Dusty leaned against the kitchen door, cap pulled low. Billy, Arnie and Lane had already returned, deposited their coal sacks in the shed behind the tavern and stacked their brushes together in the corner in the kitchen. Now they had gone off to do whatever they pleased until supper was ready.
Dart and Rat had not returned. Dusty folded his arms across his chest and shifted impatiently. The rain had finally stopped and he wanted to do some exploring. But he couldn't leave until Dart and Rat checked in. He wasn't worried. Rat was too clever to get into trouble.
He heard Peter bang some pots in the kitchen. Opening the door he went inside.
Peter was chopping potatoes. He had traded his bar apron for his kitchen one. He jerked his chin at the chimney brooms in the corner. "Ya missin' a few?" he grunted around his cigar.
Dusty leaned against the counter. "Naw. Rat and Dart ain't back yet."
Peter made a sound of acknowledgement that sounded like a growl. "How much coal today?" he asked.
"Nine sacks, so far."
Dusty went to the water basin and emptied the used water into the slop bucket. Then he refilled it from the rain barrel so Dart and Rat could clean up when they arrived.
He crouched by the fire and used a piece of kindling to light a cigar. It was one of Peter's. Dusty was the only one Peter allowed to smoke. Perhaps to make up for pushing so much responibilty upon the young lad. Dusty did not particularly like to smoke; But he always did his best to stay on Peter's good side.
Suddenly the kitchen door opened. Dusty glanced up, then jumped to his feet with alarm.
Rat stood in the doorway. But he didn't look like himself. Underneath the soot and grime his face was as white as a sheet. His eyes were like black glass. His hands hung lifeless at his sides.
"Where've you been?" Dusty asked.
Rat didn't answer. He took a few steps into the room and let the door swing shut behind him.
Peter turned from the potatoes and looked Rat up and down, "And where's yar broom? Did ya loose it? How much coal did ya git?"
Rat looked down at his feet. He did not speak.
Peter gave him a box on the ear. "Answer me!" he demanded, his quick temper kindled.
Rat still did not speak, but took several steps back until he was against the door, out of Peter's reach.
"Rat," Dusty broke in, "Where's Dart?"
Rat now looked up. His glassy eyes stared into Dusty's, as if trying to convey a message. His bottom lip trembled.
"Speak!" exclaimed Peter. He stepped forward and caught hold of Rat by the back of the neck. His face was flushed with anger. He shook Rat violently and shouted, "How dare you not speak! I have ordered you! Where's Dart? Where's yar broom? Where's yar coal?"
He threw Rat to the floor. The boy did not make a sound. Not even a whimper of pain.
"Bah!" said Peter with disgust, "Go to bed without supper." and he scooped up handfuls of potatoes and dropped them into his pot.
Dusty helped Rat stand. His ear was a little swollen, otherwise he was unharmed. He looked guiltily at Dusty, then climbed the loft ladder to obey Peter's order.
Dusty took a towel and dipped a corner of it into the water basin. Then he too climbed up to the loft.
Rat was sitting on Dusty's cot, staring at the cot he and Dart shared. Dusty went to him and handed him the towel. Rat used the wet end to clean himself, and the dry end to dry. Then he pulled off his wet clothes, with Dusty's help, and climbed silently under Dusty's blanket. He did not even consider climbing into his own cot.
Dusty let him be. God had given this boy wisdom beyond his years. Unlike Peter, he did not demand answers. He knew that Rat had been trod upon by some awful occurence. He knew without asking that Dart would never come home. He knew that whatever had happened would scar Rat for life. Let the boy be silent. Let him grieve in his own way. Perhaps some day all would be revealed. For now, Dusty would wait.
You, dear reader, know more then Dusty of what has happened to our Rat. But even you do not know all. Rat has taken it, and buried it deep in his soul. There it will fester like a sore, as will his guilt over the stolen wallet. But Dusty is right; someday all will be revealed. You must be patient.
Arnie, Lane, and Billy were, of course, surprised to come home and find Rat in bed and Dart missing. They did not ask questions though, because Peter was in a terrible mood. Anything they said could bring his attention-and his anger-toward them, and so they kept silent until they were sent to bed and Peter had gone to tend the bar for the night.
They were quite dissatisfied with what Dusty had to tell them, but he warned them not to question Rat.
That was a bad night for all of them. Dusty spent it with his arms wrapped around Rat, who whimpered and called out for Dart in his sleep. His body was hot with fever. Lane and Arnie whispered together, trying to guess what had happened. Billy tossed and turned under his blanket, his stomach twisted in knots. This wasn't the first time he'd known a chimney sweep to dissappear. It brought up a lot of bad memories he wished he could forget.