The oars lapped softly in the still water as Warren rowed his small boat through the marsh. The stars had disappeared, and a pale pink light showed on the horizon. Almost in unison the birds began their joyful crying and squawking, rising up from cattails and grassy patches of land, some circling above or soaring into the sky. The noise surrounded Warren. His skin prickled and his heart pounded with excitement as he watched the wild ducks and geese, a few gray herons, and some small marsh birds whose names he didn’t know yet.
Warren tried never to miss this moment of first light on the marsh. The excitement of the birds thrilled and fascinated him. And after he’d found a nest hidden in the tall grass along the far shore, the experience became even more exciting. Warren stepped out of the boat into the soft mud and pulled it up onto the bank. He stretched and looked around him, watching the ducks take off from the water into the sky.
Here in the marsh Warren didn’t miss his old friends too much. And it didn’t seem so important to him that he had made no new friends. His father managed the reserve where they lived. It was several miles out of town and in the six months that Warren had lived there he felt strange and different among the other kids. They had called him a sissy because he wouldn’t go shooting sparrows with them.
Warren loved all animals, but especially birds. He never tired of watching them. Now he turned and walked stealthily along the shore again, hoping to find the hen off her nest so that he could examine the eggs more closely. When he parted the tall grass, his heart was pounding. He knelt and studied the blue-gray eggs cradled snugly among the downy feathers the hen had pulled around them. She was nowhere in sight, so Warren relaxed and peered closely at the eggs, wanting to touch them but knowing he shouldn’t.
Suddenly the loud twang of a slingshot startled him. He jumped up and saw a small marsh bird spiraling out of the sky. It splashed softly into the water.
“I got one!” someone near Warren suddenly shouted. Then two boys splashed out of the high cattails. When they saw Warren they stopped, and Warren recognized them from school—Tom Jenkins and Steve Peterson.
“Do you think he saw us?” Tom, the smaller one, whispered.
“How could he help it? He’s right here. But if he knows what’s good for him he won’t tell anyone.”
“This is a game reserve,” Warren declared. “It’s against the law to kill birds here.” He moved closer to the nest, hoping they wouldn’t see it.
“Hey, look!” Tom called. “There’s a nest right there in the grass.” Both boys looked at the nest.
“So this is why you’re out here prowling around,” Steve said, smiling at Warren in a sneering kind of way.
“You’d better not bother those eggs, or you’ll be in even more trouble,” Warren warned.
“Smash them, Tom” Steve urged. Tom stepped around Warren and raised his foot above the nest.
“Don’t do that!” Warren yelled, “I won’t tell.”
Tom paused, his foot still in the air, and looked at Steve.
“Is that a promise?” Steve asked.
“Yes, I promise,” Warren answered.
“Come on, Tom.” The two boys turned and walked away from the shore toward town.
Warren stood for a long time looking after them, then went to his boat and rowed home.
All day in school, Warren thought about the nest and about Tom and Steve and the bird that had fallen into the water, dead. He knew he should tell his father, but he had promised not to. They still might come back and smash the nest anyway, he worried. At lunchtime he saw Tom and Steve in the hall, but they pretended not to see him.
After school, Warren walked very slowly up the dirt road from the bus stop, still thinking about what he should do. He wondered how long he’d have to wait for the day when he’d part the grass and see three tiny naked geese in the cloudy down of the nest or if it might never happen. Tom’s big ugly foot could crush the eggs with one smash. Warren didn’t like to think about it. He breathed in the moist spring smells all around him and heard small animals scurrying through the underbrush. He couldn’t understand why some kids wanted to destroy beautiful living things. If he told his father about Tom and Steve, they’d tell his classmates how he’d squealed, and everyone would hate him. Still, Warren knew he would eventually have to tell. If he didn’t, the bullies might be even more destructive. He couldn’t stand to have kids killing birds, especially here on the reserve.
Warren could see his father near the shed, squatting down with a pan in his hands. He was feeding a small animal. The boy was curious and began to run, but stopped when he saw the black and white fur of a skunk. He approached his father slowly, stopping a short way off. The skunk looked up at him, but when he didn’t move, it began eating again. “Dad, why are you feeding a skunk?” Warren asked softly. “He might spray you.”
His dad smiled. “He only does that to his enemies. I’m making him my friend.”
Warren looked at the skunk. Its thick black and white fur gleamed in the sunlight. It ate quickly from the pan and then ambled off toward the woods. His father stood up. “How was school today?”
