The bittersweet Christmas soon faded in Herman’s mind as the months lengthened into years. Visits from Callie became less frequent because Uncle Calvin got a new job in Houston, and they moved from Texarkana. Of course, Callie and Herman exchanged easy lies about how Houston wasn’t that far away and they would see each other often. The truth was too painful. At least Tad didn’t wait for Callie to hug him this time, which made Herman feel a little bit better. But Tad was almost seventeen and far too old to act silly and stubborn around a sister he might never see again. Even papa broke away from his long, sorrowful stares across the prairie to give Callie a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek. He even shook Uncle Calvin’s hand and gave Aunt Joyce a shy hug.
“I’m sorry to take your girl away like this,” Uncle Calvin explained in a sad sort of way. “But they’re building like crazy down there and construction’s the ground floor job, if you know what I mean.”
“Sure, Calvin,” papa said as friendly as his continuing grief would allow him.
“It’s a risk, I know,” Aunt Joyce added, “but if Calvin can hit it big that’ll mean a better education for Callie and the boys.”
“Yes,” Uncle Calvin emphasized. “We’re not just looking after the girl but all the children. If I can help them get on better, I want to.”
Papa stiffened. “The boys will do all right.”
“Sure, I know they will,” Uncle Calvin said as an apology.
Then they were gone. Tad grumbled about how Uncle Calvin was acting uppity and that they didn’t need any help.
“Calvin’s a good man,” papa rasped. “He means good by us all.”
“Yes, papa,” Tad whispered.
Herman was confused and excited by what Uncle Calvin said. Up until now he had not given much thought about what was going to happen when he grew up. But he was eleven years old and such thoughts were creeping into his mind and scaring him.
“What will happen to me?” Herman asked Burly late that night.
“You’re going to grow up,” Burly said.
“But what will I be when I grow up?” Herman persisted.
“A man,” Burly replied.
“Whatever you become,” Burly interrupted him, “you will always be Herman. And being Herman is a wonderful thing.”
Herman hugged him. “Thank you, Burly.” He paused and noticed his bear’s little burlap face was turned down. “Are you sad, Burly?”
“I’ll never see my mother again,” Burly said.
“And I’ll never see my wife again,” Burly Senior whispered from across the room.
“Oh,” Herman replied as though suddenly realizing something. “You have lost your mother today and that makes you very sad. I didn’t think of that. All I could think of was my own problems. I’m sorry.”
“That’s all right,” Burly assured him. “Most people are like that. They never stop to look at things from the way other people look at them.”
“But you’re better than most,” Burly Senior added. “In fact, you’re doing a pretty good job at seeing the world as your father and your brother see it.”
Herman sighed. “Sometimes I wonder if I do. I don’t really know how Tad feels most of the time.”
“Take it from me,” Burly Senior offered. “He’s very sad. A very lonely, scared little boy he is.”
“How can you tell?” Herman asked.
“By the way he is squeezing me right now.”
When spring came and the wildflowers were coloring the hills everywhere, Herman noticed Tad seemed happier and spent less time home after all his chores were done. He was beginning to have friends. Herman was happy for him, for he still didn’t have many children from his class who were his friends so he knew how Tad felt.
“Don’t worry,” Burly said one afternoon after Tad had run off to play with his new buddies. “Someday you will have boys your age to be your friends.”
“But why don’t they like me now?” Herman asked.
“I like you now,” Burly replied.
Herman smiled and hugged his little burlap friend. “I know you do, but what can I do to make the boys at school like me?”
“If you have to do anything to make them like you then they aren’t really going to be your friends anyway.”
Sighing, Herman gave Burly another hug. After school was out for the summer, Herman changed his mind about Tad’s friends because they began to spend more time at the farm and Herman saw what they were really like. One of them, a tall, stringy-looking boy with lots of freckles and straw-like hair, liked to tease Herman for being too short and not being able to run very fast or play baseball very well. He made Herman feel like he was dumb sometimes when he would pull a mean trick on him. His name was Leonard. The other boy, Stevie, was shorter than Tad but bigger and broader. He sulked about all the time and didn’t say much, except an occasional threatening grunt. Steve always looked at Herman as though he would like to beat him up. Of course, both boys would straighten and be polite when papa walked by. Papa may have been skinny but he was strong and he acted like he might explode into a violent temper tantrum at any moment.
