I’ve always loved to write “what-ifs,” such that what if the situation had gone just a bit differently than it did in the novel (or short story or TV show). Based upon my own novel, “Revisiting The Yearling,” this is one such story.
Fodder-wing gingerly approached the barn, knowing that Buck and Mill-wheel were inside of it. Just the day before, he had berated the two of them plus Lem regarding their merciless beating of Oliver Hutto and Penny Baxter; and he had especially chastised Lem for having knocked Fodder-wing’s little friend Jody Baxter unconscious. He now wondered if his brothers’ thoughts on the confrontation were as tumultuous as his own. He entered.
The two men, looking up from where they worked at the back of the barn, regarded him noncommittally, clearly ready to be amiable if he was, or just as apparently prepared to be antagonistic, if that was his choice. Obviously, they’d had enough of his fussing.
For his part, the boy watched them uneasily, wondering whether they’d choose to punish him for his having said entirely too much yesterday, in which case he’d made a big mistake in coming here, or whether they’d be friendly in their customary fashion.
His worries led him to falter slightly, and he leaned heavily into the doorframe, almost lightheaded.
“Howdy,” they greeted him evenly.
“Hey,” he answered faintly, hobbling almost reluctantly nearer. “Kin I talk to you two?”
“Sure, young un.” Mill-wheel patted the nearest stall-rail. “You wanta set up here?”
The child grudgingly accepted, and was promptly lifted up to perch. He admitted almost appreciatively, “I like it up here. You-all ain’t quite so awful tall whilst I’m up here.”
The men smiled faintly at that.
“What’s on your mind?” Buck prompted.
Fodder-wing looked sad. “That’s part of it. Seein’ you-all at eye-level, I mean. I’ll never be able to, for real, will I? I’ll never really grow up, in your eyes. I’ll allus jest be leetle. And a cripple.”
The two eyed him in consternation. Buck said, “I didn’t know you thought on that. I didn’t know hit bothered you.”
“Sometimes hit don’t. But that fight really made it git to me.”
“I wanta be big like you-all. I wanta be able to git into your fights, ride around with you on hosses, git drunk with you, play music with you.” He gestured grandly, and almost lost his balance. Buck steadied him on the rail.
Only one desire on his list caught and held Mill-wheel’s attention. “You wanta fight with us???”
“Well, why not?” Fodder-wing demanded recklessly. “I wanta be normal! I’m one o’ your brothers. Now, yestiddy, Lem a’most hit me…I think…. Anyways, you two saved me. I’m grateful…I reckon, …but…would you’ve saved Gabby, iffen he’d been the one Lem was after??? No.”
“But you’re jest a leetle feller,” Mill-wheel protested.
“Gabby’s shorter’n the rest o’ you.”
Buck frowned. “Not that much shorter. And he ain’t a young un, like you.”
“You mean he ain’t a cripple. That’s the trouble, ain’t it? Up to now, I figgered Jody and me was off-limits for hittin’, ‘cause we’re both young uns. But now, even Jody has been in a fight with you-all. My own best friend has done somethin’ with you-all that I cain’t, and he’s as young as me.”
Buck regarded him shrewdly. “Now let me git this straight. You’re jealous o’ Jody ‘cause Lem hit him?”
Fodder-wing blinked. “Well, …hit sounds stupid when you put it that-a-way.”
Mill-wheel frowned. “I thought you was worried ‘bout Jody?”
“I am!” Fodder-wing was perplexed. “But….” He gestured in frustration. “He’s a’ready shared somethin’ with you-all…somethin’ I never kin…and I’m your brother!”
Mill-wheel’s eyes narrowed, and he said cleverly, “Lemme ask you somethin’. Iffen me ‘n’ Buck’d let Lem hit you yestiddy, ‘stead o’ protectin’ you, how would you feel right now?”
“Sore, prob’ly.” Fodder-wing shrugged matter-of-factly, not intentionally being flippant.
Buck stifled a laugh.
Mill-wheel closed his eyes in mild exasperation. “I mean, wouldn’t you resent us, for lettin’ him? Wouldn’t you resent him, for doin’ it?”
“I don’t know. Mebbe.”
“You resented all of us, for Jody gittin’ hit.”
“I s’pose.” Fodder-wing sighed. “I’m jest…all mixed up right now. And I’m feelin’ left out.”
His last sentence tugged at Buck’s heartstrings. “That’s the key, ain’t it, young un? You feel left out.”
Fodder-wing nodded mutely.
Not as softened as Buck, Mill-wheel said in annoyance, “Well, what you wanta do? Rile Lem o’ purpose, and we stand back outen the way??”
“I don’t know!” the boy muttered miserably.
