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by Frank Shortt
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Billy Chalmers was not a really hateful kid. He might have beat up on a few folks, but
I do not believe he ever really hurt anyone except maybe their feelings. With the raising he had I guess he must have had a sore spot
to salve once in a while. His stepfather used to beat him across the back with whatever he could find to hit him with, grape vines,
hickory switches, or his mining belt. This was for the least infraction. Many times he would come out to our house with bloody welts
across his back that would take all summer to heal. He would not let on who had beat him, but we knew.
All the kids in our neighborhood went without shirts every summer. We usually looked like a bunch of peeled onions by the middle of
summer. The Shortt kids had a tendency to peel instead of tanning.
I remember one time
my uncle, who was a little older than I, offended Billy in some way. Before we knew what had happened Billy had my uncle on the ground
pounding the tar out of him. For some reason we didn’t interfere as we had often felt the brunt of my uncle’s teasing or tattling.
This often ended up with one of us kids getting a skinning.
One School day, Billy and I
were up on the highway, out of bounds of the playground and Billy was playing with matches.
“Better be careful, Billy,” I warned, these leaves are dry as tinder.”
“Aw, mind your own
business, I know what I’m doing, I’ve handled matches many times, why I’ve even smoked cigarettes.”
“I’ve smoked too, but that don’t make me an expert at handling matches.”
All of a sudden he burned one of his fingers allowing the match to fall in some dry leaves
by the roadside.
“Ow! what the heck!” He cried.
“I tried to warn you but you’re too hard headed,” I replied.
We tried our best to stomp
out the burning leaves to no avail. We stole silently back to the classroom making sure no one saw us coming down through the bushes
to the playground.
It took the neighborhood several days to put that fire out as
it raced up the dry hillside. Older boys from Grimsleyville Elementary School were recruited to fight the occasional forest fire in
the late Forties and early Fifties.
“Who was up there on the highway trying to smoke,”
Wise, Murtis Wade, our teacher, asked.
Not a soul stirred. I had to hold my breath to keep
from yelling out.
I never did tell the teacher that Billy had started the fire.
Trouble always started when I was left alone with Billy. If my older brother, Wendell, was around He let me be. He seemed to like
to beat me up just because I showed fear of him. I was a skinny runt and he was pretty plump and taller than I. I went home with a
bloody nose many times until a certain thing happened one morning that changed the whole situation.
“Better get your going britches on !” mom warned, the bus will be here any minute. You kids have lazed around long enough.”
All the Shortt children had to catch the school bus in order to go to the two room school at Grimsleyville. We usually waited until
we saw the bus go up the mountain to Shortt Gap and caught it as it returned down the mountain.
Billy Chalmers would usually come out to our house and he, Wendell, and I would play until time to go across the creek and highway
to catch the bus. Our playing sometimes got us into trouble or got our clothes messed up. We would have to stop our playing in order
to get disciplined or change our clothes before we caught the bus.
One morning, just as
we had gotten into our playing, Wendell had to go into the house for some reason. Billy immediately began hitting me for no reason.
I knew he could beat me up with his fists, but I determined this day to stick up for myself in the only way I knew how. I was good
at throwing rocks. I picked up a big one, threw it at him, striking him on the collarbone. He ran up toward our orchard. I was right
behind him throwing rocks as fast as I could pick them up, and believe me, there were plenty.
“I’ll fix you, you bully. I’ve taken all I’m gonna take from you.”
I was so mad with pent
up anger that I let it all go at once.
My fury spent, I returned triumphantly to the house.
After Billy got over his fear, he crept down to the yard. For the first time in his life
he apologized to me for always beating me up.
From that day forward he was my guardian
instead of my protagonist.