Instead Of The Fire...    

I love creating alternative possibilities from the various climactic events in The Yearling. I’ve long since found that, for just plain practicality, Mrs. Hutto needs to have a first name. Forgive me my presumption in assuming that she’d be an obsessed-enough mother to name her son after her, hence Oliver from Olivia. To me, she’s one of the novel’s most colorful characters. I can never forgive either film version of it, for leaving her out entirely.

            Olivia Hutto was dancing with Easy Ozell at the doin’s, already barely tolerating the boisterous presence of the Forresters on the dance floor, when one of them carelessly bumbled drunkenly into her partner.

            “Oh. Sorry, Easy.” Then he noticed her, and sarcastically, exaggeratedly said, “Sorry, Mis’ Hutto!”

            Her temper snapped. “Oaf!” she declared, and kicked his shin.

            At that, he lost his own temper, grabbed her upper arms, and dragged her to him menacingly.

            Easy’s face was creased with anxiety. “Millwheel…! Don’t…!”

            Olivia, hearing the name, snapped at him, “So that’s which one you are! Good! Glad I kicked one o’ the ones beat my son!”

            Her erstwhile dance-partner was still protesting, but another Forrester, whom Easy addressed as Arch, quipped, “Easy, Easy,” and took him by the arm in a gentle but clear threat, silencing him.

            At Olivia’s flippant remark, Mill-wheel squeezed harder, inducing her to cry out in pain. She tried to pull free, and then another Forrester came from behind and seized her by the back of the neck in a painful grip. After crying out louder in pain, she saw his bearded face leer over her shoulder at her, wordlessly warning her to behave herself.

            “Which one are you?!” she gasped.


            “Figures.” She winced.

            A broodingly dark, clean-shaven Forrester came in from outside the dance floor, and demanded, “What’s goin’ on here?!”

            Mill-wheel told him.

            “I know which one you are!” she exulted in sarcastic triumph. “Lovely! Same three! Jest perfect!”

            Lem grabbed her by the jaw, hard, making her scream. “How’d you like to feel firsthand what we three done to Oliver?! You wanta go home as messed-up, and in as much pain?!”

            Her eyes met Lem’s and she knew that he meant it. Her gaze shifted to Buck, whom she could still see over her right shoulder. “Don’t let him!” She saw in his eyes that Buck would do a great deal more than merely ‘let’ Lem. She looked to Mill-wheel. “You wouldn’t??” His expression told her otherwise.

            Olivia tried not to sob. “Oh please!! Oh no, please!!” Her every stubborn instinct balked at begging anyone, but she was suddenly aware of just how perilous her situation had rapidly become. “I cain’t take it! I’m too old!”

            Her pleas moved the bearded giants not at all. In fact, she tragically realized that they were enjoying her fright.

            “Fellers, no, don’t! Please, you mustn’t!” Penny had seen, and come rushing over, his face gray with worry. He had opted for a more humble, pleading approach this time, since his more aggressive attitude in the Volusia fight had only made things worse; it had not reduced Oliver’s torment one iota, but it had gotten Penny and his precious son Jody hurt as well. In addition, he feared that his dear old friend Olivia would not survive a beating even one tenth as severe as Oliver had, despite her claim to be made of “whalebone and hell.” And he just couldn’t let her die. He would shame himself to any degree that he had to, in order to save her. His best friend, and long-ago first love was worth far more than even his pride.

            She clearly agreed. “Ezra! Help!” she barely managed to croak, due to Buck’s iron grip on her neck, and Lem’s hammerlock on her jaw. She could no longer even feel her arms; they’d gone numb all the way down, from Mill-wheel’s vise-like squeezing of her biceps.

            Lem sneered at Penny, “You gonna git into every fight we ever have with a Hutto, Penny?!”

The small man’s heart sank. His more submissive delivery hadn’t helped. But, determined not to give up, he pursued it further. “Please, it ain’t right! It’s wrong to beat up a woman! ‘Specially an old one!” He glanced at her. “No offense.”

“None taken,” she gasped out in pain.

Buck resisted smiling at their chummy, common banter in the midst of a crisis.

Penny continued to beg them on her behalf, but Olivia could see in their eyes that it wasn’t working. She had committed the same unforgivable offense that Oliver had the previous May: she had attacked a Forrester, and thus forfeited mercy from them. So, she did the only thing that a self-respecting woman could do in her position: she fainted. Or, more precisely, faked it. She closed her eyes and crumpled backward, away from Mill-wheel and Lem, unavoidably collapsing onto Buck. The former two, startled, released her as her fall pulled her out of their grasps, and Buck, equally surprised, automatically caught her. In one smooth motion, he swept her up easily into his powerful arms, and stood gazing at her in perplexity.

