The Mark of a Man

By Lois Overton

AKA Foxhole Filly

"Come back here right now, young man,"; a voice called out from a room in the back of the house.

Chip Saunders stopped mid-stride on the last step.  So close to freedom.  "Aw, how'd you know?";

"Call me psychic.  I'm your father, and that means I know everything.  Now get in here and eat the breakfast your mother slaved over this morning.";  Giggles from the kitchen punctuated his words.

"But, Dad, I'm not....";

"Now, young man.";

Chip tossed his third baseman's mitt on the chintz covered sofa and dragged himself off to join his family at the breakfast table.  Slumping onto a white wooden chair between his brother Chris and his Dad, he propped his head on a fist jammed into his cheek.  

"Elbows off the table,"; Charles Saunders warned gently.

"I'm really not hungry." He placed his hands in his lap and looked pleadingly toward his father.  The man's expression told him that it was an argument he'd not win.  

Chip's mother picked up a plate stacked with pancakes.  "You're a growing boy, and you need food.  Here, Chris, pass this to Chip.  ";  

"Thanks,"; Chip mumbled as he slid three pancakes from the plate, buttered them, and slathered on half a bottle of maple syrup.  

"Hmm.";  Father sat back and rubbed his chin, eyeing the boy.  "For someone who wasn't hungry, that's a lot of pancakes.";

Chip stabbed three large pieces as one and shoved them into his mouth.  "Guess I was hungrier than I thought.";  

"Chip eats like a pig,"; his brother Tom said from across the table. He pushed his nose up with the tip of a finger to display his nostrils and snorted in a fairly good imitation.  

Joey, the youngest, laughed with glee and imitated his Tom's actions.  

"Cut it out, Squirt,"; Tom threatened, "or I'll throw you out in Bigelow's hog pen and let the hogs have at you.  See how you like being a piggy then.";  

Joey's face darkened a moment, but when he saw the corners of his brother's mouth upturning, he brightened.  "You bad boy,"; he chastened his older brother, giving him a final snort.  Tom reached over and pressed his knuckles into his brother's wild mop and rubbed until the boy screamed his submission.  

"That's enough, you two,"; Charles warned.

Mae Saunders looked at her brood with pride.  Four blond sons, perfectly spaced stair steps from Chip to the baby of the family, Joey.   Almost twins but for the differences in height, each taking after his father's looks and sharing his love for the outdoors and for sports.   

Yet each was different in temperament.  Chip was good-hearted and serious, doing nothing halfway.  Tom was a quick-witted scamp who would do anything for a laugh; he could charm the socks off anyone he met.  Chris, honest to a fault, figured everyone wanted to hear anything he thought of.  And then there was Joey, a bright, energetic five year old who seemed to have drawn what was best from each of his brothers and claimed it as his own.  

Mae felt blessed to have them in her life.  Those boys were her reason to get up every morning and cook, clean, and care for them.  She especially loved these Saturday morning breakfasts full of friendly banter.  

Charles's voice brought her out of her reverie.  

"What were you trying to sneak out so fast for this morning?  Something important?";  Dad questioned, blowing over a cup of hot, black coffee.

"Well, yeah,"; Chip reminded him.  "Baseball practice.  Remember we've got the big game Saturday.  The team's gotta get in a lot of practice if we're going to beat Obermeier's Hardware.";

"Hmmm?"; Dad kidded.  "Did I know anything about a game?";

Chris snapped off a bite of bacon and chewed it furiously.  "Sure ya did.  Chip ain't talked 'bout nothin' else for weeks.   Baseball's all he ever talks about any more.  'I'm gonna be a third baseman just like Willie Kamm,' "; he mimicked.   "You just think he's great 'cause you saw him throw out Tony Lazzeri.  Shoot, anybody with half an arm could make an out on Lazzeri.";

Chip shook his head.  "Not made an out.  Lazzeri, Gehrig, and Ruth.  All three out in one game.";

"Chip,"; Mae Saunders reminded her son as she filled a glass with orange juice and handed it down to him, "don't talk with your mouth full.";

With great effort the boy forced the mass of pancake to slide down his throat, ending with a loud gulp.  "Sorry.";  When Chris tried to speak, Chip held up his finger for him to wait.  He tipped the glass and swallowed down the entire contents without stopping for a breath.  Then he continued.  "One of the greatest feats in White Sox history, third baseman or not.  And I was sittin' there in Comiskey to see every one of 'em.  "You remember that Dad?  You, me, Chris and Tom, all of us in the stands that day?  Wasn't that the greatest?";

Dad gave a thumbs up.

"I'm gonna be a third baseman just like Kamm.  And if you're really nice to me, Chris, I just might let you have tickets to see me play when I'm famous.";  The eleven year old stuck out his tongue at his younger brother.  

"Well, if I was gonna pick anybody on the Sox to be, it wouldn't be Kamm.  It'd be Moe Berg.  He's one heck of a player.  Besides he gets to wear that great catcher's mitt.";  Tom slapped one fist into the palm of the other several times.  

