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Eyes sharp for anything amiss, Tom Warren strolled along enjoying the pleasant weather, happy he had stayed home where he knew everyone by name, instead of running off to college or the city as his other classmates had done. Not that he blamed them, there was no work for them here, but he had the job he'd wanted all his life. At twenty-three he was not only chief of police, but the entire police force. All the village needed, for crime consisted only of an occasional drunken vagrant, or a dust-up at the café on a Saturday night when a few boys, barely old enough to drive, started feeling their oats after a clandestine beer or two.
On a nice day, he sometimes sat on the bank of the river that ended the main street business district and fished, yet he was in hailing distance if by chance he was needed. Downtown was one block of three or four stores, a small bank, a church, a drug store and, out by the highway at the western end of town, a small café and gas station. Houses clustered along the main street past the business district and on the two short cross streets. He glanced at his watch - almost nine. In a few more minutes, he would close the cinder-block town hall/police station and go home to his wife of two years.
The thought of his wife brought sadness to his face. They had been informed just the week before that she was unable to have the children they both wanted so badly. The doctor had suggested adoption as an alternative. Jeri had brightened at the idea, but he, Tom, had been unable to accept it. Ever since, there had been something missing in his heart, an emptiness, though Jeri remained attentive to his needs, and he tried in his bumbling way to show her that his love for her had not changed.
A burst of light from the porch of a house a little further on attracted his attention, then he saw Mrs. Thomas walk to the edge of the street and look around. Unusual. He began to run toward her.
"Something wrong, Miz Thomas?" he asked.
"Oh, Tom, I'm glad you're still out. I'm sure I saw a light next door, and Harry and Myrtle are out of town. It was in the kitchen."
"I'll take a look." He switched on his flashlight and moved cautiously up the drive of the darkened house, shining the Mag-Lite around the yard and into several windows. Seeing nothing, he switched the light off and walked back to where she waited.
"I didn't see no sign of anyone, Miz Thomas. You're certain about the light?"
"Yes. I happened to look over that way while I was washing dishes. It was only for a second though."
"I'll come back tomorrow morning and look again when I can see better. If you see anything else, be sure to call me. I'll be goin' home in a few minutes."
"Thank you. If you want to get in their house, they left a key with me."
"I don't think I'll need to get in, but until we're sure, I'd rather you didn't go in their house alone."
"Well, I was - to water her plants, you know. But I'll wait 'til you tell me it's safe."
"Thank you, Miz Thomas. I'll be here if you need me. Good night."
The next morning, Tom walked up the drive of the Johnston's neat home, admiring at the neatly trimmed shrubs and carefully tended beds of flowers in full bloom. He rounded the back corner of the house and stopped. A window by the breakfast table was open just a crack at the bottom. He looked closer at the window, then down, immediately identifying the one small print, distinct in the recently turned earth of the flowerbed, as a worn sneaker by the faint ridges, but the round hole beside it puzzled him.
He frowned as he walked next door. "Miz Thomas, do you know if the Johnstons locked up everything before they left?"
"Oh, my, yes. They're always careful about that."
"Have you been in the house since they left?"
"I was planning to water her plants tomorrow morning, like I told you, but they only left day before yesterday, so I haven't been yet."
"I'd sure appreciate it if you'd get the key and come in with me. I don't see nothing wrong, but maybe you can tell."
"Of course. I'll be just a minute."
She unlocked the back door and stood aside, then followed him in. To his eye everything appeared normal, but Mrs. Thomas was quick to point out a dish in the sink. "Myrtle would never leave a dirty dish in the sink like that."
"Are you sure?"
"Oh, my, yes. And look, there's a dab of mud under the window. She would have that cleaned up in a second. She keeps this house spotless."
"Stay here, then, and I'll have a look around."
"I'm coming with you. I can tell if anything else is out of order."
"Here!" She called, standing in the door of the bedroom and pointing to the bed. To the patrolman it seemed fine, but she pointed to the wrinkled cover. "Myrtle would never leave her bed looking like that. That spread is always smooth as can be." She moved on to the bath, where a towel hung over the side of the tub. "And look at this. The towel's not on the rack. Someone must have been in here. What are you going to do, Tom?"
He thought for several minutes while they walked back to the door. "You said it was about nine when you saw the light, so I'll hide behind those bushes tonight and see if whoever it is comes back. If you see anybody it'll be me, so don't be scared."
"I won't. Here," she handed him the key, "you lock the door and keep the key in case you need to get in. You can give it back to me later."
"You keep it. If I see anybody inside, I'll get 'em when they come out."
