The clearing was small, only a circular patch of grass in which the trees had been cut away, but among the broken stands, small footprints had become more apparent. I traced them with my gaze up to the base of a young sapling, and looked in surprise at the figure sleeping there. It was a little boy, and he looked about seven or eight years old, but his clothes were strangely outdated: a plaid cotton shirt, overalls, and straw hat, but no shoes.
He appeared to be at ease with his surroundings, and I wondered where he had run away from. Small children asleep in the woods were not common, even in this part of the country. Kneeling in front of his slumped form, I tapped the boy lightly on the shoulder.
He awoke at once, and snorted, as if surprised. "Ma'am," he gasped, "I--I be out to collect wood for the stove. Don't mind me none, Ma'am. I ain't here to cause no trouble."
"Are you alright?" I asked. "How did you get out here? Is there anyone I could call? Your maw or paw--"
"Oh no, Ma'am, oh ma'am, please don't call on Pa!" the boy begged, gazing up at me with enormous blue eyes. "I ain't supposed to fall asleep--I don't mean to--and he would give me a whipping, he sure would."
"Does your paw know that you're out here by yourself?" I asked, glancing around the clearing.
"Oh yes, Ma'am," he replied eagerly, "My ma, she sent me 'bout an hour ago...she said come to the old clearing and get some woods, some nice big ones, 'an to hurry home, but I guess I gone fallen asleep, and I done to get a good whipping, or at least a scolding, and I beg your pardon, Ma'am, I sure do, but I got to get on home..." He scrambled to his feet and took hold of the small pile of logs and the little axe laying beside him.
"What's your name?" I wondered aloud, perplexed by his odd manner.
"I'm called Johnny, Ma'am," He answered quickly. "Johnny St. Paul--my Pa's the town blacksmith, you see--"
"Blacksmith?" Was this boy playing games? Our town hadn't had a blacksmith in seventy years, not since Forkel's Metalworks Warehouse had been brought to town in 1939. Perhaps this boy was in costume, acting with his friends, and he seemed to know where he was going.
"Well...alright," I said finally, and watched him tip his hat to me with all the poise of a little gentleman, and then amble off in the opposite direction of where he had come. I turned back towards the trail and had nearly reached the road when I saw again the pair of brown shoes, and wondered how he could have forgotton something like that. Shrugging, I picked them up and took them along with me. Someone could have stolen them.