"You know,"; Charles Saunders interrupted, "Uncle Dave has season tickets to the Sox.  He says that we can have them whenever he isn't going, or if he doesn't give them to a client.  Driving up there is a bit of a stretch, but we could take sandwiches and all. ";

The boys' eyes lit up at the possibility.  Each tried talking louder than the rest as they set their dreams in motion.  Father smiled that he'd been able to make his sons so happy.  With all the talk around the plant lately about how bad things were starting to look in the country, the chance to attend a game or two was just what the family needed to raise its spirits until the economy took off again and things were back to normal.  

Mae pushed back from the table and began to clear dirty dishes.  "Well, I for one will be glad when this little bundle gets here and maybe I can finally have someone around here who isn't into baseball and all that other silliness.";  She patted her tummy, which grew rounder and rounder every day.

Charles pulled his wife to him and onto his lap.  "No girls allowed here.  Won't stop till I have a team.  This one is going to be named William, and he'll be a pitcher.";

"Over my dead body.";  She pulled away and carried a stack of plates to the sink.  "This one is going to be a girl.  Her name will be Louise.  Louise Marie Saunders.  After your mother and mine.  And that's final.";

"Good thing Grandma's name wasn't Murgatroid,"; Chip laughed.

Joey clapped.  "Moogatoy.  Grandma Moogatoy.";

Mr. Saunders shook open the paper and buried himself in the pages.  "We'll see.  We'll see.";

"Last call for bacon,"; Mae announced, holding out a plate with four slices left.  "No takers?  OK, in the trash it goes.";

A hard rap sounded at the back door, and it banged open.  A tall redheaded boy pushed his way in without invitation and stood by the table. He nodded toward Mae and then to Charles.  "Mrs. Saunders.  Mr. Saunders.  Great day, huh?";

"Morning, Ben,"; Charles said without looking up.

"Bacon, Ben?";  Mrs. Saunders offered.

Ben stuffed the mitt he carried into his armpit and snatched two pieces.  "Well, don't mind if I do, Mrs. Saunders.  This sure is great bacon.  My mom cooks it too limp, but this is the best I ever tasted.  Say, is anyone eating that?";  he asked, eyeing the remaining pancake.  

Mae grinned and held it out for him.  Ben took it and snatched the other two pieces of bacon.  He wrapped the bacon in the pancake and shoveled the sandwich into his waiting mouth.  

Charles looked over the top the paper.  "Ben, don't your parents ever feed you?";  

"Sure, Mr. Saunders, but Ma says I eat a lot 'cause I'm growin' like a weed.  Pa says it's 'cause I got a hollow leg to fill up.  Me?  I just know I eat 'cause I'm hungry all the time.";   Ben finished off the last of the pancake and licked each finger to retrieve the very last morsel.  "You ready to go, Chip?  Skippy says to bring your new Louisville Slugger.  He wants to try it out before the big game.";

"Sure, I'll go get it.";

"Get Joey's hat while you're up there.  He'll need it.  Make sure he keeps it on,"; Father said absently, returning to his reading.

Chip stopped on a dime and whirled around. "Joey?  Joey needs his hat?  Why?  Where's he going?";

"He's going with you.  You're going to take care of him today.";

Joey's pale blue eyes lit up.  This was the best news he could have heard.  He loved his three brothers, but he idolized Chip.  No one in the family knew how or why it happened. They just knew that when baby Joey came home from the hospital and they  placed him in his oldest brother's lap, something magical happened. There was an immediate connection.  Joey had latched onto Chip's index finger, squeezed it, and never let go.  As he grew up, he played with the other boys, but wherever Chip went Joey wanted to be there, too.  Chip taught Joey how to pull himself up on the coffee table in the living room to stand for the first time.  He held him up while he took his first steps, and when he ventured into the world of walking on his own, it was to his brother Chip.  

Chip had always done things with his brother.  He held nails in boards while Joey pounded them, and he never hollered when the hammer hit his finger instead of metal.  Chip showed his little brother how to make a whistle by blowing across a broad leaf of grass wedged between his thumbs.  He made him and Joey guns from pieces of wood and cut rubber band bullets from inner tubes; then they played war where he let his brother shoot him, and he played dead.

In the beginning Chip had enjoyed the worship.  Then as the years went on, he began to resent the attention.  He had friends now and places to go with them.  He certainly didn't need a little tag-along slowing him down.  

Being in charge of Chris wasn't so bad, but Joey had the attention span of a peanut.  Taking Joey to the ball field would be pure disaster.  He would be all right for a while, but it wouldn't be long until the boy was tired of watching practice and would start bugging him.  

"I have to watch Joey?  Aw gee.  Where are you and mom gonna be?";

"If it's any of your business, your mother has a Friends of the Library meeting.";

"We're planning a carnival for homeless children,"; Mae explained.  "We'll be at it most of the morning.  I can't take Joey to that.  He'd be bored stiff.";

Chip looked to his father pleadingly.

"And I'm going in to the plant today.  There's a big job we have to get done.  As the line supervisor at the bottom of the list, the chance to pick up some overtime is usually gone by the time they get to my name. If I get the opportunity, I'm not turning it down, even if it's only a half day.";

"Are we poor, Dad?";

Charles shot an exasperated look at Mae.  "No, Chris, we aren't poor.  It's just that since we bought the new automobile, we don't have a lot of extra money floating around, so when I have a chance to earn overtime, it helps buy extra things.  Like a trip to Comiskey.  So stop whining about being asked to watch your little brother, Chip.";

"Hey, Chip, for a trip to Comiskey, I'd watch a dinosaur."; Ben said.  "I mean...Comiskey.  How bad can watching the midget be?";  

Joey stood on tiptoe and measured himself against his brother's best friend.  "I'm not a midget.  You're a midget.";  He poked Ben in the ribs, and Ben poked back, pretending to punch him in the abdomen.

