James woke up to find himself sitting on the steps of a church, his arm around a big black and white dog. Nothing around him looked familiar. He had no idea where he was or how he got there. He wasn’t sure how old he was and he couldn’t remember his birthday. In fact, he didn’t even know who he was, except that his name was James and the dog’s name was Old Shep.
In one hand, he held an old map all rolled up and tied around with a string. A tag hanging from the string read, “To my dear James, Love no end, Mamma,” but he couldn’t think who his mother was or what she looked like. In the other hand was a large, red shell. The inside was iridescent silver-white with green, and deep blue. It was beautiful, but he had no idea why he was holding it.
He was trying to think what to do when a horse and buggy pulled up to the church. A man and woman got out. They were all dressed up in their Sunday best. They were even more surprised to see him than he was to see them.
“Well, James,” said the woman after they got over their initial surprise. “I’ll bet there is one thing you can remember. That’s breakfast. Mr. Matthias and I are in charge of opening the church this morning. I think he can take care of that. I’m taking you home and feeding you some breakfast.”
Mr. Matthias agreed. “You and Old Shep can stay with us until we find your family,” he said. “Don’t you worry, Son, we’ll do everything we can to find your people. We’ll start by asking around at church this morning. Hannalore, I’ll get a ride back home. James probably needs a good rest more than he needs a sermon.”
Mr. Matthias asked around. Nobody seemed to know how James got there or who he was. It was if he had been deposited on the steps of the church by magic.
They took him to the doctor in Cedar Hills, the market town about twelve miles away. After giving James a thorough examination, the doctor said, “I see no evidence of a blow to your head. Maybe you experienced something traumatic. That can cause amnesia, too. There is every reason to believe that this is temporary. I think I think you will find that your memory begins to return. I’m not sure how to judge your age. Everybody sets their own pace in growing. My guess is that you must be about twelve or thirteen. Does that sound right to you?”
James wasn’t sure either. He didn’t know what to think.
Turning to Mr. and Mrs. Matthias, the doctor said, “I’d like to see the boy again in about a month. Meanwhile, if you start to have headaches or feel too anxious, James, you must let me know.” Advertisments were put in the local and and state papers. The Sherriff and State Police were informed. A year passed.
James began to remember things, but his memories were fleeting and didn’t seem to fit together. His family was never found. But he got on so well with Hannalore and Karl Matthias, that they adopted him as their own son. Since he couldn’t remember his birthday, Mama made a cake for him to celebrate the day he was found. She said he was the best thing that had ever happened to them. Papa agreed.
One morning stood looking at the shell. He kept it on his dresser. At school he learned that it was an abalone shell. Abalone are found along the coast of California, he thought. Then it came to him, Somebody gave it to me and told me I must never forget. But who? What was I supposed to remember? Have I been to Cali- fornia? He ran into a blank space in his mind.
So far he remembered very little from the time before he was James Matthias. He was James somebody else then and he had a little sister. But something happened to the sister. He couldn’t remember. Now he had a baby sister named Margaret Grace who was nearly one-year-old.
“My mother’s name was Grace,” he said when they talked about naming the baby.
“Then Grace must be her middle name,” said Mama. “Grace is a beautiful name.”
James remembered in flashes like that. Each memory flash was like a piece in a gigantic puzzle. But he didn’t have very many pieces. Every time he remembered, Mama and Papa encouraged him. “There is love enough to go around,” Mama would say. She told him he could love his birth parents and all the memories of the time before and still have enough love to share with them. So he tried to remember. But he couldn’t.
The map he had with him on the church steps now hung above his bed. The tag that said, “To James,” was tucked away among his most precious treasures. Sometimes he took it out and studied it, wondering what his mother looked like and who his father was.
The map wasn’t like any map he had ever studied in school. It had mountains and rivers and an ocean. But it didn’t look like a real place you could go to or where you could live, atleast not today. There were no roads marked on it, for one thing. Around the whole map was a border of delicately drawn plants and animals. Some looked familiar, like the buffalo and bear. Others reminded him of American Indian drawings. There was even a red abalone shell. All the drawings were painted with watercolor. He won-dered if his mother was an artist. Maybe it was a place she imagined.
