Billy Travis – or Bill, as the 14 year old like to call himself now – stepped off the stage at Four Corners and looked around at the growing town. The store had grown, there were new buildings and a larger restaurant.
Then he only had eyes for his mother, who was scooping him into her arms for a hug. "Welcome home," she smiled.
"It's only for a few days," Bill laughed.
"But still. How tall you've grown!"
He rolled his eyes, but let her fuss. As she did, he scanned the streets – and there was a blond boy in rich clothing leaning against one of the boardwalk supports watching him with a gaze that could only be called wary watchfulness. As their eyes met, a black-haired boy --- tall and stocky and in overalls --- walked up and stood beside him like they were old friends.
And all Bill could think of was Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner and the gaze they'd give criminals who dared come to town. But these boys were his age or slightly older --- and he'd never met them before in his life!
But then his mother was leading him away, and he soon forgot the strange look.
"Is that him?" Junior asked as he walked up beside Brian.
"That's him," Brian answered. "Just as Ezra described him --- and that was Miss Travis fawning over him."
"Think we best tell the others."
Brian nodded and pushed off the pole, following the blacksmith's son toward Potter's Mercantile.
Behind the store, they found Ezra and Matt trying to teach Chanu how to play naughts-and-crosses while Rafe and Lizzie looked on with fond smiles. Junior cleared his throat, and the three boys stood, all smiles fading. "We heard the stage," Chanu said.
"It was Billy Travis, all right," Brian said.
Ezra closed his eyes, one hand going to the faint scar over his eyebrow that remained after the spectacular fight and subsequent "trial" that had led to Billy leaving town in the first place.
"It's only for a few days," Lizzie said. "And you've got us now."
"I know," Ezra smiled at them all. "And you're the best friends anyone could have. It's just...." He shivered. "Seeing him here brings it all back."
Rafe cracked his knuckles. "You want us to beat him up?"
"Down, boy!" Matt laughed, and so did Rafe. The sudden tension was broken.
"I think we should do like Pa and his companions do," Ezra said. "Keep a wary eye on him. If he causes any trouble --- deal with it."
They all nodded. The Six took care of the town proper --- bank robbers and murderers and land barons and the like.
But the newly formed Clan of Seven protected the town as well. They protected the children and took care of the minor annoyances.
And if the Six had any idea of what the kids were doing --- they never let on.
It had been a tense visit. Bill was trying to be more understanding, but he still flipped out at anything very different.
"I've had an Indian following me around for two days!" he snarled at his mother. "And every person my age I see scowls at me like I'm poison! Here I am, trying to make a fresh start, and I get this!"
"I think," his mother said softly, "perhaps your fresh start would be better off made somewhere else. There's so much bad blood between you and the young people of this town that I don't think you'll be given a fair chance here."
"Bad blood?" Bill gasped. "What bad blood? The only one I ever had trouble with was Ezra Tanner, and Lord, was that trouble!"
The stage rolled up and Bill walked out to meet it. As the passengers disembarked, he saw the Six watching from vantage points, making sure their town was safe.
Bill got onto the stage and looked out the other window --- and his heart clenched.
Six young men stood at various other vantage points, watching him leave. One of them was Ezra Tanner. As he watched, a young lady in trousers walked up to stand beside Ezra – and he realised that was Lizzie Potter, growing up nicely.
But she was looking at him the same way as the boys. As an equal.
Bill swallowed hard as the stage began to roll away and the enormity of what he'd seen hit him.
Twelve protectors for one town. Thirteen if you counted the girl.
His mother had been right. Four Corners was not home for him any longer.
Best to make his fresh start somewhere else.