Ralph and his family lived in a little town by the Susquehanna River. The river was a grand and exciting place and Ralph loved to go down to its banks whenever he had time to spare. Sometimes he would take his boat, the Merry Marmot, tied to a long string, and set her sailing in the swirling gray water of the river. Sometimes he would take Leona, who loved to ride the boat on fresh, breezy days when small brisk waves would send the Merry Marmot hopping along their little crests. Sometimes Ralph would just take himself to the river, and sit on a log or stump near the river bank and watch the current flowing with broad and stately power, while the clouds looked down sedately from their fluffy height. He liked to look at the islands in the middle of the river when the day was clear and imagine what lived on them. He knew that white egrets, starlings and sparrows sometimes sheltered there. He liked to imagine that pirates did also. The state police patrolling the nearby city would never allow pirates on the river, and he never saw any pirate ships, but that made imagining that they were there all the more interesting.
If there were no pirate boats, there were still plenty of other boats buzzing past on the river, casting up shiny curls of water in their wakes and making the river edges go slap-slap-slap against the mud. Ralph liked to watch the fast ones – and the slow ones too. It was easier to read the names on the slow ones. He kept a list of the boat names he saw on the river and he knew all of the familiar ones by heart. Every Sunday afternoon in summer, the Watson’s would go out on their Silver Schooner with different groups of friends. One time, Ralph had seen them with a family of six children on board, and all the children had waved at him, floating the Merry Marmot near the bank. He had waved back.
Now the sun was dropping low in the west as Ralph hopped off the edge of the last street at the edge of town and ran down the gravelly dirt slope to the river bank. Sunsets were later in the day now as spring stretched its larger, warmer days across the country, and Ralph enjoyed being able to go down to the river after supper once again. It was a still and quiet Saturday evening with hardly a ripple showing on the river. The gentle swell from a distant speedboat waved the surface momentarily and was gone. A flock of starlings was rising over the mirror-like surface of the water, curling upward, flashing black against hazy gold sky, then swooping downward to scatter themselves over a tree top on one of the river islands. Ralph could hear their squeaking chatter floating over the water. It was beautiful to watch the starlings in flight - sometimes hundreds of them would fly in a group, all pointing in the same direction, turning, dipping, rising and falling in perfect unity as if they were tied together by invisible strings. How did they know?
The sound of boys laughing echoed off of the buildings along the street above the river. It was not the nicest laughter - it sounded as if mischief were underway. Ralph heard the sound of feet running with the laughter nearer.
“Yiy! - almost got that one” shouted one.
“Almost? You missed by ten feet, at least” the other shouted back.
The running stopped and Ralph turned to see the two boys, several yards off, bending in the gravel bank to look for stones. He knew what they were doing - throwing stones at birds and squirrels again. The boys lived on the next block and had recently taken a fancy to testing their throwing abilities on wild animals . It was, perhaps, a good test of aim and skill, but they showed no pity to the few creatures they managed to hit down, leaving them to a crippled life or a slow death and it made Ralph angry to see them at it again. He couldn’t do anything about it just now, so he kept quiet and watched. Another group of starlings was heading out of town toward the river island and the boys began to throw stones, one after another, from their collected arsenals of gravel. The birds rose higher as they saw the stones flying toward them, but one tumbled back in the air, hit by a stone. It tried to fly on, limply, but coasted ever lower and lower until it fell helplessly in the river, flapping its wings and sending sorrowful little splashes outward. Ralph jumped up, wishing he could help the poor creature, but it was too far out in the deep water. He turned to the boys who were hooting and punching each other in the arms, and walked toward them. “What are you doing?” he said, trying to be calm. “You just ruined that bird’s life for no good reason.”The boys looked at each other and laughed. “Ooh, it’s Mr. Forest Ranger, out to save the little animals.”
“You didn’t answer my question” Ralph replied, starting to feel hot by his ears.
“We’re practicing our aim” said one of them. “Moving targets, you know.”
“Don’t you think you’re going to answer to God for what you did with his animals?” Ralph said, his heart pounding. “I’d call that cruelty. You didn’t need that bird - just killed it for your own fun and made it suffer.”
“Whoa - okay, guy,” said the other boy. “It was just a starling.”
“I know,” said Ralph. “But it’s the principle of the thing. You know, principles are important. By the way, my name is Ralph.” He put out his hand.
“Ned” said the taller one, slowly reaching out to shake hands. The shorter, freckled one, shoved his hands in his pockets, “I’m Eric” he said.
“Glad to meet you,” said Ralph. “I like birds and animals, but I like people too. No hard feelings?”
“Sure” they said, looking rather relieved and turned to leave.
“See ya round” Ralph called after them.
Then they were gone, leaving Ralph to watch the sunset, which had by now dimmed to a dull yellowish gray, with only a hint of gold where the sun sat behind the clouds at the horizon. The starlings had begun to grow quiet and the smooth, shining river glowed like damp silver under the darkening sky. Tomorrow, Ralph thought, there would be rain.