Her expression deliberately slack, she was thinking wildly, Put me down! Let me go! Go ‘way! She let her head lull “unconsciously,” lifelessly, against his shoulder, realizing that she might choke and give herself away if she went completely limp, with her head hanging toward the floor.

“Now what are we s’posed to do with her??” Buck wondered.

Let me go! she mentally raged. Put me down!

“Don’t put her down!” Penny implored.

Ezra! she thought furiously at him.

“Please, Buck, we cain’t jest put her on the floor!”

Yes you kin!

Mill-wheel commented sardonically, “She’da landed there, iffen we’d had our way.”

Not that way! Please, not that way! But yes, put me down gentle!

“Why not?” Buck questioned Penny.

“She’ll git stepped on! ‘Sides, she’s so keerful ‘bout all her purty, fancy dresses! This ‘un’ll git dirty, or even tore!”

Not that consarned keerful, Ezra!

“Not keerful enough.” Lem weirdly echoed her own thoughts. “Iffen we’da beat her, woulda been the end o’ that dress.”

Better it than me! Leave me go, ‘fore I give myself away somehow!

“Please, Buck!” Penny appealed to the Forrester that he trusted the most. “We got to take her home! And I cain’t tote her!” He was regretful of his slight frame. It was clear that he’d like to carry her, if only he could.

Buck sighed. “All right.”

Mill-wheel groaned. “I’ll go ‘long, keep ya comp’ny.”

Lem spat. “I’ll not. To hell with her.”

Thank gawd for small favors, she thought.

“I’ll go, too,” Penny offered anxiously.

Buck, who’d started to move, stopped, and his eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Don’t you trust us, Penny? We know where she lives.”

Mill-wheel agreed. “You don’t need to show us the way. And I kin open doors for Buck.”

Buck informed Penny, “She’ll wake up in her own bed later, unharmed, wonderin’ how she got there.”

Gawd! she thought. Two of ‘em, two of Oliver’s tormentors, puttin’ me in my bed! Dare I ever even tell Oliver ‘bout this??

She felt herself being carried, heard the door open, and felt the night air strike her, thinking, Better the night air than their fists! Oh, what iffen I’m found-out somehow?? And without Ezra to plead for me! Will they hurt me? Will they still beat me? Sich powerful men! And drunk yit! Oh, Ezra, help!

“She heavy?” Mill-wheel wondered casually.


“I could….”

“Light as a feather.”

“Okay. Ya know, in her younger days, she musta been quite the knockout.”

Thanks, big boy. Jest don’t knock me out.

“Hmph! Yeah. Knock off thirty years or so, one of us mighta gone for her.”

Hell, knock off thirty years, I mighta gone for all o’ you! What am I sayin’?! Maybe I’m as drunk as you-all to have thoughts like that ‘bout the men what tortured my poor Oliver! But iffen I was young, and iffen you-all ain’t hurted my baby…! Seems like I noticed your pa and his brothers a time or two, long time gone.

Mill-wheel laughed heartily at a sudden thought. “Then one of us mighta been Oliver’s daddy!”

Buck guffawed, jolting her. “Ain’t that a picture!”

In a funhouse mirror! she thought.

“You ‘member, Ma’s told us Mis’ Hutto usedta be quite the leetle hellcat when she was young. ‘Fore she had her…‘baby’…and got so peculiar-protective of him.”


Buck acknowledged, “She mighta been a heap o’ fun, in her hellion days. Pity we couldn’ta knowed her then. Not enough gal-hellions ‘round, iffen you ask me.”

Nice to be liked. And these’re the same men jest wanted to mop up the floor with me.

She heard Mill-wheel open her front door. She’d thought that they must be close to home, but couldn’t dare to risk opening her eyes, even for a peek.


“Light a lamp.”

“Yeah, okay.” There was a pause. “Gawd! Fancy.”

“You know what Ma’d say ‘bout a place like this.”

“I kin hear her right now.”


Fluff came running, barking. She had to resist the urge to greet him.

“What in hell…??”

“Izzat a cat or a dog?”

“Looks like a cat. Sounds like a dog. It’s a cat-dog.”  The humor was apparent in Mill-wheel’s tone.

“Huh?” Buck said skeptically anyway, his voice revealing his own humor as well.

“You’ve heered of a cat-bird. Well, this here’s a cat-dog.”

“Whatever it is, it’s too noisy. Shut up, you!”

Oh don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him! Fluff, back off! Git away!

Mill-wheel bent over and shouted loudly in the dog’s face. Fluff turned tail and fled whimpering, bringing a smug chuckle of superiority from both men.

“Reckon this un’s Oliver’s room. Hmph! No wonder he’s a sissy.”

“Mama’s boy.”

She hoped that they couldn’t hear her teeth grind.

“Looks like this’s her room. Even more lacy stuff than Oliver’s room. Wish Ma could see this.”

