Billy Compton stood on short, sturdy legs as he comtemplated the red-faced, squirming intruder lying in the oak cradle. He slowly removed his finger from his mouth, and standing on his tip-toes, he slowly reached out a chubby hand and with one finger, he gently poked the blanket covering up what everyone said was his new brother. Suddenly, he felt a presence behind him. His tiny nose picked up her scent before he even turned around. "Billy, what are you doing in here? Have you come to see your new brother, Robert?", Billy heard her ask. He turned his head around and gazing up with round-eyed longing, he reached his little arms up, imploring her to take him. "No, mother cannot pick you up just yet. Maybe in a few weeks". Billy felt his little face begin to whimper up with frustration and yearning, but then he stopped himself. Turning back around, he looked over at the sleeping form of what everyone had been calling his brother. Brother. He wondered just what that meant.
Mother sat down in the beautiful oak rocking chair and reached out her arms to him. With a satisfied smile, he ran into her arms and with her help, he climbed into the one place he loved to be more than anywhere else. He reached up to encircle her neck with his tiny little arms, anxious to breathe in her scent. He knew she smelled differently from anyone else in his world. He recognized that it came from the large, shiny glass bottle that sat atop her dressing table. He had, at times, watched as she removed the stopper from the top and with delicate fingertips, dabbed it on herself. As he sat there comforted in her soft lap, she began to talk to him and tell him what it meant to be a big brother and how it was his duty to protect and help take care of little Robert. She also told Billy how his new brother came to have the name Robert Loudermilk Compton. He sat there listening intently, secretly wishing with all his might that he, and only he, could be the one she held in her lap while gently being rocked to sleep.
The months began to pass and soon the year was nearing it's end. Although little Billy Compton was not quite sure what Christmas Day was all about, he knew it was something more special than all the other days of the year. Billy remembered nothing from his first two Christmas's, but this year he felt the anticipation and excitement on the face of everyone he knew .For weeks all the women of the house had been baking and making preparations for all the visitors that Christmas Day would bring. Sometimes the wonderful smells coming from the cookhouse would make him beg pitifully for one of the candied treats cooling on the shelf. Occassionally, Delilah, the only house slave the Compton's owned, would hand him a small tidbit, with her finger to her mouth to warn him to silence. Then, he awakened early one morning to the usual sound of his baby brother being suckled at his mother's breast as she gently rocked him and sang a song. Hearing Billy move, she looked over at him with her blue eyes smiling and said "Merry Christmas, my little man. You must dress quickly and we'll go down for breakfast. And I think I heard Saint Nick late last night as he left you a surprise in your stocking". Suddenly Billy remembered being lifted up by his father so that he might hang his little black stocking above the fireplace. He didn't quite understand why he did this, but now he was quite anxious to see just what surprises were inside that stocking.
Oh my! Little Billy Compton stood in wide-eyed wonderment as he saw what had taken place while he slept. Green pine boughs had been put above the fireplace on the mantle and above the doorways. Bunches of red berries from holly bushes had been tied together and placed in these pine boughs. And there, hanging from the mantle was his stocking, with something round and hard in the toe. Father picked him up as he reached out with his little hand and took it down. He reached inside and pulled out something long and hard with red stripes all around it. Father said it was a candy stick and it was for eating, but he must wait until he had eaten his breakfast. And there , down in the bottom of the stocking, was the round thing, which father called an orange. Billy had never seen such a thing and had no idea what it was, but if it tasted as good as it smelled, then he wanted to eat it right then and there. And the most wonderful thing of all! Sitting next to the fireplace was a large wooden box, tied up in white ribbons. Quickly pulling the ribbons off and flinging off the lid, Billy saw something that made his blue eyes grow wide in wonderment. A set of wooden blocks with all the letters of the alphabet were nestled inside. And there, beside it, was a tiny little wagon, complete with wheels that really turned and a long rope for pulling. Billy could not contain his joy and excitement! Although he did not know it at the time, his father had spent many hours in the evenings after Billy went to sleep, lovingly and skillfully working on these things for his beloved child.
