“Ma! Ma, Patty’s up the big tree again kissing Billy! Ma!” I kept looking at Patty’s smooth face across the branch from me in the tree, and hearing Tony shouting into the house. Patty heard it too, but she just kept smiling and I leaned across the big branch and kissed her. Her mouth felt soft and like warm rubber against my mouth, and she smelled faintly like cooked cabbage. A funny, clean smell, but like the air inside the houses of poor people.

Mrs. Boyer came out drying hands on her apron to stand in the doorway below looking up at us in the tree. Tony was dancing on the porch step and pointing. Mrs. Boyer smiled. We could see that because Patty and I all at once stopped kissing and looked down. We didn’t say anything, but Mrs. Boyer said, “Don’t fall down from there, you two.”

“We won’t, Mrs. Boyer,” I said.

“Is lunch ready?” Patty said.

I knew she said that just so her mother could hear her voice and know there wasn’t anything wrong with her, because we were up pretty high and even if Mrs. Boyer knew where we were, she couldn’t see us too clearly.

“Soon,” Mrs. Boyer said, and went back inside.

“We better go down,” Patty said.

“One more,” I said.

I liked the clean cabbage smell close to me and the feel of her mouth.

“We better go down,” Patty said.

“One more,” I said. “Just one and then we’ll go down.”

She leaned over the branch toward me and closed her eyes and some sunlight touched her soft, mud-colored hair, and I leaned into the sunlight and kissed her again. And I wanted to again, but I remembered my promise and thought it wouldn’t be fair to go back on it, so we started down.

And all the time Elmer was somewhere down there, mad at me and Patty because I had stolen his girl. But Patty and I just laughed about it.

When we got down, Elmer tried not to act mad, but I could tell he was. He just stood around laughing at us and whispering to Tony — that’s Patty’s brother — but I could tell he was really mad, only just hiding it but wanting to get even. Patty and I kept standing around to one side trying not to pay any attention to them, and watching to see when they weren’t looking at us so we could touch hands.

Then after a while Mrs. Boyer came out and said lunch was ready and to come inside. Tony and Elmer ran by her into the house laughing and Mrs. Boyer just stood for a minute, her hands wiping at the apron, and looking at us. For a little, Patty and I couldn’t tell if she was mad or not, but then she laughed to let us know she wasn’t mad but to make us feel a little silly too. Then she turned.

“Well, come on,” she said and went in.

Patty and I followed her into the big kitchen where the table was and where Tony and Elmer already sat with mouths full of sandwich, grinning. They reminded me of two pigs.

“I suppose we’ll have to put you two together here,” Mrs. Boyer said, and I could tell she was making fun again.

Tony and Elmer giggled like a couple of girls and I thought they looked even more like pigs, but Patty and I sat down opposite them and Patty reached for a sandwich very politely. At first she started to put it up to her mouth, but then she gave it to me. But I had already reached mine and so we traded sandwiches and Tony and Elmer just laughed and tried to kick us under the table. Elmer caught me one right on the shin, but I wasn’t going to let on he hurt me, so I just glared at him. But I knew then he was really mad about me and Patty and running off up the tree.

Mrs. Boyer sat at the head of the table and passed things down to us. I don’t think she ate much, even for a big woman like she was. Of course Mr. Boyer wasn’t there because he had to work and didn’t get home for lunch.

“Mama, make Tony stop kicking,” Patty said.

“Now look you, both of you,” Mrs. Boyer said, frowning at Tony and Elmer. “We’ve had enough little nonsense, so eat your lunch.”

I knew she meant all of us, even if she wasn’t talking to Patty and me, but I didn’t feel bad because she had laughed about us and besides it was Tony and Elmer causing the trouble. And right then I made up my mind that after lunch Patty and I would try to get away from them. I was tired of their teasing and besides I wanted to kiss Patty some more.

