Mouse was always getting us into scrapes. That was okay, because mouse usually got us out of them again, too.
Mouse had a big problem. He was always short of money. I often offered him some of my pocket money but he would never take it. This meant that he was always thinking of schemes to make money.
His early schemes were not exactly legal. He anticipated the modern business practice of helping himself to any public resources that were not nailed down – by 20 or 30 years. We used to pick wildflowers, and sell bunches of them by the roadside. But picking wildflowers was frowned on by the proto-environmentalists . Collecting bottles was also a useful, although limited, resource, because all the other boys did it too. Still, we were regular early-morning visitors to the vicinity of the local pubs. In amongst the rubbish and the vomit were empty bottles, left there by drinkers of illegal after-hours beer, which fetched a halfpenny a bottle, if you carried them to the “bottle-yard” in a sack. Even more lucrative was stealing bottles from the pile of those already collected by the hotel publican. But the scheme that mouse was keenest on was stealing oranges from what appeared to be abandoned orchards and selling them by the roadside.
The problem, though, was that even unkempt, apparently abandoned orchards sometimes had owners. Protective owners. Sometimes with shotguns. Loaded with crystals of mineral salt or tiny balls of saltpetre. Wounds from these were usually superficial, but were reputed to sting for days.
As soon as we saw movement through the trees we were off. We hit the fence running faster than we had ever run before, but it was too high to hurdle. That didn’t bother Mouse. He just picked me up and hurled me over the fence, followed by a sack of oranges. Just as Mouse clambered after me, there was a resounding BANG and, if anything, Mouse moved even faster than he had been moving.
It wasn’t until we had gotten clean away, and disappeared into some thick bush that Mouse slowed down. He seemed to walk a little stiffly, with a slight limp. He was, for once, very quiet. After a while he said he had to go home to do some chores, and that he would see me tomorrow to divide up the spoils. But I saw as he walked away spots of blood on the seat of his trousers.
I called out to him, “Mouse!”
He turned with a strange smile. “What, Rey?”
Something made me hesitate. I realized, even then, without really knowing I had, that I could at least give him something this time, worth more than mere pocket-money, even if he didn’t know I was doing it. “Nothing, Mouse. Just thanks for the boost over the fence.”
“De Nada, Rey, ” he said, but as he walked away, his usual swagger returned. His limp was scarcely noticeable.