Disclaimer: I don't own any characters except some random extras; everything else is Marvel's only.
1. 1904, July
The night wind was blowing almost gently through the corn field, even despite the often cold gusts that broke the corn heads' rhythmic swing to force them down on a tight bend. But it was a nice summer night, nonetheless, especially after the searing hot day. The countless stars lit up a moonless sky that was almost a new world's landscape. Yet it held no true interest for the boy lying amidst the partial protection of the corn stalks.
Brown eyes gazing up, the dark haired boy wasn't particularly sleepy, nor was he feeling particularly prone to thinking. Therefore, he simply gazed lazily to the starscape that happened to be above him while watching, for lack of better enjoyment, the random memories his mind was currently juggling with.
The recorded images of the last days had mingled themselves in one chaotic pleasant flow. The boy found himself smiling dreamily at the warmth of those recent memories and searched around for a thin herb stalk on which to chew on, thus preventing more smiles from opening themselves. He knew it was not good to let himself flow with that warmth. There would be a beating lurking behind it. It was a lesson he had learnt a long time ago. He wasn't sure when it had been, but his mind was quick to provide him with images that attested to their antiquity. Hidden away in a distant memory, there was a big, tall woman whose face was a blank. The only distinctive feature his mind had not blurred was the woman's blonde hair.
Ah!, and there it was, the warmth once again. It enveloped him as he remembered the intonation of her words – gentle, soothing, sometimes even cheerful – although he couldn't grasp the sound of her voice anymore. He particularly remembered the times when she sat down and held him tight, speaking in whispers. She'd repeat his name over and over like a strange prayer, her little boy's name, and promise he would grow up strong and big, and nothing or no one would ever be able to hurt him.
It was warm and safe, that memory. Even in its danger. Because it would always undo itself in the arrival of Pa. And the beating lurking behind the ancient warmth would come falling on the woman, as he remembered hiding behind… something. It didn't really matter what it was, since it always failed to protect him from the blows that soon shifted from the weeping woman onto himself.
Pa didn't like his name. The boy knew that was the reason he never said it; why he always just called him boy. It was also the reason why he beat the woman every time she pronounced his name, and then kicked him out of his hiding place and beat him. He remembered there had been a time when the woman had tried to stand up against Pa. There had been a lot of screaming that one time, and Pa had been as enraged as he had never been before. The boy still recalled the cold of the night as he had run away from the small house, afraid of how big a beating he might catch on the account of the woman. When he had returned to the house, the next day, he had found that the woman had gone away.
Pa had never again beaten him on account of his name. Later, the boy had found out she had been taken to the cemetery, down in the village, and he quickly decided it had been good she had died. Because he might miss the safety of her strong arms, but they were strong only when Pa was away; and when he arrived, their strength melted away into helpless tears. And a lot of pain.
The boy closed his eyes. The memory of the pain of those past beatings, over his hateful name, became mixed with the pain of a more recent beating. Once more he was pleased it was summer. He could spend the entire night away and thus avoid meeting Pa in the morning, as he woke up. Pa always woke up early, and would be mad if he wasn't getting up already. Only, it was very hard to wake up before Pa. Very hard indeed. He wished it could be summer all year round.
It seemed like he had just half wished for an eternal summer, when the sun came bouncing up in the sky. The boy, eyes still closed, tried to ignore it and will it away; but the sun was already too high and the corn stalks offered no protection. Finally, he gave up his slumber and got up, stretching lazily.
The day had already grown hot, despite being late summer, the days slowly shrinking. Scratching his head vigorously, the boy headed away from the shadowless field and wandered into the coolly shaded apple tree orchard. He ate a few apples to appease his growling stomach and threw stones at a couple dogs that came barking warnings at his intrusion. Sharp eyes and a steady hand soon chased the orchard keeper's dogs away and, feeling good with himself, he went straight for the big house. No sense in lingering behind to be caught by the dumb apple keeper.
It was a bit late in the morning, but he hoped to spot pretty Rose around the house so he got down to do his chore, tending to the garden, in the areas he knew offered a better chance of catching a glimpse of her. He whistled some mismatched melody as he plucked weeds out of the flower beds, always keeping an eye out for the house girl's red hair.