"Why can't Chris or Tom watch him then?  Why does it have to be me all the time?"; Chip complained.

"Don't be ridiculous,"; Mother scolded as she put the milk back in the ice box.   "You know Chris is too young to be left alone with him.  And Tom is mowing Grandpa's lawn.  You don't want Grandpa having to do it, do you?  Chris is going to Lascara's for the morning.  Mrs. Lascara said he could play with Timmy and she'd feed him lunch.  That leaves you, young man.";

"Whoopee!";  Joey bounded across the room and gave Chip a quick hug.  "I'll get my Flubby.";

"Flubby?  No, please.";  Chip addressed his father earnestly.  "Joey won't want to stay at the ball diamond.  He'll be bothering everybody.  You know how he is.  I can't do this.  It's too important.";

Joey rushed back in the room with a dirty blue rabbit, most of its fur loved off long ago.  Carrying it by a floppy ear, he swung it in the air singing.  "I getta play baseball with Chip.  I getta play baseball with Chip.";

"See what I mean?  It's embarrassing.  Not just that ratty rabbit he carries around, but look at the way he acts.";

"Buck up, old man.  You'll live.";  Dad swallowed down the last drops of coffee and fished the keys from his pocket.  I'll be back about one.";  Mae handed him a paper wrapped packet of cookies for his break snack.  "Hold down the fort.";  He pecked her cheek and gave her stomach a parting pat before disappearing out the door.  

"I'm off to Grandpa's. Have fun, Chipperoo, " Tom cackled as he followed his father out the door.  

"Stop callin' me that!"; Chip shouted after him.  

Mae removed her apron and folded it across the back of a chair.  "I've got to go soon, honey.  Alice is picking me up any time now.";  She kissed his cheek and ruffled his hair.  "I know you don't want to watch Joey, but please help us out.  Don't make things hard right now.  You know your father is under a lot of pressure at work.  The company's been laying off some of its workers.  He's just...tense right now.  Help me out, honey.   OK?  Come on, Chris.  Alice said we could drop you off.";

Chip nodded.  "Come on, Squirt.  Let's go.";  He sped upstairs, returning a few minutes later.  He plopped a blue hat on Joey's head and handed the new bat to Ben.  Chip retrieved his mitt from the sofa and motioned his brother to follow him.  They hurried out the door and slid down the metal railing beside the steps.  

Joey trailed behind, his smaller legs barely able to keep up.  Every few houses he stopped to examine something of interest.  A nest, a worm, a flower.  The older boys had to literally drag him off.  They lifted him by his armpits and carried him flying through the air.  Flubby bounced along the sidewalk beside Joey as he squealed with glee.  Nothing was better than being able to play ball with his big brother.  

Arriving at the baseball park, most of the boys had already arrived.  They spread out across the field hitting flies, fielding grounders, and warming up pitching arms.  Chip placed Joey on a bench along the third base line where he could keep an eye on him.  

"Now I want you to stay here and play with Flubby.  I've got to practice. This is important, Squirt.  And if you're good, I'll take you down to Carmichaels for a soda this afternoon.  Deal?";

Joey nodded.  "Deal.";  The boys spit in their palms and pressed them together.  

Chip joined the boys at home plate while Mugsy Malone trotted to the pitcher's mound and started throwing to each of the boys.  Mugsy had the reputation of being one of the best pitchers in the league.  But today his teammates  were smacking everything in his arsenal.  With each crack of the bat, balls sailed to centerfield, bounced into left, slipped along the baseline into right. The boys slapped hands and cheered each other on with gusto.  It was a heady experience.  They figured the way they were playing, they would probably be ready to play the Yankees at any time.

"Chip, is it time to get ice cream?";

At the sound of Joey's voice, Chip spun around.  The ball whistled by him, and the catcher called, "Strike!";  

"Hey, Saunders,"; Mugsy called, "get the creep off the field.  He's messin' up practice.";

Chip rolled his eyes and trotted over to his brother.   He kneeled and held his brother's hands.  "Joey, remember I told you that I had practice.  You gotta be quiet.  Go sit down and don't interrupt any more.  You got it?";  

Joey, hung his head and shuffled off to sit on the bench again.  He watched his brother smack a ball over the fence in center.  Then he examined a beetle he found crawling in the grass nearby.  Getting on all fours, he placed his face inches away from the bug to examine it.  Tiring of that, he chased a butterfly around the picnic area, trying to knock it out of the air by swinging Flubby.  When he could take no more waiting, he called over to his big brother.  Chip waved him to sit down, so Joey plopped onto a bench...for a few moments.  

"I wanna go home.  I don't wanna play here no more,"; Joey cried out, slamming Flubby on the ground.   "I wanna go home.";  

Saunders waved him off and turned back in time to receive a hard liner that he rifled to first.  A double play for sure.  Ben ran over and slapped him on the back before returning to his position at shortstop.  Chip pounded his mitt a few times, then dropped into position to make the next play if something came his way.  In his mind he pictured himself just off the bag at Comiskey, grabbing an impossible line drive from the Babe's bat and turning in one smooth motion to shovel it to second...the start of a triple play.  He could almost hear the crowd roaring its approval.