“All right,” Warren said. He knew his dad was waiting for him to go on, but he didn’t know what to say. They began walking toward the house, Warren watching the shadows of the new aspen leaves on the dirt path. His father put his arm on his son’s shoulder. “Dad,” Warren began, “should you always keep your promises?”
“Yes, you should,” his father replied.
“Even if you’ve promised to do something wrong?”
His father was quiet for a minute. “I see what you’re asking now. No, I think that would be one time a promise should be broken.”
“I think I’d better break one then,” Warren said. “I saw two boys from school shooting birds in the marsh this morning.” His father looked at him sharply. Warren told him about the nest and about the boys’ threat to smash it if he told.
His father was silent again for several seconds. Finally he said, “You did the right thing to tell me, son. When you see someone breaking the law, you have an obligation to report it.”
“I guess I shouldn’t have promised not to tell,” Warren said.
“Probably not, but I can see why you did.”
“What will happen now?”
“I’ll talk to their fathers tonight, and they’ll be fined.”
“But what if they come back and smash the eggs?” Warren reminded him, shuddering. “The least they’ll do is beat me up at school,” he added.
“I think they’ll be afraid to come back into the reserve once they know that I know about them, but it’s true that they might want to beat you up. Maybe you can think of a way to turn them into friends,” Warren’s father suggested.
“Friends! I don’t want to be friends with guys who shoot birds and smash eggs,” Warren retorted. He felt angry that his dad would suggest something like that.
“Maybe they don’t understand about birds and animals the way you do. Maybe they haven’t had a reason to think about it much.” His dad smiled at him and squeezed his shoulder. “Let’s go in and eat.”
All through dinner and chores and homework, Warren thought about what his dad had said. He didn’t want the eggs crushed, and he didn’t want to be clobbered by two bigger boys either. He didn’t much want them for friends, but maybe it was the best choice if it could be done. However, it didn’t seem likely that they’d want to be his friends after he’d told on them.
Warren waited up for his dad to come back from seeing Tom’s and Steve’s parents, but when he came in all he said was, “I’m going up the canyons to stock the streams with trout on Saturday. You want to go?”
“Sure,” Warren answered. He usually went with his dad to stock the streams, and it was always exciting.
“Better get to bed now,” his dad said.
“But what happened at Tom’s and Steve’s?” Warren asked.
“Nothing much. They have a fine to pay. Good night, Warren.”
Warren stood for a minute as his father picked up the newspaper. Then he went up to bed. He lay awake for a long time, thinking about Tom and Steve and about how he might possibly make friends with them. He thought, too, about the fun of stocking the streams on Saturday and seeing hundreds of tiny fish squirming wildly in the water and then taking off downstream. Finally Warren knew what he could do. “It wouldn’t hurt to try,” he murmured.
The next day during the lunch hour, he saw Tom and Steve standing together near the drinking fountain in the hall. Warren’s heart was pounding as he walked toward them. They were waiting for him, glancing at each other.
“So you told after all,” Tom said.
“Our dads are making us pay the fines out of our own money. No allowance for four months, and it’s your fault,” Steve said. “You broke your promise, and you’re going to pay, just as soon as we catch you off the school grounds.”
Warren stood for a few seconds, his stomach churning with fear. Then he said what he had planned. “On Saturday my dad’s taking me up the canyons to stock the streams with trout. Do you guys want to go along?”
Steve and Tom looked at each other, surprised and speechless.
“It’s really fun,” Warren said. “He takes millions of little fish and puts them in the water. And while we’re there he’ll probably show us badgers’ dens and stuff like that. Later on when fishing season opens, I can show you some of the best fishing places.” Warren stopped, a little breathless. “You want to go?”
Steve shoved his hands into his pockets and shifted his feet. “Well, yeh, I guess so.” Steve glanced at Tom. “You want to go, Tom?”
“Sure, if you’re going. Maybe we could beat him up while we’re there.”
“You crazy? With his dad there?” Steve laughed and jabbed Tom with his elbow.
Tom laughed too. “Sure, we’ll go,” he said.
“Early,” Warren replied. “I’ll let you know the exact time on Friday.”
The bell ran, and kids raced past them.
“See you later,” Warren called as he ran to his class.
All afternoon Warren had a peaceful feeling. He knew his dad would be proud of him too. Making friends with Steve and Tom is an even bigger accomplishment than making friends with a skunk, he decided.