He turned around sharply at the voice of the new stable boy, Harold Cobbett, who was only slightly older than himself. He knew him from the village, down the hill. Harold used to run in pack with all the other boys and he knew better than to cross their way, since they enjoyed beating every boy that wasn't a part of their group. It had been them who had twisted his true name around into Dog, a long, long time ago. They had probably even forgotten all about it, too.
But Harold was older, now, and seemed to really have forgotten the times when he had run with the pack. The dark haired boy still didn't like him, though. He acted all important like just because he was slightly older and worked with the horses. So, he ignored the other boy's call and went back to his chore, lips pursed together in a sudden bad mood.
"Hey, ain't ya heard me callin' ya? Dog!"
"Whaddya want?" He answered gruffly. He hated being called that, but since Pa had never once complained about it, and much less beaten him because of it, he never said anything against it.
"Miss Rose's been askin' fer ya." That got his attention, but he continued on plucking weeds as if his heart wasn't beating as fast as a fly beats its wings. "I think Master James wanna sees ya or somethin'."
He focused harder on his chore.
"Hey, ain't ya heard me?" Looking down at the weeds, he failed to notice the older boy looking around for any witnesses. He also failed to notice him pulling back his foot; so when the kick hit him on the back, the boy fell over with a suppressed yelp. "Master James's waitin' fer his pet dog: don't keep'im waitin'!"
He moved fast, his small fist closed in a ball, his precious pen knife sticking out threateningly; but young Harold knew the trick and had already bounced out of the bladed punch's way. Swiftly, he held the young boy's wrist and twisted it around, effectively stopping him from attempting another blow.
"Careful, ya stupid Dog!" He spit his warning threateningly. "Ya wouldn't want Old Howlett ta know ya's a lil' murderin' thief, like yer Pa, would ya? Ya oughtta be thankin' us, village folks, fer not rattin' yer old man out, 'stead o' actin' all bratty."
With a last kick, Harold sent the boy face first into the flower bed. He never even bothered to get away quickly, but simply took two steps back and waited for the dirty face to come up, contorted with fury and hurt pride.
"Master James's waitin' fer ya." He said out loud and clear. "So hurry up an' get outta here. Dog. Go on, move!"
He stood tall, looking down on him. Still fuming, the young boy got up. He wanted to charge the mocking village boy, but he knew he didn't stand a chance. He almost did charge, in spite of it; yet he ended up turning his back on him and wandering away, his ears burning from a few last remarks.
The boy felt hot tears burning his eyes but swallowed them down. He wiped his right cheek with his tattered shirt, promising himself he would one day beat them all away. Harold and all the village boys, who thought themselves so high and mighty. He'd show them… He had sometimes thrown stones at the pack, but he had been careful to remain hidden. Nevertheless, what he really wanted to was to be as strong as his Pa and show them all, cowards, who the boss was. And one day… one day he'd make them pay for everything!
He almost growled when he heard James calling him. They'd pay for that, too. His Pa might hate his name, but he didn't like this… this 'name' any better. But do what? He wished folks would call him Logan, because they sometimes said he was the 'Logan boy', but that was what most folks called his father. It didn't seem fair that Pa could have two nice names folks could use, Thomas and Logan, while he didn't have any. He remembered that day, in the beginning of summer, when Rose and James had come to talk to him.
"You're Logan's boy, aren't you?" She had asked. He had been afraid she might ask him his name, then, because he didn't know what he could have said. But she didn't.
"Your name's Dog, isn't it?" James had asked instead, and when he didn't answer the boy had just smiled and pointed brightly to the pretty red-head girl. "She's Rose. She's come to live with us in the house and play with me. Do you know the way to the pond? I wanted to show it to her, but I'm afraid I'll get lost…"
He had pointed the way, not even saying a word. But Rose had smiled, and asked him if he would like to go, too…
"Dog! Huwy!" He felt his rage calm down slightly as the younger boy waved energetically with one hand. "Come and see what Wose found. Huwy!"
It was a tiny baby bird. James showed it to him with his typical cheerfulness, explaining he was going to take it home and raise it. He chuckled when he heard Rose's defeated sigh.
"It's gonna die." He then informed as he lay down on the grass, after a quick glance to the half feathered creature. "It must be fed by its Ma, and she won't do it now that it's outta the nest."
