“Grandpa, don’t you see Nat? He’s out there kickin’ again.”
It must have been Anna Mae who said it, but Grandpa came to the window anyway. Most of us ignored her. “You’re just tryin’ to make us look,” Stevie said, voicing our collective thought. “Stop pretending and come help us finish this puzzle, all right?”
“But he’s really out there, kickin’ her fit to bust!” she insisted.
Some of us looked up then. “Wait, kickin’ who?” Gracie asked.
We clustered around Grandpa at the window, expecting to see Nat in full splendor. His football had recently become the focus of yet another attempt to land a spot on the A-team this year, but Nat wasn’t landing field goals. His battered football had rolled almost to the window, and he was chasing one of the biddy hens across the yard.
Grandpa chuckled. “I guess Mattie Sugar’s ornery streak is comin’ out,” he said, ruffling Anna Mae’s hair a little. “Don’t you worry, she can hold her own.”
Anna Mae clearly wasn’t satisfied. “But why would Nat be kickin’ Mattie Sugar? She wouldn’t hurt anybody, not even Nat.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Grandpa said. He sat down in his special chair, rocking back till it creaked. After making sure that Mattie was well ahead of Nat, we piled around Grandpa’s chair, waiting for the story we knew was coming.
“Mattie Sugar’s grandbiddy was as pesterin’ as they come,” Grandpa began.
“Even worse than Clyde?” Stevie interrupted. “That time he chased Uncle Johnnie—”
“Hush up, Stevie,” Anna Mae said, surprising us a bit. Stevie looked sidewise at her, but Grandpa gave him a knowing look, and he decided to take a little sauce from her instead of giving it.
“Now, Mattie Sugar’s grandbiddy,” Grandpa went on, “was called Sugar, but there was nothin’ sweet about her. She used to sit on the front porch of Mister Charlie’s house. A little tipsy on the rail, but she never fell off.”
“What’d she do that was so mean?” Gracie asked. “Mister Charlie was nice to her, I bet.”
“Well, there’s pet chickens, and then there’s pet chickens,” Grandpa said slowly. Stevie started to ask a question, but reconsidered his options before the words were out.
Grandpa enjoyed our confusion for a bit before going on, a bit faster. “I was running the town routes one summer, and Sugar used to hop off the rail and walk along behind me whenever I came along carrying the mail. And what do you think Sugar did?”
Gracie’s nose wrinkled a little. The rest of us stared blankly at each other, sure that Gracie had guessed something we hadn’t. “Oh, Grandpa, she didn’t!” Gracie said.
“Oh, yes she did,” Grandpa said, nodding wisely at Gracie. “She would come in real close and peck at my legs. It bein’ short weather, you can guess how that felt.”
General exclamations of dismay broke out, even from Anna Mae. “That’s right,” Grandpa said. “And what do you think Mister Charlie told me to do, when he saw Sugar pesterin’ me?”
“Give her a big boot,” Stevie said grandly, “scare her off right and proper.”
Grandpa looked sharp at Stevie, but he smiled a bit. “That’s right, Stevie. At first, I didn’t want to boot the old biddy, and the first time I hardly caught her.”
“I bet she was spoiled,” Stevie said, “probably got whatever she wanted.”
Grandpa nodded. “She was that kind of biddy, all right. So the next time, I was careful to do just what Mister Charlie said.”
“Oh, Grandpa!” Anna Mae exclaimed, trying her best disapproving look. “Did it hurt Sugar?”
Grandpa ruffled her hair again. “Not too much,” he assured her. “She was fine enough to sit on the porch for the rest of her long days. She never pecked me again, and she gave us Mattie Sugar into the bargain.”
Anna Mae frowned and leaned against the arm of Grandpa’s chair. We could tell she was trying to figure out something, so we shepherded Stevie away from her and distracted him with the puzzle. We’d filled in everything except the very middle when the back door crashed open and Nat came rushing in.
“Mattie Sugar’s been after me, that dratted old biddy,” he said, his breath coming heavy. “I’ve been round and round the house, and I just can’t get at her.”
Grandpa grinned. “Too fast for Natty, hey?” He stood up and worked his feet into his boots. “Well, I’m goin’ out to mow the field. That grass gets any longer, and you won’t be findin’ your football next time it lands in there.”
Nat was too out of breath to say anything, and the rest of us were bent over the puzzle. Stevie was just about to drop in the last piece with the appropriate flourish when Anna Mae spoke up.
“Nat, why was Mattie Sugar chasin’ you?” she asked.
Nat looked hard at Anna Mae. “Why should I tell you? That old biddy—”
“Come on, Nat,” Gracie said, pushing the puzzle aside a bit so she could stand behind Anna Mae. “Why don’t you tell us?”
“Yeah, come on, Nat,” Stevie said. We could tell he didn’t want two girls to best him, but we all got behind Anna Mae anyhow. After a minute or two of hard looks between us, Nat gave up.
“I thought she was the football, so I booted her,” he said. If Anna Mae had been by herself, she probably would have backed off at the way he said it, but we were all standing together.
“She was flutterin’ and squakin’ better than any old football,” Nat protested, even though we hadn’t said anything. “I gave her some more, just for—”
“That’s not funny, Nat,” Anna Mae said, “specially if she didn’t peck you first.” We all nodded.
“Did she peck you?” Stevie asked, a little cautiously.
“I don’t think she did,” Anna Mae announced. “Sugar might’ve been ornery, but Mattie Sugar’s real sweet. She was probably chasin’ him just to scare him off.”
“I ain’t scared!” Nat interjected. “Not one bit.”
“Well then, tell us,” Gracie said. “Did she peck you, or didn’t she?”
When Nat finally shook his head, we traded looks among ourselves. By unanimous silent vote, we decided it would be even better not to scold him. We marched past him without so much as a look and reassembled in the side yard just below the window.
“We’d better check that Mattie Sugar isn’t too tired out,” Anna Mae decided.
Stevie pointed. “I think she’s just fine,” he said. “See there? She’s got Nat’s football.”
We couldn’t help laughing then, but Nat must have seen us through the window. Pretty soon, he came crashing around the corner of the house and made a rush for his football. “That dratted biddy!” he raged. “If she doesn’t give up my football, I’ll—”
So quick not even Stevie saw it, Anna Mae stepped between Mattie Sugar and Nat.
“No, you won’t,” she said—real quietly, but she meant it.
“That’s right,” Gracie added, stepping up beside Anna Mae. “She wasn’t botherin’ you none before you kicked her.”
If you really want that football,” Stevie said, stepping up beside Gracie, “I’ll get it for you, the right way.”
We all joined them, forming a line between Nat, who was glowering a bit, and Mattie Sugar, who was still busy with the football.
“We’re all together, and we’re not goin’ away,” Anna Mae said. “When Grandpa gets down to this corner of the field—”
“All right, all right,” Nat burst out. “You can keep the old football, and I don’t care none. Needed a new one anyway,” he added under his breath. We ignored him.
“Hey, Stevie,” Anna Mae said. “Reckon Mattie will let us play with that football?”
Stevie grinned. “Naw, she’s happy this way. But we could play soccer, how’s that?”
Anna Mae smiled back. “As long as the biddy’s not the ball. Right, Mattie?”
And Mattie Sugar? Well, we all thought she clucked her agreement.