“Hit’d be easy ‘nough to do! He riles easy. Jest start on him like you done yestiddy, and I’m bettin’ hit take less’n a minute.”
Fodder-wing turned a shade paler, and Buck regarded Mill-wheel in mild admonishment.
For his part, Mill-wheel appeared slightly triumphant. “Don’t sound too good to you, do it?”
Bitter at his smugness, Fodder-wing retorted with bravado, “I ain’t afeered o’ him!”
With classic ill-timing, Lem chose that moment to enter the barn, startling Fodder-wing so badly that he nearly tumbled backward off of the rail, yelling, “Whoa!”
Mill-wheel caught him barely in time and overcompensated, yanking him forward so hard against his own body that Fodder-wing ended up completely off of the rail and into Mill-wheel’s arms, with his little face at Mill-wheel’s shoulder, near the ear that was farther from Lem. Buck, who had also automatically tried to grab, and who was farthest from Lem, was now also very close to Mill-wheel and Fodder-wing.
Taking advantage of that proximity, heart suddenly pounding with fright, Fodder-wing whispered urgently to Buck and Mill-wheel, “Don’t tell him!!!”
“What’s all this?” Lem wondered nonchalantly.
Mill-wheel carefully settled the child back up onto the rail.
To his relief, Fodder-wing could see, in the eyes of both of them, that they’d heard him, and that they would keep his secret. He stammeringly answered Lem, as matter-of-factly as he could, “You…surprised me. I a’most fell off.”
“A mite jumpy, ain’t you?” Lem picked up a shovel.
Lem grunted and left with his shovel.
Fodder-wing sagged on his perch, as Buck and Mill-wheel began to smile.
“Don’t tell him???” Mill-wheel echoed mockingly.
“You ain’t afeered o’ him??” Buck teased.
“All right.” Still panting with relief, Fodder-wing rolled his eyes at their taunting. “I…ain’t ready, is all.”
“And likely’ll not never be,” Buck said more or less gently.
“I…still ain’t even sure.”
“Well, I tell you what,” Mill-wheel said firmly. “Iffen Lem ever plows you good, hit’ll hurt a heap more’n iffen you’d landed on your head, fallin’ offen that rail jest now. You kin be sure o’ that.”
Fodder-wing involuntarily looked behind him at the distance to the floor and gulped. His eyes met theirs in complete surrender…at least for now.
But later that evening, with everyone back in the cabin, Lem and Fodder-wing began sniping at each other. At first, the quarrel wasn’t even about the fight in Volusia. It began with Lem grousing at having stumbled on the penknife that Fodder-wing had left on the floor. But Fodder-wing rose to the challenge quickly enough.
“I was playin’ mumbledepeg,” he retorted defensively, referring to the game of flipping knives into the floorboards, to make the blades stick.
The child’s eyes shot flames. “Well, you done got rid o’ the friend I play it with!”
Buck and Mill-wheel rolled their eyes at this obvious, provocational reference to Jody Baxter.
Lem’s lips tightened. “Well, sometimes you play it with one of us. Only I know we ain’t done so today; we was too busy.”
Fodder-wing glared back sullenly.
“’Sides,” Lem added almost offhandedly, “I done told ya your leetle rat of a friend’ll likely recover.”
Fodder-wing was not mollified. “But will you still leave him come play with me?? You’ll not, will you?!” he challenged.
“Fodder-wing…,” Buck reminded cautioningly.
Lem grinned unpleasantly. “You been warnin’ him agin rilin’ me?”
Slowly and carefully, Buck admitted, “In a way….”
Lem’s eyes narrowed shrewdly, as he looked from Buck to Mill-wheel. “I’d sure like to know what goed on out there in the barn today. What was you-all talkin’ ‘bout?”
Fodder-wing watched them both, wide-eyed, to see if either would tell on him.
Mill-wheel shrugged it off blandly. “Nothin’ much.”
Lem deliberately looked at Buck. “Will you tell me?”
Buck was nonchalant. “Nothin’ to tell.”
Lem turned on Fodder-wing, ordering, not asking. “Then you will tell me.”
For a moment, clearly irked, Fodder-wing came to his feet right in front of Lem, looking defiant. Buck and Mill-wheel exchanged an uncomfortable, hesitant glance, uncertain whether or not to interfere and protect Fodder-wing, if needed. A gleam came into Lem’s eyes as he gazed down from his height at the little one. Briefly, the boy glared back up at the comparative giant, until his eyes chanced to travel downward to his older brother’s hands hanging at his sides. One had clenched into a fist.
Abruptly, wordlessly, Fodder-wing turned away from Lem and folded back down onto the floor, his eyes now staring fixedly upon the penknife about which the quarrel had begun. From his peripheral vision, he saw his nemesis above him nodding slowly.
