The gentle Autumn breeze chilled, as the blue sky slowly filled with grey clouds… The two young boys opened their eyes. Matty shivered, and looked skyward.
        “Feels like it might rain, or something… I wonder what time it is… It’s gotta be noon, at least!”
        Chris concurred. “Yeah, at least… weren’t you ‘sposed to get lunch, Matty?”
        “Oh, man!! Yeah… My daddy’s gonna kill me… He told me to be back in time… he hates having to look for me. Geesh! I gotta figure out a good excuse!  We’d better go!! Come on! Before he comes lookin’ for me!!”
      
         The trail back to the building site took the two boys only a few minutes to navigate, with Matty leading the way. Soon, the last hill was in sight, and, as the boys started the ascent, a loud, irritated voice rang out..
         “Where the heck have YOU been, Matthew? I’ve been looking for you for the last half hour!!”
          Matty grimaced, and felt the butterflies return to his stomach… Chris came up short, behind him, crashing into his lower back with his shoulder as he stumbled again, sending Matty lurching foward as well… “Damn… freakin’ sneakers…”
         “I didn’t know it was so late, daddy,” the blond boy explained… “I met someone… his name is Chris, and…”
          “Matty!! …. When I say noon, I mean noon, not 12:30 or 1 o’clock… NOON!!  Who’s that, behind you?”
          “Uh… this is Chris…” Matty said, nervously. “He lives here… near here… somewhere back in the woods… We’re friends… now. Is lunch over with… yet?”
          “It should be!! It looks like I’ll have to eat later, since I spent so much time, looking for you!!”
          “I’m sorry, Daddy…. I should have listened better… I’m sorry…”
          “Yeah… OK… come on, let’s get back. Uncle Barney has to be wondering if you’re lost,
 or something… there’s still some sandwiches and things left to eat… You might as well get to it. There’s no use, wasting the food…”
           With that, Matty’s dad turned, and headed back towards the echoing thuds of the hammers, with a look of disgust on his face.
            Chris tugged on Matty’s jacket sleeve, and whispered over the blond boy’s shoulder, “Maybe I should get gone, Matty… he seems perty mad!! ”
             ” No way! ” exclaimed Matty. “You helped get me into this… you gotta help me get out… If you come, at least I won’t get yelled at, too much!! Besides, I don’t want to go there by myself… all those guys were laughing at me, this morning… Come on…”
             So, the two 9 year old boys, sheepishly followed Matty’s dad, back to the chaotic building site…

        Inside an attached structure that would someday be a garage, the workmen had set up a crude arrangement of wooden devices that now served a purpose that was never intended… On it’s side, lay a giant wooden spool, the only thing left of what was once a huge roll of electrical wire… It had been positioned, towards the middle of the dirt floor and, around it was an odd assortment of other things that had been turned into makeshift chairs- a few, half full, wooden kegs of nails… a pair of large wooden crates, and, an actual steel lawn chair that had mysteriously appeared at one of the clearings in a nearby lot… The spool made a decent sized table, and, even tho it was too low for the adult workers, it was at a perfect height for the 2 boys… On this pine table of sorts, sat a large, steel lunchbox…

          Matty’s father hurriedly gave some last- second instructions… ” How clean are your hands?? Oh, Geesh!! I figured!! Look, I have to get up on the roof.. there’s two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and 2 ham and cheese sandwiches here… You can have one of each, Matty, but, don’t eat both ham and cheese sandwiches, OK?  I want one of those, at least… I’ll have it later, when we take a break… Hold the sandwiches by the wrappers when you eat, kid.. Your hands are filthy!! I don’t have time to get them clean, right now!!  Oh, and, don’t eat all the dessert or all the bananas either!!  Leave some for me, OK??”
        With that, the boys were alone, as the staccato of the hammers increased, the noise  drifting  across the barren lot and into the magical woods where a special chipmunk lay in wait, graham cracker in tow…

        Matty breathed a sigh of relief, and, Chris laughed… “Your daddy is nice, Matty!! Why were you so damn…. I mean… doggoned worried?”
        “I didn’t say he was mean… I was just worried he’d be mad and yell a lot… Anyways, I’m glad all of them are on the roof!! We can eat without getting laughed at, now!!”
         “We?” Chris looked, hungrily, at the stuffed lunchbox.
         “Of course!! You don’t think I’m going to eat alone, do you?? That’s why I invited you here! You’re my guest, and, you would be rude not to eat with me…” Matty grinned at the cleverness of the plan, but, it wasn’t lost on the boy from Tennessee…
          “Matty…. I know you ain’t invited me here ’cause you didn’t wanna eat alone… ” The boy stopped and looked into Matty’s eyes and then, ashamed, looked down at his oversized sneakers…”MMatty … I gotta say… I nnever had a friend like you before… Not one that I ever liked … well…  like you… I’m glad that God found you, and you come here… “
           Embarrassed, Matty interrupted the dark haired youth…”It’s OK, Chris, I couldn’t eat all this by myself, anyways… So, whatta ya want?  Peanut butter and jelly, or, ham and cheese??”
          Chris looked up, and smiled from ear to ear… It was the first time that Matty had seen him smile… He was like a different boy, an angel… a dirty- faced angel, but, an angel, nonetheless… “Mebbe I’ll try a little of the ham ‘n cheese… oh, wait a minute… been a long time since I ate a peanut butter ‘n jelly sandwich, too…”
         “It’s OK!! ” Matty laughed… ” I’m not all that hungry!! You eat the sandwiches, I’ll have part of this banana… Man, I’ve been wanting a banana all morning!!”
         Chris’ face lit up, as Matty handed him both sandwiches… “Really?  You ain’t hungry? You sure?? All of these fer me??”
         “Sure! I can get more of those, when I get home, if I get hungry… We always have plenty of food around, even if we are poor… Just make sure you hold them in the wax paper when you eat them… your hands are even dirtier than mine!! You’ll get sick, if you eat all that dirt, too!!”
         ” God made dirt, an’ dirt don’t hurt!!”  Chris recited with delight, and voraciously started in on the ham and cheese sandwich… It was gone, within a few minutes… Matty was shocked at the boy’s ability to seemingly swallow such large chunks with such speed… Even his own brother, who was known for ‘wolfing’ his meals, would have been little competition for the ravenous boy!! The peanut butter and jelly sandwich fared no better, as did the other half of Matty’s banana…
          “Holy mackerel!” Matty exclaimed… “When did you eat last? Two years ago??”
          ” Yesterday… only it weren’t this good!! Just mush… well, mush ‘n milk…”  He looked at Matty and grinned wryly… “It don’t look like I’ll get beat fer this tho!!”
           Matty reached over and hugged his friend with his right arm… “Naw… Not around here!!”