Another twenty minutes of fielding practice, and the boys decided to play a practice game.  The team selected Chip and Stinky O'Boyle to be captains.  After choosing sides, the captains rock-paper-scissored for the right to bat first.  

A battle of epic proportions ensued.  Stinky's team, having won first bats, scored twice.  Saunders's team matched it when they came up.  The crack of bats and the thud of balls in mitts resounded across the field As soon as one team placed three men on the bases, the other would pull a double play to end the inning.  If a team hit a homerun, the other followed suit.  They traded hit for hit and out for out.  By the end of the game the boys hardly noticed two hours had flown by.   They were hot and sweaty, covered with grime from sliding.

"We are so ready!"; Stinky cried triumphantly.

"Look out, Obermeier's!";  Ben shouted.

"Yeah!"; the others added.  They clapped hands and shoved each other around, ending up in a huge pile of intertwined arms, legs, and bodies rolling around home plate.  

After a few moments of celebration the boys began the task of sorting through their bats, balls, and gloves.  Chip crawled from the center of the pile in search of his precious mitt.  Finding it, he brushed off the dust and worked out a scrape with a bit of spit on his thumb.  Ben squatted beside him.  "You ready to go?  I still gotta clean my room, or I'm grass and my ma's a lawn mower.";

"Sure.  Just let me get Joey.";  Chip placed a hand on Ben's back and pushed himself upright.  "C'mon, kid,"; he called to his brother as he brushed the dirt off his pants.  "Hey, Joey, front and center.";  He looked over to the bench where Joey should have been, but the boy wasn't there.  "Uh, Ben.  You seen Joey?";

Ben straightened his cap and pointed toward the bench.  "Yeah, he's right over there.  Or was.";

Ben searched under the bench and walked around the trees.  Then Chip trotted over to the drinking fountain and the picnic area, but his brother wasn't there either.  

Chip scratched his head.  "Now where could he have gone?";  

"If you ask me, he left.  He probably got bored and went home a couple hours ago.";

"I hope not.  It's almost one. Dad'll be home soon.  If he finds out I didn't watch Joey, he'll tan my hide for sure.";

Ben handed the Louisville Slugger bat to Chip.  "Maybe if we hurry, we can get back before your dad.  He'll never know.";

Chip thought it over and agreed.  The boys headed for home, but they were boys and could hardly be expected to walk down the street without a fair amount of pushing, shoving, and cap flipping.  As they turned the corner and headed down Ryor Street, Chip gave Ben an unusually hard hip butt that sent both of them sprawling.  They cackled hysterically as they lay splayed on the grass.  Chip crawled over and offered him a hand up.

"Hey, Chip,";  Ben called out excitedly,  "what's that over there?";  He pointed to something blue lying a few feet away, half hidden by a large overgrown clump of bushes and brush.  "Pirate booty.  Bwahaha.";  Both of them scrambled toward it.  "If it's something valuable, I get it.  I seen it first.";  He grabbed Chip's foot and pulled him back.  Then he made a mad dash the few yards to the item.   He stopped and pulled it to him.  He turned and held up a blue rabbit.

"Flubby?  That's Flubby.  Where...?";  Chip's heart stopped for a moment.  He grabbed it from Ben.  If Joey's beloved bed buddy were here, then his brother had to be nearby.  But where?  He called for his brother once again, and when there was no response, settled in.  He moved toward the bushes nearby.  He peered into the dark mass.  "Joey, you in there?";

Ben noticed an area where the branches seemed to be pressed down, as if someone had recently been through.  He bent over and pushed his way in, Chip close behind.  Just inside the perimeter, the growth thinned and a small grassy clearing appeared.  Several weather-beaten pieces of board lay about. At the center the ground fell off into a hole about three feet wide, an old abandoned well.   Next to the hole, the boys spotted a blue cloth cap.";

"Joey!  Where are you?";  Chip's voice rose.  

The boys scrabbled over to the hole.  Ben pointed to a piece of board that teetered on the rim.  "Ya think the kid would have....?";  

Chip braced his arms against the sides and hung out over the opening, staring deep into the darkness.  Joey was such a little boy, and he scared so easily.  He still slept with a nightlight.  If he were down there alone in the dark, he'd be afraid and maybe hurt.  He'd be waiting for his big brother, his hero, to find him.  

Chip sized up the situation quickly.  "Ben, see the way the stones stick out here and there.  I think I can climb down easy.";

"No, Chip don't do it.";  He grabbed his friend's arm.  "It's too dangerous.  That baby could be a thousand feet deep.  If you fall...well, I hate to think what I'd do.";

"You got any better ideas?  If Joey's down there, he might not have the time for us to wait.  I gotta do something now.  You stay here...and if something happens, you go for help.  Got it?";   

Ben nodded and helped pushed the board back from the opening.  Chip turned around and slid his legs into the void, kicking about until his toe found a foothold on a rock.  Bracing himself with his arms, he lowered his body down, purely by feel.  His fingers and feet found outcrops as he slowly made his way down.  Several times he stopped to peer into the darkness hoping to spot his brother and yet fearing that he would.  Above him, Ben's head grew smaller and smaller in the round halo of light above him.  

