The childish taunts still rang in Ezra’s ears as he stepped inside the store.
Sissy boy, go home to your mama where you belong!
Rage willed in the child’s heart. The only reason he hadn’t hit back was the taunter was younger.
“Ezra!” Matthew gasped as he handed him a rag. “What happened?”
Ezra wiped the mud off his face. “Billy Travis,” he growled. “This is the second time he’s done this to me.” Emerald eyes flashed. “There’ll not be a third.”
“What are we gonna do, Ez?”
“I don’t know yet, Matt,” Ezra sighed. “But I’ll think of something.”
“I can't believe you did that!” Ezra laughed as the boys entered the jail. “I can not believe you did that!”
Beside him, Matthew grinned and preened just a little. “It was nothing.”
“Nothing, the man says. Nothing. He pulls off one of the most incredible, most bold acts of friendship I have ever seen and he calls it nothing!”
“What did you do, Matt?” Nathan asked, then whistled as he saw the Potter boy's blackened eye and bleeding lip. “Matt, what happened?”
Ezra cut in. “Billy Travis took a swing at me – and Matt took the beating for me!”
A month later, Matt had come down with a bad case of measles. Ezra was banned from seeing him for the duration – ten days to two weeks, just to make absolutely sure. The friends communicated by notes and things seemed to be well.
But the Travis boy's bullying stepped up now that Ezra was alone. And it kept ramping up and ramping up – until it came to a head one beautiful Spring day.
Two horrified cries of two names split the late afternoon air.
Chris grabbed collars and forcibly pulled the fighters apart, shaking each gently as punches continued to be thrown. “THAT’S ENOUGH, THE BOTH OF YOU!”
In a swirl of skirts, Mary Travis embraced her son, who smirked over his shoulder at the slightly older boy.
Vin crouched by his son, eyes inspecting the damage. Satisfied Ezra could see and putting the worries about scarring aside for now, Vin stood and put a hand on Ezra’s shoulder. “Okay, boys,” he demanded. “What’s goin’ on here?”
Two sets of green eyes bored hatefully into each other. Twin fingers shot out and two voices snarled together, “He started it!”
“All right, “Chris growled as he and Vin held the combatants apart. “what is this about?”
Ezra jabbed a shaking finger at Billy. “He called Lily a whore!”
Both men’s eyes narrowed. “Lily” was Li Pong, a Chinese laundry worker who had befriended Ezra.
“I did not!” Billy shot back.
Ezra blinked. “You…didn’t? Oh…I thought you said—“
“I called her what she is – a slit-eyed, stupid yellow whore! Get it right, willya?”
Ezra snarled. He ripped free from Vin’s hold and tore Billy from Mary’s as he tackled the larger boy, sending them both to the dirt.
Mary ran over to Chris. “Chris, make them stop!”
Chris smiled coldly at her. “Not this time, Mary.”
It was Vin that stepped into the fray this time. He latched his hands around Ezra's waist and pulled him off of Billy.
But Ezra was mid-punch and could not check it. It went wild and hit Vin on the jaw.
Ezra froze. “Oh, no...”
Vin shook his head. “I'm fine, son. Let's go cool off.”
As Vin led Ezra away, Chris stepped in front of Billy, who had retreated back to his mother's arms. His eyes locked onto Mary. “You heard what he called Lily,” he said, his voice the dangerously soft drawl that had had many a miscreant peeing their pants. “She did nothin' wrong – except be friends with Ezra. Your boy batters Ezra with words every single day.” His chin rose. “Quit protectin' him, Mary.”
Mary stiffened. “What are you saying, Mister Larabee?”
Chris’s lip curled. “I am saying, Mrs Travis, that your boy is a bully that’s so full of hate he can’t see the good in people – let alone a boy who’s just a little different than he is.”
JD put in from the jail porch, “Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, ma’am?”
“You’re not helpin’,” Buck muttered, and JD shrugged.
Mary’s jaw set and her chin rose. “We’ll talk about this later, Mister Larabee.”
Chris met her eyes. “No, Mary. We won’t. He’s your son. You get him in check, or you get outta town. That’s all there is to it. Good day.”
And with that, he turned and pointedly walked away.
Ezra flinched as the wet rag touched his wound. “Is it going to scar?” he asked shakily.
“I don’t know.” Vin wrung it out and reapplied it to his son’s eye. “Wouldn’t matter if it did.” At the boy’s incredulous look, he smiled. “A scar earned in honour is to be worn proudly.”