At dusk, Tom leaned back against the garage wall, hidden from the house by a large azalea. He shifted position several times and was about to give up his stake-out when he heard a soft squeak. He eased around the bush just in time to see a small form start to wriggle through the window. He reached up and grasped the foot still sticking out.
"Come on outta there." He pulled and a small figure dropped at his feet with a muffled cry. He switched on his Mag-Lite and shone it down. A small boy! He reached down and grabbed a handful of shirt. "Stand up, now." When the boy failed to move, he pulled him up, then gasped. The child had only one leg.
Tear filled eyes looked into his. "I wasn't botherin' nothin', honest, mister. I'm hungry. I was goin' to eat the rest of the chicken they left."
"Was you in there last night?"
The boy nodded. "Please get my crutch. I already put it in an' I gotta have it."
Tom reached through the window and felt around until his hand closed on the small wooden crutch and withdrew it. He handed it to the boy, but kept a hold on his arm, as he ran the flashlight over him, seeing the ragged jeans and T-shirt the worn single sneaker. With the kid showing no sign of trying to run, and knowing he could catch him easily if he did, Tom released the child and pulled the window down, then walked to the street, the boy hopping along on his crutch as best he could.
"How old are you?"
Under the street light Warren looked at the boy closely. His matted curly brown hair needed cutting badly. He had a pert slightly tipped up nose, and large sad eyes. He looked famished, his emaciated frame belying even ten years. The crutch had cracked on one side and been crudely repaired with a layer of black tape beginning to work loose.
"What'cha gonna do to me?"
"Guess I'll have to take you to jail. You know breaking into a house is wrong."
Tears flowed. "But I ain't got no place to go and I'm hungry." The boy wiped his eyes and nose with the back of his hand.
"I know you ain't from around here, but you got a home don't you?"
"Where you live then?"
"Come on, now, you gotta live somewhere."
The tears came faster. "My momma and some man she took up wif dumped me at the gas station. They took off when I went to pee."
"When was that?"
"Three days ago."
"They gotta be looking for you."
The boy dropped his head. "They ain't. He don' like me. He told mom it was her or me. He weren't gonna lug no cripple around."
The boy's eyes held mute appeal when they looked into Warren's. "Please, mister, don't put me in jail. I didn't do nothin' bad."
"Don't you think breaking into someone's home is bad?"
"I guess. But I didn't steal nothin'. I just got sumppen to eat and slept on the bed."
Faced with his first real dilemma in law enforcement, Tom stared at the child, wondering what to do with him. The single jail cell was seldom used except for storage, and if he put someone in there he had to spend the night at the station as well. It was no place for a small boy anyway. On the other hand, the boy had broken the law, even if it was only to get something to eat, like he said.
Tom sighed heavily, then brightened. The judge lived only a few doors away. "Come on, boy, let's go."
Tom walked slowly to accommodate the boy, at last turning up the walk to a large house. Light glowed from the living room windows.
"Tom! What brings you to my door this time of night?"
"Sorry to bother you, judge, but I need to talk to you about this boy."
"Come on in my study, then."
The jurist settled behind his desk and waved Warren to a chair across from him. The boy huddled on the ottoman Warren pushed to one side of his chair. After listening to Warren recite the events, he said, "You know our situation, Tom. What you think we should do with him?"
"I don't know, sir. That's why I came to you."
"Hmmm. We can't just turn him loose, but he hasn't done nothing real serious. It isn't like he was out to steal anything 'cept a little food, and Lord knows he looks like he could use some."
"What he needs is a home, and I sure don't want to get the county social worker involved. The paperwork is endless."
"I know, judge."
The retired jurist looked at Tom searchingly. "I'm glad you stayed to home and didn't run off to the city like most, cause we need a young man like you. You done right by comin' to me first. Don't bother writin' up a report, cause I don't see no need of lettin' them folks from the county seat get involved in our business. I run a quiet town here and the folks support me, like you know." He shook his head sadly. "I sure wish I knew somebody would take the boy in an' give 'im a home."
"You mean permanent like?"
The judge nodded. "Would sure solve our problem. And if they was of a mind to, I could manage the adoption papers without much bother."
Warren's face suddenly brightened. "I think I know somebody, judge."
"Who? This boy needs somebody will keep 'im out of trouble and make 'im go to school."
"Me and Jeri. I know we ain't got much, but we got a spare room, and we been wantin' a kid."
"I know. I was sure sorry to hear. You'd be good parents. You think she'll take to kid this old?"
