HE KNEW HE HAD TO leave. Watching his mother get repeatedly abused as
she begged him not to confront his stepfather left him no choice. He
wasn’t an adult yet, but now he had an adult decision to make.
Émile’s breathing became difficult, and his heart pounded frantically
as if it might escape his chest as the buckboard he sat on rolled slowly
out of town. He wanted to jump off the back of the wagon and run back
into his mother’s arms, but he knew he couldn’t go back. He tried to
show a brave face, but his tears flowed as soon as he looked away for
the last time. His mother stood waving, trying to smile courageously,
but the tears flowed from her eyes as well. She stood next to his
natural sister, Sara-Mae, and brother, Charles, and two other boys who
had come to the family when she married her second husband, Jacques. Her
face bore the marks of his violent hands. This same man, his stepfather,
stood behind her displaying an odd grin.
Émile had come home one day and found his mother with a black eye and
bruises on her face. “Mother, what happened?” he asked. His mother
began to cry. “I tripped and fell down. I hit the corner of the
table—it was an accident!” He instinctively knew what had happened.
His mother looked him in the eye. “Émile, don’t you say a thing to
Jacques! He is a good man, and I love him. He takes care of all of us. I
will be fine, don’t worry!”
Émile was torn about what to do, knowing his mother had been physically
hurt by his stepfather, a man she couldn’t stand up to. He immediately
felt like confronting Jacques, but what about the younger children in
the household? Would that put them at risk? What if there was a fight?
In the end, Émile did what his mother asked of him and bit his tongue,
but it tore at him inside.
His mother still loved this man who had hit her. How can this be? Émile
thought. His natural father, Henri, who had died of typhus four years
before was a loving husband and real father. Émile missed his real
father so much, especially now. He had owned a shop in town where he
made leather saddles and other goods. They were by no means rich, but
they had a good life.
His stepfather’s behavior ate at him inside, and it didn’t help when
a boy from school, Phillip Gillet, a large eleven-year-old who enjoyed
bullying those weaker, decided to challenge Émile’s courage. Émile
briefly became the class celebrity because of a prize he won for being
the best speller. Phillip Gillet didn’t take well to someone else
depriving him of attention he was used to from his classmates.
“You’ve got yourself a pretty ribbon from winning the spelling bee,
Deschampes. You fit right in with all the sissy’s now!” Phillip
laughed and pointed at Émile.
“Shut your mouth Phillip,” said Sara-Mae, who was also in the
“At least my brother can spell his own name!” she said.
“Yeah, I see. You’ve got your little sister sticking up for you,
Deschampes!” Phillip yelled.
Émile fumed. “She ain’t involved in this, Phillip. Leave her
He would not stand for Sara-Mae being mocked or hurt in any way.
“How sweet-two weaklings from the same family. They have to stick up
for each other.”
“Take that back, Phillip,” yelled Émile as he raised his fists and
got into a fighter’s stance. All his fury regarding his abusive
stepfather came to the forefront of his mind. He wasn’t able to defend
his mother, but he would defend Sara-Mae. Émile lunged at Phillip. He
grabbed him in a headlock before he could get out of the way. Émile
wanted to hurt the bully so much. Maybe it was really his stepfather
Jacques that Émile saw before him? All he knew was that he would
protect his little sister. His fist tried to land on Phillip’s face,
but the angle at which he held him was awkward.
“Don’t ever talk about my sister again! You understand?” Émile
growled more than spoke these words.
Phillip, who now seemed desperate to get away, cried, “I’m sorry. I
won’t ever! Let me go!”
Just then, the homeroom teacher came out to call the children back to
the classroom. She rang a bell in her hand to signal that recess was
over and afternoon classes would begin soon. The bell could be heard in
all directions—hundreds of yards away.
Émile, realizing the fight was over and he had stood up to the bully -
released Phillip, who ran to the schoolhouse. All the other kids
standing around, surprised and awed by Émile’s bravery, slowly began
to move back to the school as well.
Sara-Mae went up to her brother and took his hand. “Émile, are you
ok? I never saw you like that…I’ve never seen you so mad before.”
He looked in Sara-Mae’s eyes and patted the top of her head, careful
not to move the pretty blue ribbon in her blond, silky hair. She was the
only person in his life he felt he could really trust. And keeping her
trust meant everything to him then. As children growing up in an abusive
and confusing home environment, at least they had each other.
“Don’t worry…I’m fine,” he said.
They returned to their classroom, where Phillip Gillet had his head down
and was unusually quiet. He never bothered Émile or his sister again.
Six years later, at the age of fifteen, Émile decided that rather than
watch his stepfather continue to drink and cause havoc in the household,
it was time for him to leave Louisiana and go into the world to make his
way. But he had no idea what things looked like outside of the Avoyelles
Parish? The year was 1858.
Émile knew many of the people in the wagon train leaving town that day,
going to look for another start in life. They shared the same purpose.
He took off his hat and ran his hand through his thick wavy brown hair.
In a very short time his hair would turn darker. One of the passengers
who sat across from him was the uncle of a friend of his, named Edward.
Edwards wife had died earlier in the year, and Edward was on his way to
live with other family members in the Southwest.
“You gonna be all right, Émile?”
Émile nodded and looked away.
“First time from home, I’m sure,” said Edward.
Émile didn’t feel like talking, but to be polite, he said, “Yes,
I’m going to try and find work in the New Mexico Territory.”
“How old are you, son?”
“Fifteen…but I’ll be sixteen in two months.”
“Ah, I know how hard it is to leave your family. Unfortunately
there’s no way to dull the pain of leaving. But that just shows how
much you care about them. I did the same thing…I had to leave home as
a young boy. It worked out all right for me and I know it will for you
Excerpted from "The Deserving" by Efren O'brien. Copyright © 2017 by Efren O'brien. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.