"Careful, Saunders.  Where are you?";

"I'm OK,"; he grunted with the effort.  Sweat rolled down his forehead and stung his eyes.   "It's dark, and I can't tell how deep it is.";

"Come back out.  Let's not do this.  I'll go get help.";

After long minutes Chip's foot hit what felt like the bottom.  Clinging tightly to the rocks, he pushed his foot down and found firm footing on the leaf-covered floor.   "I'm down!";  Chip called.  

"Any sign of the kid?";

"It's too dark to see anything.";

Chip squatted and felt around him.  Finding nothing, he moved his hands in arcing patterns near the ground.  It only took two sweeps for his fingers to touch something.  A piece of board.  Moving his hand forward, he encountered socks and a fleshy leg.  "I found him!  He's down here!";

"Is he OK?"; Ben called down hopefully.

"Joey, Joey, Joey,"; Chip repeated over and over to himself as he ran his fingers up to the torso.  Heart racing, he placed his hand on the boy's chest but felt no rise or fall.

"Is he hurt?"; Ben called again.

Chip reached over and found his brother's cool face.   He pressed his cheek under the boy's nose, but he could find no hint of a breath.   Brushing away tears with his sleeve, he wrapped his hands around the boy's head and ran them over the soft hair, encountering something sticky and moist.  

"Saunders, what's goin' on?";  Ben received no reply from the darkness.  He leaned forward into the hole so far he almost slipped in.  He caught himself and rolled back off.   "Saunders!"; Ben cried out.  "Answer me!  Chip, you're scaring me!";  

Ben listened a moment, then hearing nothing, rose to his knees and called out one last time.  "I'm going for help, Chip.  I'll be right back.";  He tore through the bushes and stumbled down the street toward the first house that looked to have someone home.  

Chip squeezed his eyes shut and opened his mouth to scream, but the anguish in his heart caught in his throat.  It filled up every crevice of his being until he wanted to burst from the pain.  Then the dam of emotion ruptured with a sickening suddenness.  "NO!";  His voice echoed up the rocky sides of the hole. "Joey!  NO!";  

He lifted Joey's shoulders, pulling the limp body to him.  "C'mon, Joey.  We gotta go home now.";  Chip gently pressed Joey's head against his chest and rocked him.  "It's all right, kid.   You're gonna be all right.  I just gotta get you home.  I'll get you home as soon as I can.  I gotta get you home.";

Lost in grief, he didn't hear the sounds of footsteps and voices coming from above.  

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

It had been a rough day.  The plant was hot and his boss was hotter.  The man could always find fault with workers.  Eventually everyone felt his wrath.  And today it was simply Charles Saunders's turn to be on the receiving end.  Knowing that it wasn't personal didn't make it any easier to take. He began to regret the decision to work overtime.  Maybe the extra money wasn't worth the aggravation he'd had to endure, but now he was headed for home and that meant peace.  His family always managed to nudge him out of a state of depression and bring everything back into perspective.  Today he would need them.  

As Charles guided the green Chevrolet onto Ryor Street, Paul Mason, a neighbor who lived down the block, leaped onto the running board and beat on the passenger side window. "Charles!  Charles!  It's your boy,"; he panted.  "Accident.  He....";

The automobile screeched to a halt.  Leaving the engine running, Charles threw open the door and bolted for home.  A group of women and children huddled on the sidewalk, talking quietly.  When Saunders passed them, they reached out and touched his hand and his arm.  A clutch of men stood around on the porch, hats in their hands.  Taking the steps two at a time, Charles bounded to the porch and through the door.  Several men followed him in.  

"I'm so sorry, Charles,"; one of them said gently.  "I wish I knew what to say.";  

Charles brushed him off.  

The only sound in the house came from the dining room.  The blinds had been closed.  Strange.  Mae never did that.  She enjoyed the sun streaming in through the south side too much to shut it out.  Mae slumped in a chair weeping into a hankie, her best friend Emma kneeling before her and holding her hand.  His son Chip stood behind her, his face streaked with dirt and his eyes red and swollen.  Charles was confused.  Mason had said his son had been injured, but here he was looking fine.  

And then he noticed a group of women standing around something laid out on a blanket at the end of the dining room table.  He knew instantly what it was.  The hushed group of women gently washed a body.  One of the women held a small hand and ran the wet rag between each of the fingers.

"Charles,"; Mae sobbed as she held out her arms for him to comfort her.  Instead he turned and moved closer to the table.  The women stopped their ministrations and stepped aside.  

To look at the boy, he might have just been sleeping; his eyes were closed and his face slack and peaceful.  His hair lay matted against his face in moist ringlets.  Charles ran his fingers over his son's pale cheeks.

"Joey.  Joey?  Wake up boy.  Daddy's here.  Time to wake up.";  The boy remained limp and unmoving.  "Joey?"; he wept.  "I don't understand...how...what happened....";  He turned and spotted Chip, whose face was etched with unbearable agony.  Charles charged toward his boy.  "Joey was with you, Chip.  What happened?";

"I...I...Joey was...,";  he stammered, sliding along the wall away from his father.

"You were supposed to be watching your brother.  Answer me now, boy.  What happened?";  Charles's voice grew louder and more shrill as he grabbed his arms and shook him hard.  

