears the boys would never see. She tried to convince herself that longer hair just got in the way of climbing trees, keeping up with Court, and all the adventures the two of them planned on having someday.
“Hey, that’s not fair!” cried her friend, coming forward at last. “Why are you cutting her hair?”
“Because if Patience is going to act like a boy, she’s going to have to look like one too. I’m tired of seeing this hair in a snarl all the time! Can’t imagine why a twelve year old girl would want to behave so,” answered Hibberd, yanking at the nape of Patty’s neck, where she had set the length. Then she waved the scissors at Court. “No doubt this was your idea, Courtesy. One more of your infernal ‘ultimate double-dares.’ Well, you can just take yourself and any other boys involved down to the McCready’s place, find their sow and apologize for your actions.”
Court stared at her for one long moment in silent protest. Then he turned and glared at each boy that had been down at the pig pen. They understood immediately what he wanted and one by one they shuffled down the hill towards the McCready homestead. Court cast one last apologetic look at Patty then followed behind the other boys, herding them along with his mere presence.
“I’m sorry to have to cut what could have been such lovely hair, but now I hope you have a reminder to act more ladylike,” said Hibberd, spinning Patty around. “Women in this new century seem to want to be men! We don’t need to be men, Patty. We just need to manage the men we have.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” It was best not to argue with The Hibberd when she pounced on the moral decay of 1911.
“Can you at least try and be more like a lady? Can you act more like our Molly?” asked Hibberd, sending Molly’s face aglow.
Patty’s eyes studied the ground. Molly was nothing more than a honey-tongued sneak. And if only The Hibberd knew, she’d appreciate the differences between her two girl charges much more.
Hibberd sighed and straightened her back, hands on her waist. “As added punishment, you’ll have kitchen duty all by yourself.”
Patty should have known that was coming. The Hibberd patted her shoulder, almost apologetically. Almost.
“Now go to it, it’ll likely take you till dark.”
Patty slunk into the house, not caring to see the smug look painted on that blonde, freckled worm’s face.
She cried her sorrows into the big cast-iron pots, scraping and scrubbing the supper stew meat out until her hands and eyes were raw. She kept her fingers busy so that she wouldn’t be tempted to reach up and feel her lobbed tresses.
“Patty? You okay?”
Court hung from the window, the upper half of his body folded midsection and a winsome grin upon his face. If hanging like that was uncomfortable, he didn’t let on.
“You didn’t get your brain addled from the fall in the pig pen? Or get a whipping?”
She sighed. “No, Court.”
His smile faded entirely this time and he adopted the demeanor he had used on The Hibberd.
“I’m sorry, Patty,” he demurred. “It was that durn Billy Budwallow. He opened the gate thinking watching you rodeo through the cabbages would be grand fun. But don’t worry, I got him back and he’ll have to eat his gruel real slow the next few days.”
“Thanks, Court,” said Patty with little enthusiasm.
He shifted in his awkward position and his impish nose crinkled upward. “Hey Patty, have you ever heard of the Goobersnackey?”
Patty knew he was trying to bait her into a new game, but she wasn’t taking. She turned her back on him and stood at the sink, elbowing into the remainder of the forks and spoons. At last her curiosity got the best of her.
Court’s smile curled around his prominent cheek bones. He prolonged his answer by brushing his dark hair out of his eyes.
“Why, the Goobersnackey, of course. Mr. Squeezle told me all about it. See, it’s a giant glass eel that got trapped in them caves just above Little Pushaw Lake and while all the others were swimming up river, he stayed there, growing fatter and fatter on algae and other cave food.”
“Posh!” scoffed Patty. “Squeezle just told you that story to get you to leave his jellyfish alone.”
Mr. Squeezle was their closest neighbor and owned a local lumber operation. Out of a soft spot for the widow Hibberd, he employed the orphans in her group home to run errands or do odd, light jobs. He was an eccentric too, with dozens of jellyfish and seawater he’d transplanted from the Maine coast to the natural pools in his caves. He even went as far as to call the jellies his pets.
“Nah, he wouldn’t lie. Not to me, anyways.”
“But we’re done with ultimate double-dares, right?”
“I promise,” answered Court, brightening.
She was giving in and he knew it. Patty scowled. Court grinned. It annoyed her that he could read her so well.
“Cross my heart,” he added.
And he did.
Then he fell out of the window.
Patty sighed and walked to the sill. Unperturbed, she leaned out to find him lying on his back, catching his breath. At least this time it was the ground floor he had fallen from.
“Oh, all right then,” she hollered down to him, smiling.
“That’s a Patty I know. I’ll invite a few of the fellas and we’ll set out in the morning.”
“And let’s make sure this time we’re not followed by Molly Ringabow,” added Patty, her eyebrows furrowed. “Or she’ll be sorry.”