"Maybe after a day or two. It ain't like we've got much other choice 'bout what to do with 'im."
"It won't hurt nothin' to try it for a few days to see how it works. If it does, maybe I can find a way to give you a small raise to help out. You're a good man, Tom, do your job and don't just sit to the station an' drink coffee. It's near time, so why don't you go close up and take the boy on home with you."
"Thank you, judge. I'll do that."
During the short walk home after Tom had locked up his police station, he found the boy's name was Tommy. He pushed open the door of his small home. "Honey? I'm home."
"You're early! I just started to fix your supper." Her voice echoed from the kitchen.
"Fix extra. I got somebody with me."
She popped through the kitchen door. "Who? Why didn't you call me?"
Tom stepped aside so she could see the child.
"Oh, you poor little boy. Come on in here."
"Take your time, honey. I want to get him a bath first."
"All right." She looked at the boy again, this time with a smile. "You go with Tom, darling, and we'll eat soon as you've had your bath."
While the boy undressed, Tom changed from his uniform into jeans, then helped Tommy into the tub.
"I can wash. You ain't gotta stay."
"I'm going to wash your hair first, it needs it bad. Then you can wash yourself." He wet the boy's hair, poured on shampoo with a liberal hand, and began to work the lather in with supple fingers. When he was satisfied, he pulled the boy up and rinsed his hair under the shower, drying the drips with a face cloth. He eased the boy back down into the tub and turned on the water.
"You be sure and wash good, now. Call me when you're done and I'll help you out. I don't want you gettin' hurt."
"Why on earth did you bring that poor little boy home with you?" She asked when he walked into the kitchen.
He poured himself a cup of coffee and told her what he knew. "I know I said I didn't want to adopt a child, honey. But when I caught him trying to bust in the Johnston's house for something to eat and saw how pitiful he looks, specially with just one leg and a busted crutch to get around on, I didn't have the heart to put him in jail, so I took him to the judge. He said I did right, and if we'd take Tommy for a while, maybe things would work out."
"His name's Tommy?" She hugged him with tears in her eyes. "That's what I wanted to name our son when we had one. Thomas Warren, Junior. Oh, Tom, do you think there's any chance?"
He hugged her back. "With the judge helping like he said he would, I 'spect there is. He said he'd try to get me a little more money to help out. But I was more worried about how you'd feel, honey, 'cause you wanted a baby."
"I did, but when I looked at that sweet face it kinda got to me. It don't look like he's had much of a life and I'd love for us to give him that. He's old enough for you to enjoy being with, too."
"I guess. You know it's going to be hard for a while with a kid that age, least 'til he gets to know us. An' we're gonna have to put off getting' some of them things we planned on. He ain't got nothin', 'cept what he had on."
"How can you think of things when that poor child needs so much. I'll take him to the store tomorrow morning. Can you go with us?"
"Yeah. The judge knows I got my pager."
"Mister?" Tommy called.
"I'll bring his things and put 'em in the washer. He can put on my old beach jacket 'til he goes to bed."
When Tom came back into the kitchen with Tommy, she hardly recognized him. She put her arms around him and kissed him. "I'm so happy Tom brought you home, Tommy. I hope you're goin' to be happy with us."
"You mean like for good?"
"We hope so, darling. Now sit down and we'll eat."
Jeri's eyes never left the child as he ate ravenously, Tom seeing the loving look.
"Okay, big guy," he said when the boy's plate was empty, "want some ice cream?"
Tommy gave him a tentative smile and nodded.
Tom reached into the freezer and pulled out an ice cream sandwich for each of them. "Here you go, son."
After they finished, Tom went into the living room and settled back in his recliner to read the paper. He was startled when a few minutes later Tommy pushed under the paper and climbed into his lap.
"Thanks for not takin' me to jail, mister."
Tom dropped the paper and wrapped his arms around the boy. "Jail ain't no place for a good boy like you. Call me Tom."
"Okay." Within a few minutes the boy was asleep.
Tommy in his arms, he stood easily and carried him to his bed. The boy roused as Tom tucked him in, and brushed back his hair. "Sleep well, son."
Jeri bent and kissed the child. "Good night, Tommy. We'll leave the nightlight on. If you need anything, call us. I put your crutch right here where you can reach it."
"Oh, Tom," she said as she hugged him in the living room, "he's such a beautiful little boy. Thank you."
"You don't mind about his leg?"
"I wish he had it so he could play ball with you, but you can take him fishing and things like that. You'll do that for him, won't you?"
"You know I will, honey." He kissed her lovingly. "This really feels like our home now."