Note: Thanks to NT for her as usual great betaing
Note: Thanks to Heather F. for her help and insight.
Note: Inspired by recent visit to our fair.
Disclaimer: Not mine and never will be
The large yard in front of the old wooden farmhouse was busy with activity. Buck and Chris had both their trucks hitched to the long stock trailers. Chris had backed his up to the loading chute, where he and Buck were loading their best Hereford cows, one of their prime Angus steers and Ezra’s calf into the beat-up, old, rusty, trailer. Nathan was tying their lead ropes into place, so the bovines would be less jostled on the road trip.
Buck had backed the other, slightly newer trailer up to the holding pens, where Ezra and JD were helping Vin load his Boer goats. Nathan had decided his obligations during his senior year were too heavy to participate and Josiah knew, with his workload, it was impossible for him to try.
Since the number of entries and different kinds of animals had expanded over recent years, the fair committee had divided the showings into halves. Friday night to the following Wednesday morning would showcase cattle and goats. Wednesday afternoon to the following Saturday night would highlight the lambs, sheep and pigs. The second half of the fair, Vin was showing his white Hampshire pig and JD had a Suffolk lamb. It was the kind everyone thought of when they thought of sheep, white wool with a black face and black feet. Buck and Chris were showing a different breed of sheep: Columbias. They had wool on their faces and all the way down their legs, where no normal sheep did.
Since the fair was being held in the city of Ridge City; Four Corners, like many other surrounding small communities, who had almost half of their student body showing animals in the fair, had let out early for the kids. Josiah still had to work the rest of the day and would meet up with the rest of his brothers later at the fairgrounds. In a bigger school district it might have been a problem, having three of the school-age kids miss school the following week, but a concession had been made by the school officials. Any student may miss days and have them excused as long as the school received an official paper from a judge, stating the child was at the fair showing their animal.
At first, the three oldest had debated whether or not to let Vin and Ezra show animals. Ezra, even though he didn’t let it show, had serious self-esteem issues. If his animal didn’t win first place, the boys knew from the previous year that Ezra would take it as a personal showing of his worth. They had yet to convince the fourteen-year-old that he didn’t need to be first place, perfect, or perform everything right in order to be accepted. Since their father had passed away, they weren’t exactly sure how Ezra would respond to the fair. Ezra had shown last year for the first time. This year would be different without Bobby. In the end, Ezra’s actions had helped them decide to let him show.
As for Vin, Josiah worried about letting the boy miss so much school. The twelve-year-old struggled as it was without missing two days. Josiah had uneasily suggested Ezra show Vin’s pig, and that way Vin would only miss one day. Chris and Buck had argued that Vin could do with a little confidence. Josiah was puzzled how showing animals would help Vin’s confidence, especially if the child lost. Chris was quick to point out that, while Vin struggled with schoolwork, animals he knew. Plus, Vin had been solely responsible for his animals and it was only right he got to show it, himself. They also pointed out that such a move could make both younger brothers resentful of him and each other. Frankly, Chris wasn’t so sure Josiah could talk Ezra into showing Vin’s pig for him, though the blond figured it would be worth money to see. They had also used the argument that Josiah and their parents had used themselves: an animal could be more therapeutic for a person than the best psychologist. There was something about God’s creatures that healed a wounded spirit. In the end Josiah capitulated and agreed Vin could miss both days on the condition Chris saw that he did his schoolwork.
Once the animals were loaded, the boys divided among the trucks. Chris and Nathan climbed into Chris’ black Dodge four door while Ezra hung back to see where the two youngest landed and breathed a sigh of relief when both got into Buck’s red Ford 150. The fourteen-year-old then climbed into the back seat of Chris’ truck with his backpack he’d retrieved from the house. He wasn’t a naturally studious person, but he hated not being ahead of the class. He had decided he would get Monday’s class work out of the way so he wouldn’t have to do it later.
Chris and Nathan talked quietly in front. Both consciously kept their voices down so as not to bother their younger brother. In the following truck, Buck listened as the two boys talked about the fair and showing their animals. The older brother grinned to himself as Vin’s voice rose in excitement. It was seldom that the twelve-year-old got excited about anything. Buck figured it was because the boy had learned the hard way in all those foster homes to keep his emotions contained. Now that the boy had accepted he was finally in a home for good, he was learning to let out his emotions. Buck knew they had made the right decision in letting Vin show his own animals. The hour drive to Ridge City went by fairly fast for Buck as he listened to the two boys talk.
