The Thief and the Beanstalk Chapter 1
Nick opened his eyes and blinked. He felt the warmth of decaying straw rising from below and cool autumn air penetrating from above. But it was an unpleasant sensation that woke him: three points of cold metal pressing into his throat, chest, and belly. He thought of the pitchfork, always propped against the wall near the barn door.
“Get up,” a familiar voice said.
“How c-can I?” Nick replied. He knew there was fear in his voice, but that was all right. The man holding the pitchfork might take pity.
“Show your face, then,” the voice growled. He prodded with the pitchfork as he spoke.
Nick whimpered. He was sure the middle tine had pierced the skin on his chest. He could feel his heart hammering under the wound. Moving cautiously, he reached up and pushed the straw away, revealing his dirt-smudged face.
The farmer glared down at Nicks thin nose, brown
eyes, and tangled mop of dark hair. Nick had watched this man from hiding for nearly a month now. But the farmer had never known Nick was there until now.
“Oh, Geoffrey, its just a boy!” said a second voice. The farmer’s wife stood behind her husband, holding an enormous knife.
“Just a boy? Just a thief, you mean. Stealin’ the food from our mouths.” He wiggled the pitchfork as he spoke, and the pain in Nick’s chest flared at all three points. Nick squeezed his eyes shut and pulled his lips back from clenched teeth.
“How long you been around here?” the farmer said.
“A couple of days,” Nick lied.
“Days?” The farmer laughed bitterly. “A month is more like it. That’s when the chickens stopped layin’ so many eggs. And the cow stopped givin’ so much milk. And the turnips and onions started to disappear. Ain’t it?”
“Please—you’re hurting me!” Nick said. He had seen the farmer’s cruel nature as he watched from hiding these past weeks: beating the dog, cursing at his wife, twisting the neck of a rooster that pecked his ankle too many times.
“I’ll do worse than hurt,” the farmer said. There was an angry spark in his eye.
“Now, Geoffrey,” said the wife. “We can’t just kill him, can we?” From the tone of her voice, Nick thought this was a question of practicality, not morals. Would they get in trouble? Would they get caught?
“This little rat won’t be missed. I’ll cut him up and fatten our pigs on the pieces. Get back what’s ours, we will!” The pitchfork drew back and came down again for the killing thrust. But Nick reached up from the straw and grabbed the pitchfork between the tines. He shoved it to one side, and the points plunged deep into the pile, inches from his gut. The farmer pulled back on the fork with a grunt and Nick held on, scrambling to his feet, with yellow strands of straw flying into the air. Chickens and geese squawked and flapped around the barn, and the cow turned to watch with mild interest.
With a savage scream, the farmer twisted the pitchfork, wrenching it from Nick’s hands. Nick darted the other way, only to see the wild-eyed wife coming at him with the enormous knife. Nick had to duck to avoid the slash. He dropped to all fours and scampered underneath the cow. Looking back, he could see two pairs of legs coming around opposite sides of the animal. He shot back under the belly again and raced through the open door into the pale light of dawn.
“I’ll get you yet!” the farmer shouted. But Nick knew the race was over. The farmer had a bad leg that would not straighten, and could only hobble along in slow pursuit.
Nick felt his sweat stinging in the three wounds, and a white-hot anger flooded through him. He picked up a stone and flung it at the farmer. “You can’t kill me if you can’t catch me, old man!”
The farmer threw his arms in front of his face and the
stone flew over his shoulder. He pointed at Nick. “You better run, little thief! Run while you can. We’ll set the dogs on you, my neighbors and me! We’re comin’ after you! Thief! Wretch!” He went on shouting until Nick was too far to hear him anymore.
Nick dashed across fields and hopped a stone wall. When he was out of sight at last from the bellowing farmer, he changed directions to avoid pursuit, heading away from the rising sun.
An hour later, he came to a stream. He sat on a large rock and pulled his ragged tunic up, tucking it under his chin. The wound on his chest was still bleeding. He cupped water in his hand and splashed it onto the gash.
Nick looked down at the ribs that were plain to see under his skin, and the shrunken space where other boys had plump bellies. He was not quite the skeleton that had crawled onto the farm a month ago and began to drink the eggs raw, and lay under the cow to squeeze its milk into his open mouth. But he was still terribly thin.
He had lost more than a hiding place; he’d had to leave behind the sack of items he’d stolen over time. They were things of meager value—a ceramic bottle, a pewter spoon, bits of colored glass, buttons, a buckle without a belt, a brass thimble, a toy horse made of wood—but he might have traded them for something to eat.
Nick wondered how long he could last before he found another source of food. Shivering a little in the
cool morning, he wondered also where he would take shelter from colder days to come. He let the tunic fall back to his knees and turned toward the sun. Might as well go west, he thought. The sea is out there somewhere. I’d like to see that Maybe get on a ship, go far away from here
The sea was nowhere in sight now, though. From this spot, it looked like heading west would bring him to a high, wild land. There were no roads or trails, no visible farms or towns, no smoke rising from chimneys. At the far horizon stood a rocky ridge. Maybe on the other side there was a better place.
A dim sound floated toward Nick from the direction he had fled: A dog barking—and more dogs echoing the cry.
He leaped across the stream and ran toward the wilderness.