So after lunch Patty and I ran through the house, with Tony and Elmer following us, and out the front door. I took Patty’s hand and we ran across the street and hid for a while behind some bushes, but Tony and Elmer had seen us and wouldn’t leave us alone so we ran in the people’s backyard and down into the woodlot at the end of the block. The trees were thick there and we ran down to the sand cave where a little spring came out of the ground. Then we stopped and listened. We could hear Tony and Elmer thrashing around somewhere uphill in the woods, but we couldn’t see them. We could tell they were getting closer by the sound, but we knew they hadn’t seen us yet, so we felt better.

I was still holding Patty’s hand and she was looking up at me smiling and I could smell the nice, clean smell of her hair and I hadn’t realized I was so much taller than she was before. All of a sudden the sun shone on us, just like it had up in the tree, and I bent and kissed her again. But it was quick and made a juicy sound because she wasn’t ready for it, her mouth open a little, and her teeth felt hard on my lip and her lips were wet and softer.

Then we heard Tony and Elmer again, closer now, and we jumped into the bushes beside the trail to the cave and crouched down real low so they wouldn’t see us. I was still holding Patty’s hand and we sat there looking out through the bushes holding our breaths. In a minute Tony and Elmer came by and stopped, and Elmer bent down and looked back in the sand cave, but he knew we wouldn’t be there or he would have seen us because the cave wasn’t deep enough to hide in, and besides the top was all falling in. But he bent down just for nastiness and Tony giggled.

“Not in there,” Elmer said.

And they went on away, right past us too, down the trail, all the time making fun about us, saying things like “sweetie pie” and “sugar baby” and “oh kiss me dear.” And Elmer would put on a face like a sick cow and hold his hand over his heart like he was dying or something, and Tony would hold the side of his pants like holding a skirt out and would sort of dance along.

It was all pretty silly and sickening and I was glad they hadn’t seen us. But then suddenly Patty looked at me and we kissed again, this time nice and soft and quiet.

“Billy,” she said. “Are they gone?”

“Yes,” I said.

It was all quiet around us and we couldn’t even hear Tony and Elmer anymore. It made me nervous because I couldn’t be sure if they were really gone or hiding somewhere waiting for us to come by.

“Billy,” Patty said again.

“Yes,” I said.

“It’s all muddy in here,” she said.

And I suddenly looked down and saw we were squatting right in the place where the spring ran off into the bushes and my shoes were all muddy. I looked at Patty and saw her shoes were muddy too, but her dress was clean because she had pulled it up and away from her like girls do when they want to be ladylike and not wrinkle their dresses when they sit down. And I guess that was the first I ever really noticed a girl’s dress because I suddenly thought it was a very pretty dress, and I had never thought that before about any dress — not even the one Patty had on.

“At least your dress didn’t get mud on it, Patty,” I said.

I wanted to kiss her again, but didn’t have time because she looked up at me and said, “Turn around, Billy. Don’t look.”

And she let go of my hand, and I looked away startled, not sure what was going to happen next. I felt her standing up beside me and felt her dress flap up against my ear and heard a kind of rustling sound, then a faint snap like a rubber band and I knew what she was doing. She was taking her pants off, and I guess I felt scared right then, because I liked her a lot and liked to kiss her, but I didn’t know about that pants business.

But then it was all right because she said, “You can look now, Billy.”

And she was straightening her dress, very neat and clean and ladylike, and in her other hand I saw she was holding her pants which were all muddy and wet.

“We better go back,” she said. “If Mama knew this, she’d really spank me.”

“What will you do?” I asked, standing up and at the same time feeling my legs shaking.

“Hide them in my room till I can wash them,” she said.

“Hadn’t you better just throw them away?” I said.

She gave me a look that made me think she was mad at me for a minute, but didn’t say anything. Then she reached for my hand and we stepped out of the bushes onto the trail. I felt sorry because she had gotten her pants muddy, and I guess I wanted to make up with her some too if she was really mad with me.

“One more, Patty,” I said. “Then we can go.”