Chris pulled up to the outside gate at the fairgrounds and showed the guy on duty his pass. The man waved the two trucks through and Chris led the way to the massive, metal, livestock barn. Buck let his truck idle while Chris backed his trailer into the end barn door. Vin and JD got out to help Ezra and Nathan herd the cattle to their reserved site. After the cattle were unloaded, Chris pulled out and Buck pulled in. The goats were then led to the spot in a separate part of the barn. Once the animals were secure, Chris and Buck drove their trailers over to the specified parking lot across the street and then drove back to the grounds. They would be leaving the trailers parked until Wednesday, like all the others. Driving down a parking lane, Buck noticed Josiah pulling into the parking lot. The three brothers met up at the gate before heading to the barn.
Meanwhile, Nathan had helped the others to lay out feed and water for all the animals. By the time Chris, Buck and Josiah got back, all the chores were almost finished. Together they went to register the animals and get their general schedule for the judging that also listed the name of the judges for that event. After that was taken care of, the oldest three went to find the barn manager in the cattle section.
The barn manager was a not a glorified job by any stretch of the imagination. Every year a different rancher would take the job. As manager, the man would be in their particular section of the barn every day during their part of the week and made sure the animals got to where they were suppose to be, handled any problems that arose, answered questions, kept people informed of changes, looked after the animals and made sure visitor’s didn’t mess with or agitate the animals. Some grownups were worse than little kids about this. The manager was hardly ever alone in this job, though, because most people showing their animals came everyday anyway. As the three oldest stood around and talked with the manager and other ranchers, Vin went back to his goat’s pen. JD asked and received permission to go hang out with the other kids his age. This consisted mostly of running around and playing tag in the big, sawdust strewn show pen that wouldn’t be used until the next day. Each boy knew better than to run and scream where the animals were housed. Ezra went back to watch his calf. He didn’t like the idea of leaving it alone overnight. Nathan walked up behind him and gently said, “He looks real good, Ez.”
“Thanks,” Ezra replied softly as well.
This was only the second time he had done this. The first year he had been with Bobby and Janis, he hadn’t wanted to be involved with the animals at all. He had figured his stay was going to be short term, why get attached? Last year, though, Bobby had talked him into showing a lamb. Bobby had explained every step far in advance, having learned from the older boys how much some children hated not knowing what was coming. A year had passed, and in that time Bobby and Janis had been ripped away from him, like everything else he had liked in life, leaving him alone and floundering again. Except he had just begun realizing he wasn’t alone, Josiah had gone to court and gained custody of him. His brothers, all six of them, were the only things keeping him from becoming a ‘troubled’ kid. They cared about him and carried on what Bobby and Janis had started, creating a loving and acceptable environment for him to thrive and flourish in.
Nathan tentatively put a hand on Ezra’s shoulders in quiet comfort and support. He knew how hard their dad had worked on getting Ezra to care about something. Chris, Buck and Josiah had moved out of the house by the time Ezra had arrived, living their own lives and, while Buck worked out at the ranch with their dad, the older brother had little interaction with Ezra. When Buck and their dad finished at night, Buck usually went home. He seldom stayed for supper during the week. Of course, they all came home for Sunday dinner, but you can’t really get to know a person seeing them once a week, or on long weekends and holidays. “Dad would be real proud of the way you raised him, Ezra,” Nathan complimented quietly.
Ezra could only shrug his shoulders, wishing Bobby were there to see this calf.
An hour later, the seven brothers gathered and took off for the main part of the fair. The three youngest followed the others through the other metal barns.
The first one they went into, the front half housed the petting zoo and exotic animals. On one side were little pens that held different kinds of animals from a small puppies, to kittens, to baby chicks. In each pen, taking care of the animals, were local children that belonged to the 4-H group. Ezra couldn’t help but roll his eyes as a thirteen-year-old girl showed a small child the puppy. JD’s voice broke into his thoughts. “Why would anyone bring puppies and kittens to show?” the youngest asked.
“Well, not all children are lucky enough to have pets, and this is the closest way to being able to pet such animals,” Josiah explained.
“Oh,” JD responded, the explanation making sense to the nine-year-old.
Everyone, except Josiah and Chris, held a chick for a little bit. They had chicks on the farm, but the little yellow chickens were so cute they were almost irresistible. Ezra tucked his close to his chest and turned to watch the children on the other side of the aisle. On the other side was a very large pen that went down half the barn. It held lambs, goats and sheep that children could get in and pet. For a quarter, they also received a little cup of food to feed the animals. Either way, the animals would come up to the children. Ezra watched the little kids squeal in delight or run to their parents with laughter as they got nudged or licked by one of the tame animals. It would be nice to be that carefree, he thought to himself, unaware of the casual gaze Josiah held on him.