“Who said that?” Ezra asked, frowning.
Vin said a typical tongue-twister of a name in one of the Native tongues he knew. “My adopted mother,” he explained.
Ezra slowly nodded. “So…if this scarred…. Because I was battling for Lily’s honour…”
“Yes, son. It would be a mark of pride and of honour. For you and for Lily.” He wrung the rag out again, and blinked in surprise when Ezra’s hand encircled his wrist, stilling the motion.
The boy’s eyes met his. Vin’s breath caught involuntarily as he saw the look of fierce pride in the emerald depths. “Pa,” he said, his voice soft but firm.
“Let it scar.”
Mary sat Billy down and glared into his eyes. “Billy Travis,” she chided. “Did you mean to say those terrible things about Li Pong?”
Billy shook his head, looking at her like she'd gone mad. “What terrible things? All that I said was true!”
Mary's eyes narrowed. “And who taught you that?”
Mary sighed, her shoulders slumping. “Conklin,” she muttered. She glared at her son, realising the others had been exactly right.
Billy was full of anger and hate – and taking it all out on Ezra Tanner. Just because Ezra was a little different.
She stood. “Billy – son – we both need help.”
Nathan frowned slightly. “Hey, Vin. Come here.”
Vin stood up and walked to the window. He frowned slightly. “Huh. Well, there’s somethin’ you don’t see every day.”
Ezra joined his father by the window, sneaking his small hand into Vin’s. Nathan stood aside, making room for the child.
On the street, Mary and Chris were talking animatedly, and Mary was crying. At last, Chris walked away from her, making his way toward the clinic.
Vin and Ezra met him on the sidewalk. “Well?” Vin demanded.
“She’s wired the Judge,” Chris reported. “This time the boy went too far. They’re going to decide what to do about Billy.”
Ezra looked up at him, stunned. “About…Billy?”
“Yeah, Ezra,” Chris smiled gently. “It’s Billy who’s in the wrong here, and it’s Billy who will be taken care of.”
Ezra’s eyes were worried. “But it’s Billy who’s the Judge’s grandson, Mister Larabee. It’s not hard to see whose side the Judge is going to take.”
Three days later, the stage rolled into Four Corners. Five of the six Regulators were waiting.
At the last possible moment, Vin arrived with Ezra clinging to his hand. “And where have you been?” Chris grinned at them.
“Ezra forgot his jacket,” Vin answered. He met Chris’s eyes and whispered, “He’s so nervous that he’s gone back to ‘appearances are everything’.”
“Shit,” Chris breathed as he took in the nattily-dressed boy who only had eyes for the stage.
Orrin Travis walked out of the stage. One look at the boy trying to be grown-up and perfect – but clinging to Vin’s hand like a lifeline – and he sighed. He walked over and looked down at the boy. “You must be Ezra.”
“Yes, sir.” The boy’s eyes were large, but his voice was shockingly steady.
Travis smiled slightly. “I’m here to find the truth behind what happened. And I’ll go with whatever the truth reveals.” He nodded, thinking that settled it, and headed to the boarding house.
Ezra sighed, his shoulders slumping.
“What is it?” Vin asked him.
“Now I know he’ll not listen to me,” Ezra sighed. “Truth is a code word that adults use when they’ve already made up their minds.”
And all six adults flinched.
Inez sat down across from the brooding judge. “You look troubled, Seńor.”
“I’ve a lot on my mind, Miss Recilios.”
She nodded slowly. “Ezra and Billy.” At his startled look, she smiled. “You have a grandson who happens to be a bully—“
”—who has been accused of being a bully.”
“I have seen his treatment with my own eyes, Seńor. He happens to be a bully. And then there is a boy – near the same age – who has been bullied and who fears you will not let justice prevail for him because that bully is your grandson.”
He tilted his head. “And the only way I know to get the facts out is in a courtroom session…”
“…which might frighten the children more. No matter what, a child is going to be hurt. Am I right?”
Travis sighed, nodding as his body sagged slightly. “I’m getting too old for this, Miss Recilios.”
“Would it be easier if the boy in question was not your grandson?”
“I think it would, yes.”
“Then try not to see him as your grandson. Try to see him as an angry little boy. Because that is what he is, Seńor. A very angry little boy.”
Travis slumped into the chair by the window in his room and considered what he’d heard. He was troubled by what he’d heard right there in his room.