Lem mumbled, “Yep, I’d sure love to know what happened out there in that barn.”
The next day, Fodder-wing morosely entered the barn, and said to Buck and Mill-wheel, “I lost my nerve.”
Buck’s eyes were gentle. “We could see you was tryin’ to decide whether to take him on or not.”
Apparently wishing to fix blame somewhere, Fodder-wing whined, “Mill-wheel, you scared me with your talk o’ how bad it’d hurt. That made me lose my nerve. But since it come up: how bad is the pain? Is it worse’n you kin stand?”
Mill-wheel shrugged. “You got to stand it, once hit’s done. Kin or cain’t, don’t mean nothin’.”
Fodder-wing scuffed his foot in the dirt. “I wish I could feel it for jest a second, and then back out iffen I have to.”
“Hit don’t work that-a-way,” Mill-wheel told him succinctly, unimpressed.
“Why do fellers got to fight anyways,” he pouted, and then, seeing their expressions, he answered for them, as he’d heard both of them say often enough, “Never mind; I know a’ready. ‘Hit’s male nature’.” He quoted them bitterly, mockingly, in disgust.
At a loss, Buck said plainly, “Well, …‘tis.”
“I’ll never fit in,” the boy disparaged.
Clearly feeling sorry for him, Buck lifted him up to sit on the rail, as Mill-wheel had done the day before, saying, “Cain’t you jest be special? To us, you are.”
“But I miss out on so much,” he complained, though he seemed at least mildly pleased at being back up on his perch.
That was when Lem again entered. “Mighta knowed. The same three o’ you.”
Irritated, Fodder-wing fussed at him, “Whyn’t you jest leave us ‘lone?”
Lem frowned. “Are you tryin’ to provoke me?”
Fodder-wing glanced in slight fear at Buck and Mill-wheel, but forced himself to retort at Lem, “No, you’re tryin’ to provoke me.”
“Git down offen that rail,” Lem instructed.
“Why?” the boy asked warily.
“So’s you don’t fall off backward and break your neck when I hit ya,” he responded matter-of-factly.
Resentfully, Fodder-wing replied, “You don’t sound serious. You ain’t even really riled. You’re jest tryin’ to scare me.” He couldn’t resist a slightly accusing glance at Mill-wheel as well, for having earlier done the same.
“So? You’re earnin’ it lately.” Lem seemed deliberately ambiguous regarding whether he meant that Fodder-wing was earning a scare or a punch.
Glumly, Fodder-wing murmured, “’Tain’t fun bein’ afeered o’ your own brothers. Feels unnatural.”
Thus included by implication, Buck assured him, “We’d never hurt you serious.” He might have been hinting at Lem at least as much as reassuring Fodder-wing.
“We know how to be keerful,” Mill-wheel agreed.
Feeling belittled and again singled-out and treated differently, Fodder-wing fumed, “Oh yeah, you-all’re sich experts, ain’t you?” His tone was full of venom.
“Hey.” Lem’s eyebrows rose in warning at his impudence.
“Well, I don’t like to feel babied,” he protested. “You-all ain’t bothered to baby Jody.”
“Jody ain’t a cripple.” Lem spoke bluntly, cruelly.
“Mebbe he is now!” Fodder-wing retorted furiously. “After what you done to him!” He lashed out at Lem’s insensitivity, both toward Fodder-wing’s condition and toward what Lem had recently done to Jody.
“Is there a point to this?” Lem demanded testily, his temper slipping.
Fodder-wing deflated abruptly. “I don’t know,” he muttered miserably. “Mebbe we might oughta tell him.” He observed Buck and Mill-wheel questioningly.
They exchanged a glance, and then Buck nodded. “Iffen you’re ready.”
“I’m mebbe ready to talk ‘bout it.” Fodder-wing emphasized his conditional response, prompting slight smiles from Buck and Mill-wheel. Briefly, they filled Lem in on the boy’s contradictory feelings, and the latter eyed the child, intrigued.
“We kin do it so’s you’ll not be in no danger. But you’ll not like it much,” Mill-wheel commented.
Fodder-wing squirmed. “I’m scared, …but every time I think o’ not never doin’ it, I feel ‘shamed, and a coward, and like I cain’t keep up with my friend Jody, …or with my own brothers. But I cain’t seem to find the nerve to say, ‘go ‘head’.”
Now this they understood. The need to guard one’s manly pride, and not to feel “bested” by one’s own brothers and friends. And for the first time they wondered if they would be helping him more in the long run by supporting his effort to face up to this, rather than by keeping him a helpless child. Fodder-wing looked so sad and desolate and wistful.