The brothers handed back their chicks and walked to the other side of the barn. They remained on the outside of the ‘petting’ pen and walked down its length. In one spot, there were two Scottish Highland cows. They had a red coat, were short-legged and very shaggy. Chris thought they looked more like oversized sheepdogs. As they walked past the large pen, they came to smaller individual pens. An exotic farm owner had bought in some of his animals, including a Zeedonk, which was a cross between a zebra and a donkey. Instead of white with black stripes, it was brown with black stripes. There were also two camels, and a miniature zebu: the strange looking cow with hump on their backs from India.
Walking into the back half of the barn, JD stifled a groan. This was where farmers brought in their vegetables, fruits and nuts. “Why would anyone show okra?” he asked glumly, his boredom showing.
Buck laughed and ruffled his brother’s hair. “Same reason you show your goats. To show the best of what you raise,” he answered.
JD shrugged; he still thought it was a dumb idea. They passed some of the pumpkins and JD became quite impressed as Chris read out the weights. “This one is one hundred and sixty-seven pounds,” he said.
“Wow!” Vin exclaimed. It was a monster pumpkin. “Just think of the jack ‘o lantern you could carve into it.” This got a laugh from everyone and started a serious discussion of what could be carved out on the pumpkin.
They stepped back out into the bright sunlight and Vin tugged his cap down a little lower over his eyes. A lot of the city kids wore caps as an accessory and because they thought it made them look cool. Farm kids wore caps because it was the smart thing to do. Being out in the sun day after day took its toll on the eyes and it kept the heat off their heads. Caps were just a natural part of wear, like jeans, gloves and boots.
Josiah led the way to the next barn that housed the fowls. Ezra looked at Vin and shrugged, both thinking the same thing. ‘We got chickens at home.’
As they stepped into the darker building they heard the distinct cooing of pigeons. As Ezra looked at the birds, he realized that these were not ordinary pigeons. He heard Vin’s distinct Texan drawl hailing Chris on the other side of the row of birds saying, “Chris, look at these birds.”
As Ezra looked around, he could tell there were no less than ten rows of birds. He, too, was marveling at the odd looking birds. About that time the barn manger walked up to them and introduced himself. “Hey there, I’m Mark Simms.”
Josiah introduced himself and the man began talking about the different kinds of pigeons they were looking at.
“These birds here are called Fantails,” he explained. “See how their tail feathers fan up and out?” he asked as he pointed out the tail.
It was hard to miss. Some tails were so thick and rounded out that it covered almost the entire bird. The younger brothers studied the different colored birds. Some were white, some were gray and some were multi-colored.
Moving over an aisle, the barn manager tapped a cage. The birds were mostly of a dark color with strands of turquoise, pink and blues in the neckline.
“Now these are called Rollers,” he said. Looking at the youngest, he asked, “Can you guess why?”
JD looked unsure as he answered. “Because they roll?”
“Exactly,” Mark said enthusiastically. “These types of Rollers fly up into the air and then somersault downward. This keeps hawks from making them prey.”
“The royalty took these birds and bred them so when the owner puts them on a long table and taps the edge of the table the bird will flop down and roll down the length of the table. This was a great sport and there are still contests today to see whose bird could roll the farthest.” Simms finished.
“Whoa. That’s so cool,” JD exclaimed, looking at Buck for confirmation that it was cool.
Buck nodded in agreement. “That is pretty cool.”
“Hey, what about these?” Vin asked in awe.
They stepped around to where he was standing. Inside the cages were different breeds of birds. They had feathers growing out of their ‘ankles’ and covering their feet.
“Those are called West of England birds. They, too, were bred for amusement. That’s how most of these birds came to be, Mark added. “They can’t fly at all,” he added.
The man stood back as the seven brothers strolled up and down the aisles looking at the different and rare types of birds before exiting. He liked youngsters who were inquisitive and he figured these were such boys.
The last structure to go through was a huge building that warehoused merchants and their goods. There were many aisles and everything you could think of was being sold. There were businesses for fudge next to satellite services; wireless telephones next to feet massagers; ‘the handy, dandy, all-in-one chopper’ next to the ‘finest silver jewelry made in the area’. The selling was endless. JD knew they wouldn’t be buying any of it, but it was fun to look and try out.
Once outside the barn, the brothers headed for the ‘strip’. The long row of places to purchase food, anything from turkey legs, to hamburgers, to fajitas, to burritos, to deep-fried Snickers bars. The youngest two’s eyes widen at all the kiosks hawking their specialty. Passing by a small cart advertising cotton candy, JD couldn’t help himself and cried out, “Ohhh, cotton candy!”