James was crestfallen for a moment, and then vigorously decided he'd take the baby back to its home, then. The boy looked at James, his clothes for playing outside very neatly arranged, and grinned. They might be more or less the same age, but the little master seemed years younger, both in looks and thinking.
"Don't be stupid, James. Ya can't climb a tree." He once more relaxed on the grass, but it was a short lived rest.
"James, Dog's right: you can't… No, James! Stop that!"
He sat up at the urgency in Rose's voice, and could see that James was determined to save the chick. Flushed face, he was confronting Rose and demanding she held the little bird while he climbed.
"You will not…" But she received the chick even as she talked, and James coughed a few times before getting ready. "You'll get hurt, James. Please! You're not well…"
"I am too!" He insisted, whiffing determinedly: "And it's not too hard to cwimb a twee. I've done it befo'."
With a grunt, the ragged boy got up and put his arm around James neck, pulling him away from the tree and keeping him locked in an embrace that had the boy coughing.
"Dog! Let him go. He can't breathe with you holding him like that."
But the dark haired boy ignored her. He wasn't hurting the sickly child. He even let him finish his coughing before explaining he couldn't take the bird back.
"Ya heard Rose: ya ain't well." And he wasn't; he never pronounced the r's and l's when his allergies got worse. "I'll do it."
One foot against the tree, the hardened skin adhering to the bark much better than James's well groomed shoes, and he started his ascension to search for the nest. It took a while before he located it, with Rose warning him to be careful while James cheered him on.
"He won't fa', Wose. Dog's much too good to fa' fwom a twee. Mo' to the wight, Dog! To the… No, the othe' wight. Yes, that's it!"
And indeed there it was. Illustrating James's faith in his abilities, he climbed down in an agile moment and asked for the chick. It was going to die anyway, he knew, because most mother birds let their chicks starve to death if you climbed to their nests and touched them. The other chicks in the nest would probably all die, because of this one. But he didn't tell James how stupid his idea of saving the chick was. He was just a little kid, anyway.
Climbing with the chick was harder. Rose fashioned a little bag from her handkerchief where the little creature could be safely transported, but it wasn't easy pulling himself up with only one arm. He scratched legs and arms mercilessly, sometimes going so far as to grab the handkerchief endings with his mouth. Nevertheless, every struggle got him closer to his target, until he finally reached his destination and carelessly dumped the chick. James hoorayed from below as he waved the now empty handkerchief to signal his success. Then, one of his feet slipped and his left arm lost its former grip on the branch it had been holding. In no time, he crashed through the branches to the sound of Rose's frightened yelp and stopped only at his companions' feet.
"Dog! Are you all right?"
"A'e you hu't?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Fine!" He grumpily shooed away James and Rose's attentions. "Ya distracted me, that's all."
Sighing in relief, her hand poised dandily over her heart, Rose sat down next to him. James, assured his companion was OK, went back to the tree and tried to gaze at the nest.
"Please be more careful, next time." She glanced over at James with a smile, not noticing the dirty boy's pale grimace. "James! The chicks are fine, now. It's time we return for lunch."
James was walking back, while Rose got up to meet him, and saw the ragged boy lie down with a pained expression, clutching his left arm.
"Dog! You a'e not well; you' hu't!" And when he snapped he was 'fine!', James sulked and insisted. "I saw you. You' awm is hu't."
Unfortunately, James had got too close and was caught quite by surprise when the boy sprang up and wrapped his right arm around James's legs. The helpless child fell down with a weak yelp, and in the next moment his companion was sitting on his midriff and holding his starched collar.
"Now, who's ya sayin' ain't well, huh?"
"Dog! How dare you! Get off him." An outraged Rose was now trying to pull him back and out of her young charge, and he obeyed her sulkily when she grabbed his left arm, which was still aching from the fall. "What's wrong with you, today! You could have hurt James."
He watched as Rose worried around the coughing boy, dusting away his clothes and anxiously asking him if he was feeling all right in between glares at the half-sulking boy.
"I didn't do nuthin'." He complained. "We was just foolin' 'round, Rose. Ya treat 'im like he's a lil' girl."
But Rose was angry and would not have his explanations. She insisted James was not going to take part in such rough games, and not just because he was a sickly child.