James put down the abalone shell, hurrying downstairs to help Papa with morning chores. Old Shep was waiting at the back door. There was always plenty to do on the farm. Old Shep was a willing helper. Maybe they’d lived on a farm before. Papa thought so because Old Shep seemed to know exactly what was expected. “He’s the smartest dog I’ve ever known. There’s something about him,” Papa said. “I’m not sure how to describe it. Maybe ‘wise’ is the word. Old Shep is wise.”
James wondered if Old Shep remembered. “Maybe you could tell me everything I want to know, if I could just talk doggie talk or if could talk people talk,” he said, heading for the barn. Old Shep looked at him as if he understood perfetly. Sometimes James thought that maybe Old Shep could talk, but chose not to. It wasn’t something James was prepared to talk about, not even with his family. It was too fantastical. Even if he couldn’t talk, Old Shep understood. There was something magical about him, too, some- was wise, like Pa said, but there was more to it.
The sun was already on its way up. It promised to be a glorious day. Before breakfast the cows were milked and turned out to pasture, the chickens were fed, and pails of milk were poured into the large bowl of the separator that stood in a little room just off the back porch. After breakfast, Papa would turn the handle of the separator and the whole milk would separate into skimmed milk and cream. Mama used the cream in cooking and to make butter. There was plenty of skimmed milk for cooking, to make cheese, and to drink.
Mama had a grave look on her face when they came in to wash up. “I was just looking at yesterday’s newspaper. The news gets worse every day. It seems like Germany is trying to gobble up all of Europe.”
“I hope President Wilson stays firm about keeping us out of war,” said Papa, filling the white enamel wash pan from the kitchen pump. “War just leads to more war.”
Karl and Hannalore Matthias were pacifists. They believed that war under any circumstance was wrong and contrary to the Ten Commandments. Long ago, before Karl and Hannalore were born, their parents were among German pacifists who immigrated to the United States to escape religious persecution and being forced to serve in the army. Karl and Hannalore were both second generation German-Americans. They were born in the United States.
“Freedom of religion is protected by the United States Constitution,” Papa liked to say. “That is a priceless treasure.” Like most German immigrant families, they were fiercely proud to be American.
“You know we’re in a minority, Karl,” said Mamma, putting the coffee pot on the table. “Most of our friends think the U.S. should help stop the Kaiser now that England has declared war.” Wilhelm II was Kaiser, or Emperor of the German Empire. For years tension had been building up between European countries until war broke out in August of 1914.
Papa sighed as he dried his hands and face. “I think the world has more to fear from his generals than from the Kaiser himself, despite all his war talk. He’s relied too much on his military to make policy. It will bring him down in the end.”
“Either way, it’s bad for us,” said Mama. “An article in the paper said that there are supposed to be German spies living all over the country, ready to help take over the United States.”
“Sensationalism,” Papa sat down and poured himself a cup of coffee. “Long on emotion, short on facts. Mind you, that isn’t to say there aren’t German sympathizers—some of them may be prepared to do mischief—but to accuse everyone because of the few goes against everything this nation is supposed to stand for.”
With so much talk of war, many families from Germany changed their names to make them sound more “American.” Papa said that was rediculous. He liked to say, “America is an idea as much a country. The idea of America is big enough to include people with all kinds of names and faces.”
James washed up and threw the water from the wash pan onto Mama’s petunias by the porch. He wasn’t sure he was a pacifist like Mama and Papa. Sometimes he wanted to punch some of the boys at school. He never had punched anybody, but he wasn’t so sure that he wouldn’t if they pushed him too far. He figured he would know about being a pacifist soon enough. A few of the boys had been pushing pretty hard lately. Maybe he’d punch them out. He felt like it.
Little Maggie, now almost a year old, held out her arms to James, expecting to be lifted into her high chair. He held her up high until she squealed with laughter, before setting her down in the chair.
“I don’t think we have to worry about being singled out as German spies,” said Papa. “We both grew up here. Folks know us.”
