“THAR GOES OUR COW, Pa!” said the little girl.
“Shore ’nough, that do look like one of our cows, now don’t it?”
The man tipped his slat-backed chair against the wall of the house. He spat across the porch floor onto the sandy yard. His voice was a lazy drawl. He closed his eyes again.
“She’s got our markin’ brand on her, Pa. A big S inside a circle,” said Essie.
The man, Sam Slater, looked up. “Shore ’nough, so she has.”
“She’s headin’ right for them orange trees, Pa,” said Essie.
“Them new leaves taste mighty good, I reckon,” replied her father. “She’s hungry, pore thing!”
A clatter of dishes sounded from within the house and a baby began to cry.
“You’d be pore, too, did you never git nothin’ to eat,” said the unseen Mrs. Slater.
There was no answer.
The sun shone with a brilliant glare. The white sand in the yard reflected the bright light and made the shade on the porch seem dark and cool.
“She might could go right in and eat ’em, Pa,” said the little girl. Her voice was slow, soft and sweet. Her face, hands and bare legs were dirty. At her feet lay some sticks and broken twigs with which she had been playing.
Pa Slater did not open his eyes.
“Pa,” Essie went on in a more lively tone, “iffen that cow laps her tongue around the new leaves, she’ll twist the bark loose and pull it off. Do we not stop her, she might could eat up all them orange trees.”
The man spat, then resumed his dozing position. “I don’t reckon so,” he said slowly.
“Iffen she goes in that orange grove, them new folks will …”
The legs of the man’s chair came down on the porch floor with a thump. He opened his eyes. “What new folks?”
“Them new folks what moved in the ole Roddenberry house,” said Essie.
“New folks in that big ole house? Who tole you?” His staring gray eyes fixed themselves on the pale blue ones of his daughter.
“Jeff done tole me,” said Essie. Although she was only seven, she was not afraid of her father. “They been here most a month already. They come in a big wagon. They moved in while you was away, Pa. We watched ’em unload.”
“You did, eh?” growled Pa Slater. “You let ’em see you?”
“No.” Essie smiled knowingly. “We hid in the palmettos, Pa. We got us a tunnel to hide in.”
Her father grinned back at her. “Who be they?”
“Jeff says …”
Mrs. Slater, within, interrupted. “Name’s Boyer. The man’s a Caroliny feller.”
“Why ain’t you done tole me?”
“’Cause you been gone away for so long.”
“Got kids?” asked Slater.
“Regular strawberry family, jedgin’ from the size of it—six or seven young uns, I reckon.”
Mrs. Slater’s reply was followed by the clatter of dishes and the crying of the baby. A smaller girl, about five, came out and climbed up on her father’s lap.
“They got a gal …” began Essie. She looked at her father’s frowning face and paused. In her mind she carried a bright picture of the new Boyer girl whom she hoped to have for a friend. She did not want it spoiled.
“Pa, our cow’s done gone in their grove,” she said again. “I’ll go chase her out.” She started down the steps.
“You come right back here and set down, young un,” called Slater. “Let that cow go where she’s a mind to.” He tipped his chair back again lazily and closed his eyes.
“She might hurt them orange trees,” ventured Essie, “and make trouble for us, Pa.”“Then they’ll know they got neighbors!” Pa spat, and a wide grin spread over his face.
“Trouble!” he added softly. “You mighty right, gal young un. That skinny little ole cow’s jest bound to make trouble!”