As the time has a way of doing, it began to pass all too quickly. Soon little Billy Compton was approaching his eighth birthday and there was another baby in the house. His little sister Julia had been born a few years earlier. Billy didn't really pay her too much attention. Girls just weren't all that much fun when you thought about it. They mostly just sat around and sewed or did other things that didn't look like much fun or anything he would even want to do. But his brother! They had so much fun together! As his brother grew and Billy realized what it meant to have someone there to play with, to sleep in the bed with, to share all your fun with, they developed a wonderful bond of that sameness or oneness that only those who experience it can understand. But sometimes he grew tired of his brother and would beg his parents to allow him to visit with his friend Tolliver Humphries. Tolliver lived several miles north of the Compton place and he only got to see him once a month when church meeting took place. After the church meeting was over, he and Tolliver would run and have such a grand time playing while the grown-ups visited and discussed much more important matters. During those times, he grew tired of Robert always tagging along. Robert was never as sturdy or strongly build as Billy, and he tired easily. Billy just wanted him to go and stay with mother and leave them alone. But it never worked out that way. His father would give him that look that let him know that some things were not open for discussion and Billy had no hankering to feel the switch on his rear ever again. Tolliver had a sister who was born at the same time Tolliver was. Billy had heard someone call them twins. And she was pretty. He would find himself casting shy glances at her during church service when he was sure no one was watching. Sometimes when his parents visited the Humphries' home, she would try to talk to him, but he always felt as if a huge lump was forming in his throat and he could not speak. He hated himself when that happened.
One summer afternoon, after his chores were done, father said that he and Robert might walk down the road and meet Tolliver at the small creek that ran behind the Humphries' farm. It was a wonderful place to spend a lazy afternoon fishing for small mudcats and bream. And if the fishing wasn't too promising, there was always the anticipation of a swim in the cold, clear waters of the creek. When Billy and Robert arrived, anxious to enjoy an afternoon of fun, he was both delighted and terrified to realize that Tolliver's sister Annabelle was there. He tried to think of something clever to say, but he could not. Everytime he looked at her and she looked back, he felt his hands grow cold and clammy, but at the same time it was as if there was a fire being lit in the pit of his stomach. He did not understand what was happening to him. And he could never, ever tell anyone about this feeling, especially Tolliver.
Soon they grew weary of the fishing, and before long off came the hot woolen socks and leather boots. As they sat upon the banks of the creek and talked of the coming school year, and how long before they could own their own gun and be allowed to participate in the fall hunting, along with other matters that were oh-so important to young boys, they paid no heed to Robert and Annabelle. The cold water of the creek felt so wonderful on their hot feet and legs. Suddenly, Billy remembered he was suppose to be watching out for Robert, and so he turned back to see where they were. Then he heard a splash, then a terrible scream of fear. "She's fallen in, she's gone!" he heard Robert scream. He and Tolliver hopped up and quickly ran to where Robert was pointing and shouting. They saw nothing, not even a faint outline of Annabelle. Quickly, Billy and Tolliver dove into the cold waters of Brison's Creek, vainly searching for Annabelle. Tolliver was in a panic. He came up and dove back down, again and again. Billy swam underneath the murcky water, desperately looking and reaching out for anything. There was nothing there. As he came up for air, he heard himself scream at Robert to run as fast as possible to the house and get Mr. Humphries. Billy continued to dive down into the cloudy waters, vainly searching.
Later that evening, as the sun began to set, a weary Billy Compton watched as the limp body of Annabelle Humphries was brought up to the creekbank. As though he were a million miles away, he could hear the anguished screams of Tolliver's mother. His own father stood there, his clothing dripping with creek water, as he solemly watched. His eyes met Billy's. Neither could say a thing. He held out his hand and together they began the long walk back to the Compton farm. Billy still could not believe all that had happened that afternoon. It was as if it were a dream, a terrible terrible dream, that he wished desperately to awaken from. As he approached the rear of the house, his mother met them there. As he looked into her face, he knew it had been no dream. He ran to her, needing more than ever to feel her loving arms embrace him and to tell him that it wasn't his fault. But it was his fault. He had failed.
Later that night, Lydia Loudermilk Compton sat beside the restless body of her son. It was his cries that had awakened her. As she approached his bedside, she looked into his blue eyes, so much like hers, that were filled with grief and shame. He could not stop sobbing as he held to her as she softly stoked his hair and murmured soft reassurances. He just kept repeating, over and over, "Oh mother, I'm sorry, I tried so hard but I just could not save her, I just could not save her."