The two boys studied each other… Matty broke the silence.

      “Your woods? I don’t know who owns these woods, but, you sure don’t!”
        The dark haired boy nervously kicked at a little clod of loose dirt with his oversized sneaker and, looking down, mumbled something that Matty couldn’t understand…
       “Huh? What’d you say?”
        Chris looked up and answered, this time, more clearly… “So, I don’t own ’em, but, you don’t either, even if you ARE rich!!”
        “Rich? Are you kidding?? Who’s rich?? Me??” Matty laughed, and, for effect, doubled over, slapping both of his denim- covered knees… “You’re a riot…”
         Bewildered, Chris looked at his new friend. “You ain’t rich? Well, whatta ya doin’ buildin’ all them houses? You ain’t poor, that’s for sure an’ for certain!!” He spit on the rocks in front of him, and looked at Matty in a challenging way… “My daddy says that you guys has plenty of dough… you even got one of them bulldozers… that costs a pretty penny, by itself!”
         “Man, are you ever wrong! ” laughed Matty… “First of all, we’re building one house right now, and, maybe some more later, if it gets sold for a good price, but, anyways, my uncle owns the land, and, my daddy is helping him build the house… He works for my uncle… He’s not rich!! Oh, and, the bulldozer belongs to my uncle’s best friend, a guy named Russ… He’s doing all the work like smoothing out the dirt and digging out stumps and stuff like that… That’s what he does… My daddy says he’s into dirt…” Matty and Chris both laughed at that, Chris kind of snorting at the little joke, and Matty laughing at his reaction…
         “Anyways, it’s getting near lunch, and, I’m supposed to be at the house on time… My daddy likes to eat, right at noon… Are you coming? I’ll show you the house, and stuff…”
          “Do ya think I should? ” queried Chris, anxiously.
          “Why not?” said Matty. “You can meet my dad and my uncle, and see the house, if they’ll let us go inside…They don’t really care what I do, as long as I don’t get in the way…”
           “Well, OK then…”


 The two boys set off, down the narrow path that meandered through the virgin timber and spilled out, into the little valley where the last of the wildflowers bloomed and the tall grasses beckoned with every tepid breeze that was left in Autumn’s throat….

Soon, the distinctive sounds of the building site echoed through the woods, as the boys reached the perimeter of the forest proper… Chris stumbled on a protruding root and grabbed onto Matty to regain his balance… “Damn!”, the boy exclaimed… “Like walkin’ in snowshoes with these freakin’ sneakers!!”
    Matty looked at his new friend’s dirty sneakers and asked,” Aren’t they a little big for you?”
    “No shit, Sherlock!! Whatta ya think? They were my brother’s last year, and, he’s 13… Mine got trashed after I got sprayed…”
      Matty winced at the vulgar language, but, tried to ignore it… “Sprayed?? Who sprayed you?”
      Chris exploded with laughter… ” Not who, dummy… what!! A Goddam skunk …”
      “Hey, hey… Why are you talking like that?? Didn’t anybody ever tell you that you shouldn’t swear? I mean, kids don’t swear! God doesn’t like that kind of stuff…’Sides, if you talk like that, in front of my daddy, he’s gonna tell you to go!”
       Chris looked bewildered at the scolding… “Sorry Matt”, he mumbled. “I ferget… it’s just the way we talk at my house… I guess you think I’m just a dirty fella, huh?”
       “No, I don’t, Chris… You’re just a kid like me… only, you got to start talkin’ like one! If I ever used those words around my house, well… I don’t even want to think about what might happen…Besides, do you talk like that in school? Man, you must be at the principal’s office, all the time!!”
        Chris looked down at his sneakers and said nothing… Matty noticed that the boy’s ears were turning a bright shade of red…
         “Well, don’t the teachers get mad at you, and send you to the office?”
         The dark- haired boy looked at Matty… “NNever been to school, MMatty…” With that last word, he wiped a tear from his eye, and turned around… He walked back towards the towering trees, and, briefly tripped again, on the same exposed root, but, caught himself, and, then, glanced back at Matty… His shame seemed to overtake him, then… His eyes filled with tears, his lower lip quivered, and then, overwhelmed, he ran, back to the forest that was his home…
         Matty was stunned… Who didn’t go to school?? It wasn’t understandable, on any level for the 9 year old boy. At the moment though, it wasn’t the important thing… Matty gathered his thoughts and, yelled after his new friend… “Chris… hey, Chris!!  Where you going?”
         It was no use. The boy had vanished in the shadows and dense foliage of the woods. Matty looked back in the direction of the construction site, and pondered his options. He would probably get a good scolding, if he was late for lunch, but, he was also worried about Chris…. He hesitated a moment, then, turned, and ran after the dark-haired youth, picking up speed as the hill descended into the dark shadows at the forests’ edge.

