A dented mailbox marked “Cain” wobbled in the wind, and a rusty cattle guard stretched between two gateposts. Ricky stopped talking. All Eli heard was the whine of the wind and the tree branches rubbing together. The two boys followed the road that curved back into the trees, walking so close their elbows almost touched.
Ahead, a frame house perched crookedly on pier and beam. Held together by little more than peeling paint and scraggly vines, it sagged with neglect. Not far away, a barn listed to one side, its doors wide open. No light burned in the house, and no animals sheltered in the barn.
“Everything looks deserted,” Ricky said. “That’s weird. Why would anyone pay to have a security light if they--”
Eli didn’t wait to hear the end of Ricky’s sentence. He saw a rusty tractor parked next to the barn and ran to see if it had any gas.
“What’s that awful smell?” Ricky’s words exploded through the silence like a shotgun. He gagged and pulled the neck of his tee shirt up over his nose.
Eli jumped like he was stung. “Stop bellowing, will you? I can hear you just fine.”
“I can’t breathe. Stinks worse than when the possum crawled under Grandma’s house and died.”
Eli thought Ricky was exaggerating until he got a strong whiff. “Something smells like it’s been dead a long, long time.”
“What could it-” A sudden noise vibrated the night air. This time they both jumped.
“What was that?” Ricky’s voice dropped to a hoarse whisper.
“Loose shingle, maybe?” The rickety old structure creaked and groaned every time the wind changed directions.
“Maybe we should start walking back.”
“We’ve come this far. Why turn around?” Eli fumbled around in the dark for the gas cap and worked it loose. Gas fumes filled his nose. “Look for a hose and a container, so we can siphon some gas. Then, cross your fingers and hope there’s enough to do some good.”
“Maybe this ain’t such a good idea, after all.”
“What are you saying?”
“Well, whoever owns this place might not like us helping ourselves.”
“Do you see anyone around to ask?” Eli got up in Ricky’s face. “Tell you what. While I’m working on this, why don’t you go on up to the house, and see if you can find someone to ask?”
Ricky paled under his freckles. “B--but, what’ll I do if they come to the door with a gun?”
“You better talk fast.” Eli bent down to dig through an old wooden crate underneath the tractor. He knew Ricky was scared. But he didn’t care. It’s his fault we’re out here in the first place.
Eli’s fingers closed around a length of rubber tubing. If it wasn’t rotten, it might work. Beside it, he found a gallon jug. He set it on the ground next to the tractor, pushed one end of the tubing inside, the other in the tank and held his breath until liquid began to trickle into the container.
Ricky’s reluctant steps had taken him to the bottom of the tilting porch. He ran his hands down the side of his jeans before he climbed the steps and tapped on the door. “Hello? Is anybody home?” He sounded like a nervous door to door salesman, reluctant to give up his last chance of the day to make a transaction. Only silence answered. He cleared his throat and knocked a little louder.