One by one, he’d listened to their stories. Mary had wept telling what she’d seen. He’d had to order Chris to go walk the hallways for a few moments when the man’s formidable anger started to bleed into his voice. Vin’s soft words belied a father’s fury at watching his son being beaten up.
He’d listened to Ezra for a full two minutes before telling him, “I’m a plain man, son. I want the plain truth from you.”
And Ezra had clammed up completely. Some gentle coaxing from the masterful lawyer he still was, and the child’s impression about the judge came out.
Grunting with the pain in his arthritic knee, Travis had crouched down and looked up into the boy’s eyes. “Whoever fed you that line about the truth was full of it,” he growled. “And since I know her, I’d wager it was Maude.” Ezra had flinched, and Travis did something he’d never done to a child he was questioning before.
He enfolded the boy in a warm hug. He’d smiled when the child’s trembling arms went around him awkwardly. Ending the embrace, he’d eased back into the chair and said, “Now. The plain truth. Tell me exactly what happened as it happened.”
And he’d been horrified at what he’d heard.
And now, as he sat there pondering the evidence – he snorted at his own thoughts. Like the boys were on trial….well, in a way, he supposed they were. Looking back over it, out of everyone he’d interviewed who’d been there and knew all the background, only one story was radically different from the rest.
He stood up, grabbing his coat as a decision was reached. He walked into the saloon, where he’d asked everyone to wait, and sat down at one of the poker tables, turning his chair to face them all.
“I’ve made my decision,” he said. “Billy. You are my grandson. And I will always love you.”
Billy preened and Ezra’s head lowered.
“But,” Travis went on, “I have never been as ashamed of anyone in my life as I am of you right now.”
Ezra’s head snapped up, his eyes huge. Vin and Chris shared a smile. Billy looked like he’d been slapped, the grin slowly draining away as Mary buried her expression in a handkerchief.
“Pack your bags, son,” Travis said as he stood up. “You’re leaving with me in the morning.” Billy opened his mouth, and Travis held up a hand. “That’s final, Billy.” He turned and left the saloon.
Mary pulled Billy out by his arm, the young bully screaming at her the entire way.
Ezra blinked, startled beyond words. “…..Pa?” he whispered, sneaking his hand into Vin’s. “…..what just happened here?”
And Vin laughed as he gathered his son close.
Ezra came from his bedroom, groggy from a night of no sleep. Vin watched his son weave for a bit, and asked, “No sleep at all?”
Shooting a rueful smile at him, Ezra shook his head.
Vin held out his arms and Ezra walked unhesitatingly into them. He rocked the boy for a moment before asking, “Ya worried the Judge’ll change his mind?”
Sighing, Ezra replied softly, “It wouldn’t be the first time someone in power has altered their decision at the last moment to my detriment.”
Blue eyes closed and Vin grimaced out of Ezra’s line of sight. “Yeah, you’re tired an’ worried. The dictionary’s back.” When Ezra chuckled, Vin broke the embrace and tilted Ezra’s face up so he could look into the tired green eyes. “Ain’t mad at you, son. Mad at those….”
“Cretins?” Ezra supplied helpfully, and Vin smiled.
“Stronger – but don’t say it.”
Ezra nodded. “It’ll help once I see the Judge and Billy board the stagecoach and ride away.”
“Well, then!” Vin grinned. “Get dressed, let’s go beg some breakfast from Inez, and go pay our farewells!”
“Tender our farewells, Pa,” Ezra laughed. “Or pay our respects.”
“Either one,” Vin laughed as well. “Now hop to!”
Two hours later, six men and one little boy stood side by side and watched as Mary embraced her only child. Said only child shot Ezra a very dirty look and an even uglier hand gesture before he boarded the stage.
The Judge’s response was instant – a hearty slap to the back of the head. He was fixed with the same look, and gave one of his own to the rebellious boy. Billy swallowed hard, released the dirty look, and finished the short climb up the stairs.
Travis touched his hatbrim to the assembled Regulators and Ezra, before climbing the stairs himself.
Ezra held himself stiffly until the stage was out of sight. Then he released his breath with a ‘whoosh’ and his shoulders slumped slightly.
It was over. It was finally over.
Giving his father a hug, he made his way to the General Store and up the stairs behind it – going to see if today was the day Matthew was sprung from his sickbed.
Less than an hour later, the streets of Four Corners rang with a sound missing for far too long – the screaming laughter of Ezra Tanner and Matthew Potter at carefree, happy play.
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