Everything was all right again, because she smiled and closed her eyes and I bent, and this time we put our arms around each other close as we kissed, and I felt how soft and small and warm she was against me.

“Eeyii!” Elmer yelled right in my ear.

And Tony too. For a second I didn’t even know what happened, but then Patty and I sprang apart in time to see Tony and Elmer run up the hill past us, and Elmer was flapping something in his hand like a flag. Then I saw what it was and at the same time heard Patty shouting after them, “To-neee! El-mer! I’ll never speak . . . if you don’t give that back!”

But they were already out of sight, running hard toward home. I started to run after them but Patty held onto my hand and I didn’t want to leave her there alone.

“If I ever get . . . ,” she said.

“Don’t worry, Patty, I’ll get them, I’ll get them,” I said.

“If they tell Mama . . . ,” Patty said.

She was scared now, I could tell, but I didn’t really think they would tell and besides I would say to Mrs. Boyer what happened and that it couldn’t be helped because we hadn’t seen how muddy the ground was. It was an accident, she would have to see that when I told her, and accidents could happen to anybody.

Mrs. Boyer was standing on the back steps when we came up, and I could see she was really mad about it, but before we even had a chance to say anything, she said, “You march right in the house, young lady. I’ll tend to you in a minute.”

“Mrs. Boyer . . . ,” I said.

“And you,” she said, getting a little red. “You march right off this property and don’t come back. I won’t have your kind around here.”

“But, what did I, did we. . . .”

Mrs. Boyer made a snorting sound and curled her mouth up on one side. And suddenly I knew. I don’t know how I knew but I did — and it was all wrong because we hadn’t done anything like what I knew she was thinking. Nothing like that had even crossed our minds. It was all so wrong.

“Mrs. Boyer,” I said. “It wasn’t anything like. . . .”

I was glad Patty had gone in the house because I wouldn’t have wanted her to know what had come in my mind. I couldn’t even say it, even if I was thinking it.

“Billy, if I ever catch you around Patty again,” Mrs. Boyer said, “I’ll have my husband speak to your father.”

Mr. Boyer was a truck driver and bigger even than Mrs. Boyer, and I knew he was plenty tough, and mean sometimes too. I could see she wouldn’t listen to me. She wouldn’t even believe me if I had told her about it. She wouldn’t even believe.

I walked out of the yard and across the street. As I came on the sidewalk, I saw Elmer looking at me from the yard by the woodlot, and I saw he was grinning at me. And I got mad. I could tell just by the way he was standing he had told a dirty lie about Patty and me, and figured he had gotten even with me for taking his girl.

I went for him, and he turned and ran into the woods. I knew where he was headed and I caught up with him by the sand cave. We had an awful fight and I bloodied his nose for him. I was sitting on him with his arms pinned under my knees and pounding at his face with my fists.

“You dirty! Dirty!” I yelled trying to hit him — but he kept moving his head out of the way and my knuckles got bloody hitting the hard ground.

“I didn’t do anything,” Elmer said, dodging. “I didn’t do. . . .”

Then Tony was on me from somewhere and I saw it was a trap. They had planned it that way. They got me underneath the two of them and Elmer was pounding my face, and I heard them yelling that they hadn’t told, that they had just said they had found the muddy pants in the woods, but they hadn’t told anything.

And then I wanted to cry and I knew one eye was puffing up because I couldn’t see much out of it, and there was blood from my nose because I could taste it and I just wanted to cry. But I was mad, too, because it was two against one which wasn’t fair. And I wasn’t going to let them see me cry, but it wasn’t fair. And it wasn’t just two against one, either.

“You dirty, dirty, lousy. . . . Screw!” I shouted. “You dirty. . . .”

They were off me then, and I heard them laughing together going off into the woods. I didn’t even try to sit up for awhile. I just lay there looking up at things, and there was a streak of sunlight coming down near me through the trees, but it didn’t mean anything anymore.