"I didn't mean to.  Joey was being a pain and....";

"Your brother was a pain?";  Charles screamed.  "And you what?  Why weren't you taking care of Joey?  You were supposed to be watching him.";

"We were...I was.  We were playing baseball, and I told him to wait right there on the bench.  I turned around and he was gone.  You know how he'd wander off.  I tried to find him.";  Chip wheezed as he tried to breathe.  "He was at Peterson's.  At a well.  It was hidden.  We didn't know it was there.  We never knew there was an old well there.";  

Charles cried out.  "I told you never to play on that property.  You should have listened.  Oh, God!  You killed Joey!";  Charles covered his face with his hands.  

Chip gripped his father's hands and to make him understand.  "I tried to help him.  I crawled down there and found him.  I tried.  I tried!";  Tears sheeted his face.  

"Stop it!"; Charles screamed. He pulled back his arm and slammed his hand across Chip's face sending him careening backwards into the wall.  "Joey's dead and it's your fault.  You killed your brother!";  He landed a second blow to Chip's head.  The boy crumpled on the floor, and lay there refusing to even try to fend off the blows that followed.  

Mae ran to her son and tried to shield him.  Several men stepped in and held Charles until he spent his energy on their backs instead of on his son, and he collapsed sobbing in their arms.

"For heaven's sake, Charles,"; Paul Mason whispered to his friend.  "He's a boy.  He didn't do anything.  Pull yourself together, man.";

Mae examined Chip's reddened face.  A stream of blood ran from his nose and another from a gash in his lip.  "Your Dad didn't mean anything by that.  He was just in shock.  He didn't mean that.";  

Chip looked at the faces staring down at him.  They all knew what he had done.  It had been his fault. His father was right to beat him. He'd gotten off lightly.  His father should have killed him for what he did.  With a wounded cry, Chip pushed her away and bolted from the room.  He ran out of the house and down the street.  He ran as fast as his feet would carry him, and he didn't care where he went.  He just had to get out of that house where they all knew what he had done.  

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The day of the funeral was dark and gloomy.  Well-wishers and mourners sat under a tent in the cemetery to say goodbye.  Mae knelt a long time beside the small wood casket, running her hands across its surface and weeping, while Charles sat stonily.  He neither comforted his wife nor his children, beside him and yet apart from him emotionally.  Chip sat woodenly at the far end of the front row.  His eyes, rimmed with tiredness, scanned the faces of the mourners, searching them to see if they were watching him.  They all knew what he had done.  They had to. They were there.   For days and into the long nights, he had replayed the scenes of that terrible day over and over in his mind, hoping that if he could just change his memory of it, he could change the outcome. His shoulders sagged under the weight of his guilt.  Everything was his fault, and though his mother had told him otherwise, his father had said it was.  How could he not believe him?  It was his father, and his father never lied to him.  

After the pall bearers lowered the casket into the prepared hole, each mourner passed by to drop in a handful of dirt. Chip moved through the line and dutifully dropped in a small clod of soil then hurried away to the Chevrolet.  He didn't look down into the hole, and he didn't say goodbye to his brother.   

Following the service, everyone returned to the Saunders house.  Chip retreated to his room.  As soon as he slipped out of the new black suit and hung it carefully on a metal hangar in the closet, he flopped onto the bed and curled himself into as tight a ball as he could.  In the rooms below him, he could hear the quiet murmur of friends.  They'd stayed with the family through the long wake, and now they were comforting them following the burial. But there was no comfort for the boy.

Chip's eyes fell on the third baseman's mitt, thrown carelessly on the bedside table.  Reaching over and picking it up, he ran his hand over the oiled leather surface, feeling the bump of each lace.  He slipped his hand in.  It fit him perfectly. He'd worked on it, and he'd molded it between books on the shelf until it was a perfect fit.  It had meant so much to him. Maybe too much.  Now it just reminded him of his failure and what it had cost the family.  

Slipping it off his hand, he carried it to the closet.  He dropped down to his knees and pulled out all the debris piled on the floor.  Then he carefully placed the glove in the farthest corner.  Retrieving the Louisville Slugger, he placed it upright in the corner.  Shoveling everything he had removed back in again, he buried the terrible reminders, vowing that he would never again set foot on a ball diamond.  That done, he crawled back to his bed, pulled down the covers, and cocooned himself beneath.  Just maybe he'd stay there forever.  

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The warmth of August transformed into the cool, crisp days of October.  No more talk of baseball.  The children were now consumed with talk of touchdowns and passes.  That's how it was in the Midwest.  Things changed like seasons.  At least some things.  For the people living at 2366 Ryor Avenue, nothing was changing.  Time had stopped, and it seemed that it would forever be one bleak day in August.  

All through the days of the funeral, well wishers had stopped by to help the family deal with their grief.  Aunts and uncles had come in from all over.  Neighbors had taken turns ferrying them from the train station to the Saunders house.  The ice box had overflowed with casseroles, and whatever didn't fit was carried over to Paul and Donna Mason's.  Grandma had said she doubted they could even eat it all before it spoiled, but with so many visitors there had always been someone around who needed to be fed.  