Late one afternoon in the loft Herman was having a nice long talk with the two bears when he heard the front door open. “Uh oh. Tad’s brought Leonard and Stevie home with him again.”
“Don’t get upset before they even say anything,” Burly Senior told him.
“Who knows?” Burly added. “They might even be nice to you today.”
By that time the three teen-aged boys were climbing the ladder, giggling poking at each other. They stopped short when they saw Herman.
“You here?” Stevie growled.
Leonard walked over and poked Herman in the shoulder. “Don’t you know? He’s always here because he’s too weird for the other kids to play with.”
Stevie glared at Herman, his hands stuck in his pockets. “Doesn’t he have chores?”
“I did my chores,” Herman replied, looking out the window.
“Then go find papa and ask him to give you something to do,” Tad ordered. “Get out of here. We want to talk.”
Leonard picked up Burly’s red wooden car and examined it. “What’s this?”
Tad glanced at Herman. “Just one of Herman’s toys.”
Laughing, Leonard ran its wheels on the floor. “Hey look! A smash up!” Then he ran the car into the side of the wall, causing it to splinter into small pieces.
Herman twitched but said nothing.
“Leonard, you’re such a jerk,” Tad spat.
His friend shrugged. “Big deal.”
Herman jumped off the bed and headed toward the ladder with Burly under his arm.
“Boy, you don’t go nowhere without that bear stuck under your arm, do you?” Leonard sneered.
“How old is he?” Stevie asked Tad.
Tad shifted uneasily on his bed. “Heck, I don’t know.”
Leonard leaned down into Herman’s face and smiled a stupid grin. “Just how old is the eety-bitty boy?”
Herman felt his neck turn red hot. “Eleven.”
“Don’t you think that’s a little old for you to be carrying around a doll?” Stevie asked.
“Burly’s not a doll,” Herman corrected him. “He’s a bear.”
“Ooh, that’s a big difference,” Leonard said with a snort. “No wonder no decent kid will play with you. You’re still a baby with his dollie.”
“Stop it, Leonard,” Tad ordered.
Leonard looked around at Tad who was glaring at him. After a while Leonard walked over to the bed and picked up Burly Senior. “You might as will take your other dollie, too.”
Without thinking, Herman blurted out, “Oh no, that’s Tad’s.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth Herman knew he had made a mistake. He looked quickly at Tad who instantly turned a bright shade of red.
Leonard smiled broadly. “You mean little Taddie Waddie sleeps with a dollie?”
Stevie grinned but didn’t say anything, only snorted. Before anyone could say more Herman scurried down the ladder and out the front door. Herman ran to the barn and hid in the farthest, most dimly lit corner. “Oh, why was I so stupid?” he berated himself.
“You weren’t being stupid,” Burly corrected. “You were being honest. That’s what you are.”
“But I shouldn’t have said that in front of Tad’s friends,” Herman continued. “Did you see how red he was? Those boys are really going to make fun of him. And then he’s going to let me have it.”
“Yes, Tad did look embarrassed,” Burly agreed. “And his friends will probably tease him. And there’s a good chance he will fuss at you. But you know what? After it’s all over, you’ll still be Herman and Tad will be Tad. You’ll go on letting the truth tumble out of your mouth. And Tad will get mad too easily. But you will keep on living.”
Herman looked down at the dirt. “I guess so.”
In a few minutes Herman heard the three boys leave the house and run down the road. Then her remembered it was his turn to cook supper that night. Herman ran into the house, put Burly up in the loft and rushed around the kitchen getting the food ready. At supper Herman watched Tad out of the corner of his eye. He half-way expected Tad to get even by complaining about the food, but he didn’t.
“Good vittles, son,” papa mumbled.
“Yeah, not bad,” Tad added.