Just then, Arch and Pack came into the barn and, seeing the foursome together, expressed their own curiosity. They were quickly filled in as well, not only on the boy’s feelings, but also on Buck’s and Mill-wheel’s growing suspicion that their previous constant protectiveness might have been a mistake. Arch and Pack were somewhat less surprised than Lem had been to hear of Fodder-wing’s quandary, and a good deal more receptive to the youngster’s possible intentions to be treated more normally than Buck and Mill-wheel had been at first.
Slightly unnerved at how attitudes were progressing, Fodder-wing again needed to throw in a negative, and told them earnestly, “You could kill me, easy, did anythin’ go wrong.”
“I know,” acknowledged Mill-wheel, carefully emotionlessly.
“Do you really wanta risk that?” he asked, seeming again to back off a bit more, in his conflicting signals of confusion, wistful would-be courage, and unwanted fright.
“No, but we cain’t keep you in a leetle birdcage forever, neither,” Pack pointed out flatly.
Fodder-wing looked from one man to another, saw growing acceptance of Pack’s words in each, and swallowed hard.
Then, Gabby ambled into the barn. “I jest hitched up the wagon. Ma and Pa’s done goed off to town.”
Recognizing the obvious perfect opportunity to go through with it, Fodder-wing sagged on his perch, crushed, disconcerted, and beginning to panic. “Oh no. No!”
“What?” asked Gabby.
“I changed my mind!” he fairly shrieked. His heart seized, and he nearly choked in shock.
“’Bout what?” Gabby repeated.
“No, you ain’t. Iffen we was to stop this right now, soon’s you calmed down, you’d be fretted ‘bout it all over agin,” Arch assured him.
“And this-a-way, we’ll not have to worry ‘bout upsettin’ Ma and Pa,” Mill-wheel reminded him.
Tired of feeling excluded, Gabby demanded firmly, “Fretted ‘bout what??”
Reluctantly, the Forresters put in the effort to impart the situation yet again.
Gabby shifted uncomfortably. “I sure hope Ma and Pa don’t suddenly remember they forgot somethin’. Hate to think what they’d walk in on, did they come back here sudden.”
Fodder-wing closed his eyes with a little whimper.
Buck sorrowfully rubbed his back where he still sat upon the rail, saying, “You know they’s right, young un.”
Wordlessly, Fodder-wing turned and slipped his tiny arms around Buck’s neck, and slid from the rail, smoothly gliding into the big man’s arms, and wrapping spindly legs around his waist. “Oh please! I’m too leetle! Don’t!”
Lem said, “Now. ‘Twas your idea. We got to learn you not to bluff us.”
Mill-wheel added, “Nor to talk to us that-a-way, like you done after the fight, never agin.”
“He’p me, Gabby!” Fodder-wing pleaded.
The shortest adult blinked in astonishment at the tallest ones. “I cain’t stop the bunch of ‘em. I still don’t git it. What’d you start this for?”
“I don’t know! I don’t want you to hurt me! Lemme go!” he implored.
“Fodder-wing, I ain’t never seed nobody so tormented by somethin’. Arch’s right: you’ll never git over this, ‘til you face it.” Buck said flatly.
But when Fodder-wing looked up into Buck’s face, he could see that this nearly broke the heart of the gentlest Forrester.
True as that might be, it did not stop Buck from allowing the youngest Forrester to slip from his arms to stand on the floor.
Frantic, feeling more vulnerable than ever before, now Fodder-wing genuinely screamed.
“Let’s settle for cryin’, shall we? Not bellowin’ like a banshee,” suggested Lem.
As if to punctuate his words, a rumble of thunder suddenly sounded.
Gabby fretted, “A storm! Now Ma and Pa will turn back.”
“Oh hush ‘bout that,” Arch admonished.
“Don’t do this to me!” begged Fodder-wing. “Ma! Pa!”
“They ain’t back that fast,” proclaimed Pack.
Sadly, Buck turned the youngster to face Lem, with his back resting against Buck’s own body. “I’ll cushion you.”
“But that’ll hurt you, too!” Fodder-wing cried, now forlornly grasping at any possible way to prevent them from going through with this.
Fodder-wing twisted to look up at him. He saw Buck’s eyes soften at the last minute. Buck wouldn’t have stopped Lem, even if there had still been time. But he was sorry.
Without further ceremony, Lem clipped him on the jaw.
Only very briefly knocked unconscious, due to Lem’s having seriously pulled his punch, Fodder-wing’s suffering began almost immediately.
Buck and Mill-wheel looked haunted, as they sat on the floor and held the child between them, hovering protectively. From their expressions, they would gladly have taken his pain upon themselves and spared him if they could have.
Days later, Fodder-wing approached Buck and Mill-wheel gingerly, shyly, and yet with a new touch of pride and confidence that they could just barely identify. He said, “It was…worse’n I ever imagined. But, …you done right.”
to the Yearling site...