“For that matter, I wonder what Mis’ Hutto here’d think of our place.”

“Too rough. Too plain.”

“Too beat up. You kin bet, nobody never fights in here, all these glass things.”

“Nor throws chairs acrost the room. No dents in the floorboards.”

Savages! she thought.

“Wonder iffen we was Oliver’s first fight.”

“He never practiced here, that’s sure.”

“I gotta admit, iffen we was his first, ‘twas a helluva way to break him in.”

“Yeah. I s’pose I a’most feel sorry for him. ‘Member, Ma bet he never meant to fight us two, but was jest aimin’ for Lem. She guessed, by the time he seen what was gonna happen to him, the whole blasted town was there watchin’, and he figgered he couldn’t back out in front of ever’body.”

Didn’t know your ma had that much sense.

“I’ll turn down the bedspread. What’sa matter?”

“I was jest thinkin’ ‘bout what Penny said ‘bout her keerin’ ‘bout her fancy clothes. Iffen we jest put her in, this dress’ll wrinkle terrible.”

Oh gawd! Let it wrinkle! I’ll wash and iron it.

Mill-wheel made an uncomfortable noise. “The only thing we could do is take it off her. I….”

“You right. I’d not want her to wake up and ketch us undressin’ her.”


“She’d think we was…!”

“Uh huh!” Buck laughed.

Ornery devils! Course, iffen I was thirty years younger….

Buck slid her into bed; Mill-wheel covered her. They stood looking at her.

Go ‘way!

“Shame she hates us.”

“Well, cain’t blame her, when you think what we done to her son.”

“She’s a feisty one. Spunky.”

“I was riled at her tonight, but I’m glad we ain’t had to plow her one.”

“Yeah. Reckon you gotta admire ones like her and Oliver their guts. Not too many folks stand up to us at all.”

All three heard the front door open.

“What the…?”

“Ma! I’m home!”

Instantly terrified, Olivia “let” herself awaken, hoping it seemed natural to do so at the sound of her own son’s voice.

“Hm, mm, wha…? Oliver?” She pretended to nearly die of shock at the sight of Buck and Mill-wheel standing over her. It wasn’t hard to fake.

She seized Buck’s hand in desperation. “Oh please don’t kill my baby!” She didn’t care how much her wording supported what they’d been saying about the two Huttos. “Please don’t hurt him agin!! You hurted him so bad!!!”

Buck and Mill-wheel could see how much it cost her, hurt her pride, to admit that to them, but that she would rather do that than see it happen again. They hesitated.

Meanwhile, Oliver came in, and went from joyously loving to cold and angry and terrified in an instant. “What in hell are you doin’ here?!!” All of the color had drained from his face.

Olivia thought fast, and said hastily, “Oliver, they rescued me!”


All three men were staring at her.

“I…didn’t feel well at the doin’s. I…passed out. Ezra couldn’t carry me. They was kind enough to tote me home.”

Oliver frowned. “And put you in your bed??” He wasn’t sure that he liked the sound of that.

“Yes, wasn’t that nice?”

The two Forresters were still staring at her as well, their eyes narrowed suspiciously. She instantly, intuitively knew why. She “knew too much” about what had gone before, for someone who was unconscious until a moment ago. She tried to ignore it, and to keep her eyes on her son.

Oliver eyed them distrustfully. “Them what hate us, done all that for you? And you’re sure they didn’t…harm you?”

“Course not!” She forced a gay laugh. “I know what you’re sayin’, but Oliver, really…! An old woman like me??” Then she allowed just the hint of mischief that she knew that Oliver would expect from her, that would put his mind at ease about her. “Course, who knows. Iffen they wa’n’t your enemies, and iffen I was…say…thirty years younger….”

Buck and Mill-wheel straightened and exchanged a momentous glance. She saw out of the corner of her eye, but kept her direct gaze off of them.

However, the remark did the trick with Oliver; she certainly seemed to be her normal self. He feigned disgust, but she could see his relief through it. “Gawd, Ma! What am I gonna do with you??”

He became more serious again, and faced the Forresters. “And, …what’re you… gonna do with me??”

Olivia held her breath through a tense moment.

Then, Buck said carelessly, “Nothin’. Less’n you want us to.”

“Um, …no, …no….” Oliver tried to look dignified, but relief washed over him visibly. The Forresters were at least gentlemanly enough not to comment.

Mill-wheel said gruffly, “See ya ‘round, then.”

“Uh, …yeah.” The sailor hastily stepped aside; he was blocking their exit.

In the doorway they paused.

“Goodnight, Mis’ Hutto,” Buck said with feeling.

She nodded. “Thank you,” she said meaningfully.

Mill-wheel, unsure how to contribute, said lamely, “Uh, nice place ya got here.”

Olivia had to struggle to stifle a grin.

But the Forresters grinned openly as they left.


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