Again Herman tried to tell by Tad’s voice if he were angry. He didn’t sound angry, but his voice didn’t sound normal either. Herman couldn’t figure it out. After they ate, Tad helped wash and dry the dishes. He was strangely polite but seemed to be somewhere else, somewhere very sad. “Thank you for helping with the dishes,” Herman said.
Tad walked away without looking at him. “Think nothing of it, kid.”
That night, when all was quiet, Herman roused Burly. “I don’t understand what’s the matter with Tad. I thought he was going to be mad at me.”
Burly stifled a yawn. “That surprised me too. Maybe papa can help us figure it out. I think he knows more about Tad than either of us.” He waited a moment, then whispered, “Papa?”
There was no reply.
“Papa?” Burly repeated.
Only silence answered him.
“That’s strange,” Burly said. “Papa always joins in on talks.”
“Let me see if he’s over there.” Herman slipped from the bed and tiptoed over to Tad’s bed. As well as he could see in the dark, Herman couldn’t find Burly Senior. Usually he was tight within Tad’s arms close to his chest, but not tonight. Herman got back into his bed. “He’s not there.”
The two of them decided to look for him the next day after helping papa in the fields. In the morning Herman left Burly in the loft as he always did and went to the cotton field with papa and Tad. The hours went by slowly as he hoed the weeds away. Later that afternoon papa walked by.
“That’s all for today,” he said and kept on walking.
Herman scampered back to the house and got Burly. First they looked under Tad’s bed, thinking Burly Senior might have slipped under there. Then they looked in the big old trunk at the end of the room where mama and papa kept special things, like stacks of old letters tied with pink string, the dress mama was married in and yellowed photographs of stern, erect people Herman didn’t know. Burly Senior wasn’t there either. “There’s only one thing left to do,” Herman said with a sigh. “That’s to ask Tad.”
“You’re very brave to do that,” Burly replied. “Will you ask him after supper tonight?”
“No,” Herman answered as he carried Burly down the ladder. “I’m going to ask him now.”
They went down the dirt road toward the field but stopped abruptly when Burly gasped, “Oh no!”
Down on the ground, in a trench was a mass of torn burlap. Down feathers, wadded up for stuffing was strewn everywhere. And a burlap ball, with buttons sewn on it, was smashed flat.
“Papa,” Burly whispered.
Herman kneeled down by the remains of Burly Senior. He picked up the different pieces, a torn patch that was his chest, little puffs that were his arms and legs, and the flattened ball that was his head. He whispered to them, cried over them, but they were just pieces of burlap now. The life was out of them, stomped out.
“Did Tad do this to my papa?” Burly asked.
“Yes. Or he stood by and watched Leonard and Stevie do it,” Herman said, trying to hold back the tears. He looked down the road at the field. “I’m going to let him have it for this.”
“No,” Burly ordered. “You can’t say anything.”
“Because papa belonged to Tad,” Burly explained with difficulty. “Even though he was my papa and he was your friend, he belonged to Tad. And Tad could do anything he wanted to with him.”
Herman glared down the road a moment and sighed. “I suppose you’re right.” Then they silently walked home. Supper went silently too. Herman could tell Tad was avoiding looking at him. Now he knew why Tad was strangely polite and quietly sad. Tad knew what he had done and he couldn’t face Herman. That night Herman couldn’t sleep. He kept seeing Burly Senior smashed on the side of the road, never to speak to him again or give him wonderful advice.
“Oh Burly,” Herman asked wistfully. “Why did Tad do it?”
“Tad’s growing up. Maybe he thought papa was holding him back in childhood, that really grown up boys don’t hug a bear at night.”
“That’s stupid,” Herman said, spitting the words out.
“No,” Burly corrected him. “That’s human.” He paused and snuggled close to Herman. “When it comes time for you to grow up, you won’t do that to me, will you?”
Herman sat up. “No sir, Burly. You’ll always be with me. If doing without you means growing up, then I won’t grow up!”
“Oh no, you’ve got to grow up,” Burly said. “I want you to grow up. It’s just that I’m scared about what’s going to happen to me.”
Herman hugged Burly tightly. “Don’t worry. You’ll always be with me.”
But Burly wondered, as Herman fell into a deep sleep, if his friend would be able to keep his promise.