          Both boys were startled suddenly by a voice behind them, ” What are you two lovebirds up to?”
          Matty turned to see his uncle walking through a passage from the house that would someday, become a breezeway. He looked at the smirking man, and, said nothing, but, quickly removed his arm from around his friend…
         “Who’s this kid, and, why is he eating your lunch? ” Chris fidgeted, nervously and looked towards the woods like a trapped animal…
          “This is my friend, Uncle Barney, and, he’s not eating my lunch, I’m sharing it with him…”
          “Does your dad know that you’re giving away good food to the local riff- raff?”
           Matty stood up, and faced the loud man… Chris followed, but, cowered behind his new friend, and nervously grabbed his jacket tails… “This is my friend, Uncle Barney!! Like Mr. Carey is your friend… If your friend was hungry, would you share your food with him?”
           “Well, this really takes the cake… first, you disappear into the woods and, your dad has to search for you instead of eating his lunch, and, then, you come back, dragging some little stray from the swamps with you… what’s next??  All I need is for this kid, and every other little thief in the area to get the idea that he’s welcome here… Nothing will be safe without a chain and padlock attached!!  Now, move out of the way, I need some nails from that keg you’re sitting on…”
           Terrified, Chris broke away from Matty, who was sheltering him, and ran from the inside of the garage, towards the safety of the woods… Confused by the hateful comments, Matty backed away from the irate man, and, started to cry…”Why did you say those awful things to him, Uncle Barney? He didn’t steal anything… he’s just hungry, because his daddy is poor, just like mine… Why did you treat him like that? Jesus told us to feed the poor and hungry and… ” He couldn’t go on… Instead, Matty ran to the safety of the woods, leaving his uncle to ponder the lessons that came from the love of a child… He stood there with his mouth open, bewildered and speechless while his young nephew ran from him to the only place of safety he could find…

           As Matty ran, the pain of remembrance cut deep into his heart… He would never look at his uncle the same way  again… There would  be something unforgivable that the child would carry for almost a year, until he understood, and, his innocence was gone…

  
          The two shaking boys rendezvoused  at the bottom of the hill, in the small, grass covered meadow as Chris was recovering from an acrobatic tumble… “Damn shoes!!” the boy groaned, holding his muddied knee in obvious pain…
           Matty skidded to a halt, in front of the dirty boy, and looked back, nervously up the hill, but, they were alone. and, safe… He turned, and looked down at Chris. “What happened?”
           “Whatt ya mean, what happened?  I caught that freakin’ root again, only this time, I really flew!!”
           “Flew? Ya mean like a bird?”
           “Yeah like a big freakin’ bird, with big freakin’ sneakers!!”
           The blond boy choked back a laugh momentarily, but, before he could respond, Chris let out a guffaw, and, soon both boys were laughing hysterically, and, Matty was kneeling, doubled over from the strain… “Big bird… like a big bird!!” It was contagious and, the 2 boys howled in unison, till Chris pulled Matty into the mud with him, and, then it was a free for all… a no holds barred, wrestling and laughing extravaganza!!

           When it was done, both boys were really done… Their clothes were no longer recognizable and Matty took the opportunity to clobber  Chris with a final slap of mud to the head and face…

        The battle over, the boys surveyed their handiwork… “Holy cow!! You look like a big bird mudball!” Matty howled…

     “Well you just wait till your daddy sees you!  You ain’t blond no more!!” Chris countered…

Suddenly, it was no longer such a joke! A sick realization overtook the blond haired boy, and he  grimaced nervously… “Do I look really bad, Chris?”
      “Yeah, you look bad, probly ’bout what I look like!”
       Matty suddenly felt really sick… “My daddy’s goin’ to kill me, Chris!!  How am I supposed to explain this? Oh man, am I gonna get it! First I’m late for lunch, now I’m lookin’ like a filthy pig!! What am I gonna do? Oh man… oh man….
       Chris interrupted, “Don’t sweat it, Matty! I got ya covered!  We’ll just jump in the crik! Mud ain’t gonna stay on ya, once that cold water hits it!!”
       “Crik? What Crik?”
        “Well, not crik, more like a cow waller… “
        “A what?” Matty asked.
        “You know, a pond and such…”
        “Well, why didn’t you just say ‘pond’, then?”
        “Well, I did!!” Chris exclaimed… “Come on! I’ll show ya where I take my bath!!” He grabbed Matty by the arm and pulled him towards the forest and the mysterious pond where the blond boy hoped for redemption from the dripping mud that his new friend had lavished upon him…
        
        Continued in part 5…..

      

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