Now that all the company was gone, the hubbub had given way to silence.  Even the stairs had lost their squeak; or maybe it was just that the boys no longer ran up and down them.  The family sat silently at meals, Joey's chair left vacant.  When Mae suggested that the chair be moved away from the table, Charles yelled that she was trying to forget her son.  Mae finished the rest of the meal in tears.  So the subject was not broached again, and the chair remained in the center of the silence.  

Mae busied herself cleaning and starting thank you notes for everyone who had been helpful during the ordeal.  It took up her time and kept her from thinking too much.  

Charles, on the other hand, had nothing to take his mind from his loss.  He was a shadow in the house.  He had little to say to anyone, and nothing anyone said to him seemed to reach through the hard protective shell that surrounded him. He'd taken to spending long hours sitting in Joey's room and only came out for work or for supper.  And sometimes not even then.  

 

Chip stopped seeing his friends. Even Ben didn't come by often.  There was too much sadness there for his young friend to take much of.  The oldest Saunders boy became a loner even among his brothers, preferring to stay by himself in his room.  He hadn't tried talking to his father since the day the neighbors had carried Joey home.  He knew his father blamed him and wished it had been his oldest son who had died instead of his youngest.  Chip wished that also.  He should have been the one.  So he avoided his father as much as he could.  And his father didn't seek him out.

School should have been a place of refuge from the dreariness of home, but even that gave the boy small comfort.  Instead of learning long division, he found himself thinking back to that day.  He should have been more watchful of Joey.  He should have taken him to the ball diamond and let him swing the Louisville Slugger.  He should have carried him back home sitting atop his shoulders, the victor for hitting a ball past the pitcher's mound. A million should haves came to mind, but not one eased the burden he carried.

His grades dropped, but no one went to school to check on his progress or ask if he were troubled.  And he was.  He was sullen and angry.  The more he tried to hold it in, the more things vexed him.  Sometimes the anger just wanted to burst from him.  He felt if he ever let it out he would be like an overblown balloon with the knot released.  He'd fly all over the room until his air was spent, and he'd end up lifeless and used up on the floor.  So he'd learned to swallow it down.  

Chip had tried to go into Joey's room one of the few times lately when his dad was at work, but somehow he just couldn't bring himself to go through the door.  He knew he'd see the picture of the four boys on the dresser.  And Joey's dirty socks on the floor.  The Chicago White Sox pennant would still be tacked over the cowboy wallpaper.  His brother's pajamas would be under the pillow.  It didn't seem fair to him that Joey's things could be there when Joey couldn't.

One evening, Chip sat alone on the bottom step leading up to the house.  The pungent odor of smoky leaf fires filled his nostrils.  Joey loved...had loved...fall.  He loved to jump in silver maple leaves that had been raked into piles to be burned.  Chip had liked it too, but he didn't want to play in the leaves any more.  He drew aimlessly on the concrete with a small rock.  A house with smoke coming from the chimney.  A large, leafy tree.  A sun with rays spreading out in all directions.  A boy with stick arms.

He stopped drawing when he heard the creak of the screen door and then the sound of footsteps coming down the steps behind him.  Charles dropped a large, worn leather suitcase beside him.  Decals of various places covered its sides.  There was Lake Michigan, the Indianapolis 500, Comiskey Field, Camp WeHaGoTi  in Wisconsin.  It was the luggage he and Tom used when they went to summer camp.  Chip looked up at his father, fearful for a moment that he was being sent away.   

"I'm leaving for a couple days, Son.";

The boy eyed the suitcase.  It seemed awfully large for a few days.  In his heart he knew that his father wasn't coming back.  

"I just need to get a little distance to get over...things.  While I'm gone you be the man of the family.";  Charles picked up his suitcase and started across the grassy strip toward the car parked in front of their house.  He shoved the suitcase onto the back seat and walked around to the driver's side.  Resting an arm on the roof, he looked over at Chip.  "I want you to know, son, that I was wrong blaming you.  It wasn't your fault.";

Chip looked up at his father with tears streaming.  "Yes it was.";  

He looked his son in the eye.  "Son, I... "   He wanted to tell his son that he loved him.  He wanted to ease his hurt.  But to cleanse his son of his erroneous guilt was to accuse himself of unspeakable failure.  He shook his head.  "Nothing.  I'll see you.";  

He slid into the car, and slammed the door.  Chip watched the leaves stirred to a frenzy under the tires as the car sped off.  He hoped the Chevrolet would stop; if it really wasn't his fault, he knew his dad would come back.  But the car disappeared into the distance and was gone.  Chip took the rock and put a large X over the sun, and then he obliterated the stick boy with long, hard strokes.

That night Mae Saunders came to her son as he sat alone in the parlor.  The radio crackled to life when she flipped the switch.  After of few moments of static and knob turning, she found the station she wanted.  "Amos 'n' Andy, Chip.  We only heard it a couple times back in August, but you loved that program.  You haven't heard it in weeks.  Can I listen with you?  I could use a laugh.";  Chip nodded, and she settled down on the sofa beside him.  Putting her arm around him, he leaned back into her body.  He was stiff and not talking, but it was at least a start.  

They listened several minutes.  Mae chuckled at Andy's antics.  Every now and then she squeezed Chip or pulled him a bit closer, but still the boy gave no reaction that he enjoyed himself in the slightest.  She wasn't even sure he was listening.  

