Philippe and Justin Vallerand wandered through the woods
and down to the bayou, finding their way around mud holes,
pines, and sycamore trees. The boys were tall for their
age, lanky and thin, not yet having attained their father's
heavily muscled build.
Their features were stamped with the inborn arrogance of
all the Vallerands. Heavy black hair fell over their
foreheads in untidy waves, and their blue eyes were framed
with long dark lashes. Strangers were never able to tell
them apart, but inwardly they were as different as it was
possible for two boys to be. Philippe was gentle,
compassionate, someone who followed rules even when he
didn't fully understand the reasoning behind them. Justin,
on the other hand, was ruthless, resentful of authority and
proud of it.
"What are we going to do?" Philippe asked. "Should we take
the pirogue and look for pirates downriver?"
Justin gave a scornful laugh. "You can do as you like. I
Plan to visit Madeleine today."
Madeleine Scipion was the pretty black-haired daughter of a
town merchant. Lately she had displayed more than a casual
interest in Justin, although she was aware that Philippe
was smitten with her. The girl seemed to delight in pitting
one brother against the other.
Philippe's sensitive face revealed his envy. "Are you in
love with her?"
Justin grinned and spat. "Love? Who cares about that? Did I
tell you what Madeleine let me do to her the last time I
"What?" Philippe demanded with rising jealousy.
Their eyes locked. Suddenly Justin cuffed him on the side
of the headand laughed, fleeing through the trees as
Philippe gave chase. "I'll make you tell me!" Philippe
scooped up a glob of mud and threw it at Justin's
back. "I'll make you -- "
They both stopped short as they saw a movement near the
pirogue. A small boy dressed in ragged clothes and a floppy
hat was fumbling with the craft. The tethering rope dropped
from his hands as he realized he had been found out.
Quickly he picked up a knotted bundle of cloth and fled.
"He's trying to steal it!" Justin said, and the twins ran
after the vanishing thief with warlike yells, their quarrel
with each other discarded.
"Head him off!" Justin ordered. Philippe swerved to the
left, disappearing behind a cluster of cypress trees that
trailed their moss down to the soft, muddy brown water.
Within minutes he succeeded in cutting the boy off, coming
face-to-face with him just beyond the cypress grove.
Seeing the boy's violent trembling, Philippe grinned
triumphantly, drawing a forearm across his sweaty
brow. "You'll be sorry you ever thought of touching our
pirogue," he panted, advancing on his prey.
Breathing heavily, the thief turned in the opposite
direction and ran into Justin, who caught him with one arm
and held him dangling sideways. The boy dropped his bundle
and gave a high-pitched scream, which caused the twins to
Philippe!" Justin cried, fending off the boy's feeble
blows. "Look what I've caught! A little lutin with no
respect for others' property! What should we do with him?"
Philippe regarded the hapless thief with the censuring
stare of a judge. "You!" he barked, swaggering before the
wriggling imp. "What's your name?"
"Let go of me! I've done nothing!"
"Only because we interrupted you," Justin said.
Philippe whistled as he saw the red welts and bleeding
scratches that covered the boy's thin arms and
neck. "You've been a feast for the mosquitoes, haven't you?
How long have you been in the swamp?"
The flailing child managed to kick Justin in the knee.
"Ah, that hurt! -- Justin shook the black hair out of his
eyes and glared at the boy. "Now I've lost my patience!"
"Let me go, you mongrel!"
Annoyed, Justin raised his hand to box his captive's
ears. "I'll teach You manners, boy."
"Justin, wait," Philippe interrupted. It was impossible not
to feel sympathy for the child caught so helplessly in his
brother's grasp. "He's too small. Don't be a bully."
"How soft you are," Justin mocked, but his arm
lowered. "How do you suggest we make him talk? Dunk him in
"Maybe we shouldn't ... Philippe began, but his brother was
already heading to the edge of the water, dragging the
screaming child behind him.
"Are you aware there are snakes in here?" Justin said,
swinging the boy up, preparing to throw him in. "Poisonous
"And alligators, too, all waiting to snap up a little bite
like ... " His voice trailed off into silence as theboy's
floppy hat dropped into the bayou and drifted gently away.
A long, frizzled red braid swung over the child's shoulder,
her delicate features no longer concealed by the hat.
Their thief was a girl, a girl their age or perhaps a bit
older. She threw her Slim arms around Justin's neck,
clinging as if he held her over a pit of fire.
"Don't throw me in. le vous en prie. I can't swim."
Justin shifted her in his arms, staring down at the small,
dirty face so close to his. She looked like an ordinary
girl, pretty but not remarkably so, although it was
difficult to tell beneath the mud and mosquito
bites. "Well," Justin said slowly, "it seems we were
mistaken, Philippe." He shook the protesting girl to quiet
her. "Hush. I'm not going to throw you in. I think I can
find a better use for you."
"Justin, give her to me," Philippe said.
Justin smiled darkly and turned away from his brother. "Go
amuse yourself somewhere else. She's mine."
"She is just as much mine as yours!"
"I'm the one who caught her," Justin said matter-of-factly.
"With my help!" Philippe cried in outrage. "Besides, you
"You take Madeleine. I want this one."
Philippe scowled. "Let her choose!"
They stared at each other in challenge, and suddenly Justin
chuckled. "So be it," he said, his fierceness mellowing to
lazy good humor. He jostled the girl in his arms. "Well,
which one of us do you want?"