“Did you read that article about the family over in Indiana?” asked Mama. “They were a German family accused of spying.” She set a platter of pancakes on the table. “A mob showed up on their doorstep and searched their house. They found two barrels of sauerkraut and one of pickles. They thought that was proof that they are German sympathiers.” Mama shook her head and sighed. “It sounds like some kind of joke, but they were serious. Doesn’t that beat all?”
“I skip over that claptrap when I read the paper,” scoffed Papa. “Did they think the family was sending messages to the Kaiser hidden in pickles?”
James couldn’t help laughing. Maggie laughed, too, clapping her little hands.
“Your Mama’s right, James, We have to take all this mass hysteria seriously.” Papa helped himself to a stack of pancakes, passing the pltter to James. “We aren’t German citizens. We’re Americans whose families came from Germany. Towns and cities across America are made up of folk like us who came from other countries. Most of us came because we wanted to. Some of us came because we were made to come as slaves. But we’re all in it together. This country belongs to all of us. Unfortunately, when people get scared, they forget. When they forget, they can do some pretty stupid, foolhardy things. Now lets bless this good food before it gets cold.” He said a simple prayer of thanks and James tucked in.
“Can you say the preamble to the Constitution?” asked Mama. She had been helping him prepare for a civics test at school.
“Yes,” said James, reciting. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…”
Baby Maggie sat in her high chair stuffing pancakes into her mouth with both hands. As James began reciting she began babbling along with him. He ignored her, trying not to get distrated “…establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote general Welfare…”
“Mmmm, doo le da, ba ba ma ba mmm,” Maggie’s voice grew louder and louder.
“and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establlish this Constitution for the United States of America.’ There, I have it!” James exclaimed. “I think you know it, too, Maggie.”
She reached out to him with syrupy hands, “Ames!” she called. It was her version of James, one of her first words.
“Those are more than just words,” said Papa. “Our Constitution and Bill of Rights protet our freedom.”
“Yes sir.” James hoped Papa wouldn’t go into a long speech about freedom of thought and speech, the way he did sometimes.
“What about the names of the states and their capitals?” asked Mama, wiping syrup from Maggie’s hands and face.
“I’ve studied those until I can just about say them in my sleep,” said James.
“Good, then you’ll do well on yur test,” said Papa. You’d better be off before you’re late.”
Picking up his books and lunch, James said, “I’d better be off before Claude Higgins and his gang, that’s for sure.”
“Don’t let those boys get under your skin, James,” said Papa. “They’re just itching for a fight. It won’t matter much one way or another what you do. They’ll be on you for it. People like that just want somebody to beat up on. You’re smart to stay out of their way.”
“I wish it were tht easy,” said James, waving goodbye. He headed out for the two-mile walk to school, hoping that he hadn’t cut it too close. Claude had been held back at school twice. He was bigger than any of the other boys. He was almost as big as the teacher. The last thing he wanted was to run into Claude Higgins.
When James got off to an early start, he loved the walk to school, even in bad weather. To the rolling hills were cut through with tree-lined canyons and creeks. There was always something to see. He surprised an occasional jackrabbit, sending it bounding away. More often than not, cottontail rabbits stopped their grazing and froze in place. They seemed to think that if they stayed still enough, he couldn’t see them. He always pretended he couldn’t, so as not to hurttheir feelings. Once in awhile he say coyotes at play along the ridge of the deep, red-banked canyon that marked the half-way point between home and school. It was usually too late in the morning for deer, but sometimes he saw one gracefully bounding through the prairie grass.
In the summer when he had a day to himself, James liked to follow the canyon, taking Old Shep with him. He skipped rocks on the creek, and explored pools where bass hid near the bottom and water bugs skated on the surface. A mile or two away, the creek was joined by another that marked the border between the Matthias property and their neighbors.
When he got across the canyon bridge and started up the hill on the other side, he could see Patricia Bates. Her daddy, Hank Bates, stood waiting with her by their driveway. Mr. Bates owned the mill on the edge of town. Their place was a little over a mile from the Matthias farm. A private road led up to their big house on the side of the hill looking out over the canyon. Patsy was six-years-old and too young to walk to school by herself. James stopped every morning and took her with him.