         Matty peered into the dense jungle as he ran, but saw nothing. He abruptly stopped, and, using the skills he learned, pursuing his friends and cousins in the many games they played, listened intently for the telltale sounds of a running boy… There was nothing but silence for a moment, then, the distinct shriek of a startled blue jay, to his right, in the direction of some fallen trees, alerted the boy… ‘Aha!’ he thought… He headed towards the noisy bird and, as he jumped over the large trunk of a fallen ash, he could just make out the red of Chris’ shirt through the underbrush… He slowed his pace, and silently proceeded, trying again to gather his thoughts…
        In a small clearing, a large oak had fallen, crushing everything in it’s way… It laid there, defeated by the passage of time, a once proud monarch, reduced to little more than a resting place for the creatures of the forest, and, sad little boys…
        Chris was perched on the massive log, his back against a broken off limb, one leg dangling and one knee bent up… He sat there sobbing, shaking,  his arms wrapped around his bent  knee and his face buried in the dirty white corduroys that he wore…
        Matty walked slowly to where the boy sat, and, stood in front of him…
        “Are you OK, Chris?” There was no answer… just a muffled sob… “Uh… I … well, I guess you’re mad at me, or something, huh?” Still no answer, only now, the boy seemed to be crying even more… “Chris, please tell me what’s wrong… I don’t know why you’re crying…”
         With that, the dark- haired boy, looked up, and, yelled at Matty, “Go away!! You know you wanna… I ain’t like you… I ain’t smart or rich, or nothin… I ain’t even got a good pair of shoes… My daddy told me that we ain’t like most people… He told me I ain’t no good…never will be!! Leave me alone!! Go back … your daddy’s probly lookin’ fer you!”
         Matty was startled at the outburst, but, felt the sadness in Chris’s voice… He hesitated, and then, took off the jacket that he was wearing, and, tenderly draped it across the shoulders off the shivering boy.
         “Friends don’t run away…” he said, as he sat down on the log, next to his new friend.

          The two little boys sat there, in the silent clearing as the Autumn sun rose to it’s zenith and cast it’s golden light upon the painted trees at the forests’ edge…
          The dark- haired boy broke the silence first… “Does yer daddy like you, Matty?”
          Matty looked at the boy who was wiping his tear-streaked face with his tattered shirt sleeve.
          “Whatta ya mean, does he like me? He’s my daddy… He has to like me….” His voice trailed off as he remembered the early morning betrayal… He shook the memory away and proclaimed, “Daddy’s don’t have a choice… they have to like their kids…”  He looked down, at the grass and mud- stained sneakers that Chris was wearing. “Why are you asking me that? Do you think my daddy hates me or something?”
          Chris shook his head, and looked away… He seemed to be off in another world.
          “Matty… Does yer daddy … well, does he…you know, hit you when you make him mad? I mean, if you do somethin’ real bad, like drink the rest of the milk, or somethin’….You know, without askin’ or nothin, even when he told you you couldn’t have none…”
           “Milk?  Why would he hit me because I drank milk? My mom says that all boys like milk, and, besides, milk makes you grow up strong, and you need milk…”
            Chris interrupted. “Matty!!  I mean if you don’t have much, because you don’t have no more money to buy some, and, you still drink it, even if he says you can’t have none…”
           Matty looked at the skinny boy and, started to understand… “You mean because you’re too poor to buy milk, your daddy hits you? Why would he hit YOU? It’s not your fault you’re poor!”
           “Because I’m just no good… I ain’t never been worth nothin’ but trouble, Matty. If I weren’t born, my mommy would still be alive, and we would still be in Tennessee… That’s why he hits me… He hits me ’cause I kilt my mommy…” The little boy buried his face in the blue jacket and, started to cry again…
           Matty reached over the slumping boy, and put his arms around the narrow shoulders, and hugged him… He patted the boy on the back to comfort him, and felt his body tense with pain… Chris looked up, wincing… “Don’t… my back…”
          “What’s wrong Chris?’ Matty queried… Are you OK? Did you hurt your back, or something?”
          ” I’m OK, it’s just that my back is where my daddy hits me with the belt, and he laid into  me real good last night…”
          “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you, Chris,” Matty responded. “Can I see how bad he hurt you?”
          Chris looked nervously at his friend, and nodded… he stood up, and took Matty’s jacket, and carefully placed it on the log, and then turned his back to the blond boy, and gingerly loosened his shirt from his pants and then lifted it up, exposing his lower back… Matty reached out with his left hand, and carefully hoisted the shirttails higher until he felt the tears welling up in his eyes… Chris was a very skinny young boy with pale white skin. Matty tenderly traced the welts on the boy’s lower back that disappeared beneath the waistband of his dirty pants… He didn’t appear to be wearing any underwear, either…  As he raised the shirt further, the dark haired boy flinched, and, the awful damage from the current beating was exposed… There were actual cuts in places across the young boy’s back, where the blood had dried and around the cuts were reddened, inflamed areas… Matty could also see a large imprint that was forming a deep bruise in the shape of a large belt buckle. He was shocked… He had suffered abuse at home as well, but, never remembered being assaulted like this…
         Chris turned his head and looked down at Matty, who now had tears streaming down his face… He  turned around and, pulled his shirt back down and sat down… “It’s OK, Matty, it don’t hurt much… You get used to it, after a while…”

        Matty sat down and brushed the tears from his face… “Sometimes, when I get beat on, it helps to sit with my brother in a safe place, and, just hold his hand… maybe we could do that, do ya think, Chris? I could say a prayer and ask God to send you an angel to watch over you, if you want…”
        Chris  nodded in agreement and then took Matty’s hand and held it tightly… The boys shut their eyes and prayed, silently, side by side, under a canopy of brilliant red and orange leaves, and God settled their hearts and bonded them together, like brothers …. the skinny poor boy from Tennessee, and the blond poor boy from Connecticut…

             Continued in part 4…