"He is not one of those village boys you're used to play with, Dog. Fighting may come natural for you, boys, down below; but it's not right for a boy in his station." And then, holding James's hand as she guided him back to the house. "I wish all of you, boys, would just not enjoy fights at all."
James, however, had been glad to accept his companion's explanation and called to him to walk with them, which the sullen boy did.
"You we'e not awound anywhe'e, this mo'ning."
"I had stuff ta do."
"Oh. Do you have many cho'es awound the house? I could ask Papa to fwee you some, so you could spend mo'e time when we go out."
The boy almost stopped breathing. If Master John told his Pa he was to have less chores because… it was best not to even think about it! He suddenly remembered Harold saying Rose had been searching for him and was afraid Pa might have heard about it, too. He heard Rose comment it might be a good idea for his duties to be cleared, at least in the few times James felt well enough in the morning to go out.
Brown eyes suddenly glued to the ground, he shivered as he recalled the last time Pa had seen him in Rose and James's company. His hurt arm seemed to ache even more severely at the thought of what was most probably expecting him that night, just because he hadn't been seen working in the morning. If anything else were to aggravate his mood even further…
"Huh… Won't Master John be mad ya's playin' wi'me?" He looked down to the grass as he stepped on it, while James laughed and asked why his father should be mad. "Yeah, well… I don't have that many stuff ta do, ya know. So, maybe… maybe there's no need ta say nothin' ta no one."
"Tomowow," the thrilled boy continued, ignoring the other boy's sudden softness, "we can go see how the baby bi'd is doing. You come ea'ly to the house, and I te' Papa you won't do any cho'es in the mo'ning, because you a'e coming with me."
'Maybe his allergies would be worse in the next morning,' the boy hoped gloomily. James seldom left the house in the morning, anyway, because of his allergies, so it would be the most natural thing to happen.
He dragged himself behind James and Rose the next few yards, and the three parted ways at the end of the garden, near the maze. Usually, the boy worked in the garden through the morning, so that he could claim some food for lunch. The rule was for the house hands to receive free meals in the kitchen, as well as the grounds-keeper and the gardener. Field workers who lived outside the grounds had to bring their own meals or pay for it. It was the attempt to earn a good meal that often had the boy down on his knees, working hard all morning long. Besides, there was always a moment of distraction, during lunch time, that allowed him to sneak away with an extra loaf of bread for the evening meal, which he wasn't entitled to since he never gave up on a peaceful nap and some reckless wandering about after lunch.
That day, though, he hadn't been seen plucking away weeds long enough to ask for a meal. Shrugging, he headed for the orchard. He'd just have to settle for apples. He took the long way to avoid the stables. Pa was often around the area, helping with the horses, and he'd rather not find out just yet if he knew he'd been with Rose and James.
Stomach growling painfully, the boy wished he had heeded his Pa's warnings and stayed tending to the garden, as he should had. Because of James, he was going to be hungry all day long. Why couldn't he just stay in the house during the morning, as usual? He recalled how Pa often complained about 'them people in their fancy houses' who knew nothing about their 'life down below', and he was forced to agree neither Rose nor James knew a thing about it. And when his Pa's voice echoed a more seldom complain about 'them robbin' us of every lil' thing we ever think o' keepin'', he found himself mumbling that James had certainly robbed him of his lunch, just then, on account of a stupid chick that was going to die, anyway.
The boy heaved himself over the orchard fence easily, despite his still aching left arm. Standing on the narrow fence board, he grabbed a brightly red apple. Even if James didn't go out in the morning, the thought sprang out of nowhere, he would certainly want to go to the wood in the evening, his usual time to go out, to check on the birds. And then he was bound to find the chicks half starved, and no mama bird to be seen nowhere.
He sat down on the fence board, one leg dangling freely, as he munched the juicy fruit. He could go there, kill the birds and make a mess of the nest. That way, James would think it had been a cat that had eaten them, and wouldn't find out that all the chicks had died because of his stupidity. He finished eating the apple, swallowing inner seeds and everything; then stuffed his pockets, which split the fabric open in some points, and got two apples in his left hand, a third in his right.
Balancing himself along the fence, arms outstretched, he started walking towards the wood near the pond.