“Mornin’ James,” said Mr. Bates. “How’s your folk? It was the usual greeting. Then he added, “That Claude Higgins and the two Thomas boys was just along—no more than ten minutes ago. Little early for them. Patsy says they like to pick on you. Hope they aren’t makin’ fun of you for walkin’ her to school. We sure do appreciate it.”
“No, I don’t rekon that’s it,” said James. “My Papa says it wouldn’t make much difference what I do or don’t do. They’re just itching for a fight.”
“I’ll tell you what,” said Mr. Bates. “You stand up to ’em.Somebody needs to clean that Claude Higgins’ plough for him. He’s gettin’ too big for his own britches.”
“I’m not looking for a fight,” said James. “Besides, Jess and Frank Taylor would be on me like ducks on a June bug if I let into Claude.”
“You’ve got a point there, Son,” said Mr. Bates. “But with bully, you got to call their bluff. Choose your time. Then don’t be afraid to let him have it. You may not be able to best him, but you can make it hurt so much he won’t want to do it again. Sometimes you have to meet force with force. It’s like I tell the Missus, President Wilson needs to quit mealy-mouthin’ and tell that German Kaiser to put up or shut up. Course I know your folk don’t hold with fightin’. Mrs. Bates don’t either. But that’s my opinion.” Giving his little girl a pat on the head, he said, “Well, off you go.”
Patsy began a stream of chatter that usually lasted all the way to school. She noticed every a dandelion blossom or seedpod. She usually picked up enough rocks along the way to pave a road. He had no idea what she did with them. But they were important to her, so he didn’t fuss about it.
As he watched Patsy he wondered if his sister from before was alive. Does she collect rocks, too? What became of her? What became of our parents?
They soon reached the top of the hill where the land leveled out. They could see nearly all the way to school.
The road ran along parallel to a lane lined with sand plum bushes where Gerald Hill ran his cows out to pasture. Where the lane turned, leaving the road, there was a thick grove of sumac bushes. Claude Higgins was waiting for him on the other side. Frank Taylor flanked him on one side and Jess on the other.
“Well lookie wh’s on his way to school,” said Claude. “If it ain’t that fancy pants Matthias boy. Thinks he’s a big shot.”
“You mean that orphan somebody dropped on the church steps?” sneered Frank.
“Yeah, ’cause nobody wanted him,” snickered Jess.
“Except the teacher,” said Frank. “Teacher’s pet. Thinks he’s smarter than everybody else.”
“Mornin’,” said James, trying to keep his voice even. He didn’t want to frighten Patsy. Claude and the Taylor boys fell in behind them. James usually managed to avoid them by leaving earlier. When they did catch him on the way to school, they usually followed with a string of taunts. This morning, they didn’t say anything. Instead they kept a steady stream of pebbles aimed at his back. It wasn’t enough to hurt, just enough to irritate him.
Patsy took ahold of his hand. Her eyes were big as saucers.
“What’s the matter, orphan? Too chicken to stand up for yerself?” Claude jeered. He threw a pebble that missed, hitting Patsy on the ear. She cried out, probably as much in fear as from pain. They were almost at school. James could see other children up ahead.
“Run Patsy,” he said, “those big girls will help you.” Whipping around he confronted the boys. “You had no call to do that to Patsy. If you want to pick on me that’s one thing. But leave Patsy alone.”
“Yeah? Or what?” sneered Frank.
“You’ll be in trouble with Hank and Norma Jean Bates, for one thing,” said James.
“Gonna tell on us like a sissy?” mocked Jess.
“Big talk,” said Frank. “He ain’t gonna do nothin’. He’s a scaredy-cat.”
James turned his back on them and walked on, relieved to see Patsy had reached the older girls up ahead. Suddenly Jess and Frank jumped him from behind.
They held him. “Takethat, you yellow-bellied coward,” said Claude giving him a hard punch in the stomach.
James doubled over in pain. But he didn’t try to fight back. He couldn’t have if he’d wanted to. How can you fight back when your arms are pinned behind you? The Taylor boys let go and ran. All three boys were gone before he could catch his breath.