"Oh, my, that Kingfish is a stitch.  He just makes me feel so good when I'm down.  Don't you think so, son?";

"I guess.";  

"Remember how when we first heard it, Joey went around saying 'Holy Mackerel' until I just wanted to strangle him. He probably only heard it one time, but he sure liked it.";

At the mention of his brother's name, Chip pulled away.  "I don't want to talk about it.";

"Well, I do,";  Mae said emphatically.  "If we don't talk about Joey and the good things, we're gonna lose him.  All we'll remember is the bad things that happened.  Joey loved life.  He loved you.  You were his big brother, and he adored you.  I like to think that he's still with us.";

"That's stupid, Mom.  He's..."; Chip couldn't finish by saying the terrible word.  "If I'd done better, he'd still be here.  He wouldn't've fell into that well.  How can I talk about him without remembering that I killed him?";  

"Kill him?  You didn't kill him.  Nobody thinks you did that.";  

"Dad does.  He said it.  The day Joey...the day it happened.  He said it out loud to me and everybody.  Now the whole world knows.";

Mae took his face in her thin hands and stared hard into his eyes.  "That is not true, boy.  Your dad was in shock that day.  He was hurt, and he lashed out at everyone and anyone he could.  He even told me it was my fault.   I should've been looking out for him instead of being at the Friends of the Library Society meeting. "

"No!";  Chip cried.  "It wasn't your fault.  I was the one.  I should've been watching him and I didn't.  He should've been with me.  He shouldn't've been alone.  I just had to finish my baseball practice.";  Tears sheeted his cheeks.  "Dad wouldn't've gone away if I had watched Joey. He'd be here now.  It's all my fault.  All of it.";

Mae scooped him into her lap and ran her fingers through his hair.  "Oh, baby, you don't know anything.  Dad didn't leave because of you.  He didn't even leave because of me.  He left because he couldn't live with the guilt he felt.  He figured if he hadn't gone in to make more money that day, he'd have been here to watch Joey.  He lashed out at you because he couldn't live with hating himself.  He knew he wasn't any good to any of us the way he was.  He was all locked up inside, filling up with more and more hopelessness.  It ate away at him until he couldn't stay any longer.  So he left to see if he could find himself.  Not because of you.";

"But Joey would be here if I'd been watching him.  That makes it my fault.";

"Nope.  Not your fault.  I could've been watching him.  Dad could've been watching him.  The truth of the matter is that Joey died because of an accident.  Nobody made it happen.  It just did, and that's all.  That's the way things are in life.  You can't stop them or go back and undo them.  And you can't go on blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong.";

"God must really hate me to make so much bad stuff happen to us.  I don't think he wants to hang out with me any more.";

"Oh, son, He's always there for us.  Always.";  Her voice was a whisper.  "But that doesn't mean it isn't going to be a hard walk.  He has his plans even if we don't see it. We just have to walk the path He puts us on and trust that He knows best.  'Fear not, for I have redeemed you.  I have summoned you by name.  You are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.  And when you pass through the rivers they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned.  The flames will not set you ablaze.'  He didn't say if you walk through the fire, he said when.  He saw everything and loves you.  God knows you by name, Chip Saunders.  Don't you ever forget that.";

Chip touched the cheek where his father's slap had left a permanent scar deep inside him where no one could see it.  It burned and ached like it would never go away.  And yet there with his mother, it somehow didn't seem as deep as it had.  Maybe all scars would heal given enough time.

"It's going to be OK.";  She squeezed his shoulder and roughed his shaggy blond head.

He patted her hand.   "I sure hope so.  I think I'm gonna need Him a lot.  Is Dad coming back?"; he sniffed.

Mom patted his wet face with the corner of her apron.  "You know, Chip, I don't have any idea.  But something tells me he won't be back.   Even if he comes to peace about Joey, he won't be able to forgive himself for what he did to us.  Your dad always had a weakness in that way.  He wasn't strong like you are.  And you are strong.  Stronger than you know.   Some day you're gonna get a chance to find that out.  For now, you'll just have to take my word for it.  And you know what?  I am too.  We're both gonna do our grieving and move on.

"Chip, I've been kind of lost for a while.  I was so deep into my own sense of grief, it never occurred to me how much you were suffering, too.  Then today, I realized that you were probably the most wounded of us all.  I've failed you, Chip.  You deserved better.";  

She rocked him quietly, holding him until his body slowly relaxed in her arms.  The baby inside her moved and she pressed Chip's hand against her stomach.  He grinned as he felt something rippling and pushing against his hand.  He looked up at her and she had never looked so beautiful and peaceful.  

"Life goes on, son.   We'll get through this.  We have to...because of this.";  She covered his hand on her stomach with hers.

"I love you, Mom.  And I'm never going away.  I promise.  I'm man of the family now, and I'm always going to be here for you.";

Mae smiled.  "You don't have to be a man for a long time.  One of these days, that will come. But for now, I'll be happy with an eleven year old.  You'll have a lot of battles to fight in your life, but this is one not meant for you.  I'll be Mom and Dad for you.  It's time for me to show how strong I am.  So you just leave it to me.  OK?";

They sat together for a while longer.  The radio voices filled the warm room with laughter.  Mom chuckled.  "How about that Kingfish! Isn't he funny?";

Chip ran his fist under his nose and smiled.