JD was quickly hushed by Ezra, on his left, and Vin, on his right. They all knew that money was tight and just being able to eat here tonight and given the opportunity of riding three rides was a great privilege.
JD ducked his head for letting the words slip out. He knew how hard Josiah, Chris and Buck tried to give them the things they wanted, but beef prices weren’t that good right now and Josiah’s paycheck was stretched to the max.
Behind the three boys, the older four winced in silent pain. Nathan knew that JD’s exclamation was just a normal little boy’s reaction to the sugary confection. He also knew how hard the oldest three tried to compensate for their parents loss. He glanced over and saw Chris and Buck frown. Josiah, he could tell was mentally calculating how far he could really stretch the money and knew the oldest would go without if it meant giving a little happiness to his brothers.
JD thought fast; he could almost feel the sadness coming from his brothers behind him. Turning around with a smile, he asked as enthusiastically as he thought possible without going overboard, “So, Buck, what sounds good to you?”
Buck smiled back and shrugged. “Don’t know. What sounds good to you?”
“Hamburgers,” the youngest shouted back with a large smile. He had been looking at the prices the venues had posted on the outside of their shops and noticed that hamburgers were the cheapest things listed so far.
“Hamburgers sounds good to me,” Buck called back. “What about the rest of ya?” he asked.
It was quickly agreed that hamburgers would be the choice of dining and a place was quickly picked out. After ordering hamburgers and sodas, Josiah also ordered three bags of fries to go around.
After finding a spot in the shade, the seven boys chose partners to share the fries with and began devouring their food. Ezra chose to eat with Nathan and Josiah, knowing Josiah deserved to eat food he paid for and wouldn’t get that chance if he had to share with some of the others. Ezra could refrain from eating the greasy fries without any trouble.
After the meal was over, Ezra snuck over to JD and quietly said, “If you don’t mind sharing, I’ll buy us a bag of cotton candy.”
JD’s eyes opened wide and he nodded enthusiastically. JD didn’t mind sharing at all, even if he had to share the whole bag with all his brothers. Ezra didn’t offer to buy or share things often, so when he did, JD agreed to any restrictions made. Mom and Dad had explained that Ezra didn’t share much because he had never had anything in the past to share. So whatever Ezra got, he tended to hold on to with fear of it being ripped away. They had said it would take time before Ezra learned he could share without losing it all.
Ezra walked to the stand and pulled out the money he had kept stashed away. He paid the two dollars needed for one bag, picked out the multi-colored confection, and walked back to the group. Josiah was interested in seeing what the fourteen-year-old would do first. It surprised him greatly when Ezra offered the sack to him first. Taking only a small piece, Josiah thanked his brother and then watched in mystified, happy wonder as Ezra continued to offer the cotton candy to the rest of the group. Each only taking a small tuff so it would last. By taking small helpings, each got three bites.
The boys stayed together, walking the mid-way as one large group. While each brother rode the rides of their choosing, the remaining would stand close by, often watching other people try for a prize at one of the many games. JD was staring at one in which a ball was to be thrown into a basket that was tilted slightly on its side.
“I bet Josiah could win at that game,” the youngest said confidently.
Ezra, who was standing close by, spoke up. “Maybe”, he said, not sounding confident at all.
JD instantly went on the defense. “What do you mean, maybe? Josiah is good at basketball!” The small brother said defiantly.
Ezra sighed. “Yes, Josiah is truly talented in that area of game, but these guys,” gesturing at the carnies, “make a living off scamming folks out of money. Simply put: the game is rigged,” Ezra patiently explained.
“Rigged? But I see people winning,” JD shot back.
Chris, who was standing with his two brothers while the rest went on the big roller coaster, spoke up, “Ezra’s right, JD. The games are fixed to make it difficult to win.”
“But, I still see people winning,” JD said, coming close to whining, and then changed his voice. If he whined, Chris would only ask him he was tired and then they would have to go home.
“Yes, you do, but you don’t see as many people winning as you do losing. Just watch for awhile and you’ll see,” Chris said, wishing they could already call it a night. It had been a long day for him and he was ready for bed. It didn’t help knowing they had to be back here by six the next morning.
The youngest turned back to the game and watched until the ride was over and his brothers came back. Begrudgingly he would have to admit that, of the people who did stop to play, most didn’t win, and those that did, usually only got a small toy and not one of the big ones. JD felt a tap on his shoulder and found Ezra standing there with a smile. “Come on, let’s go find a ride to go on before we have to leave,” the older brother said.
JD forgot all about the game as he started rattling off different rides he and Ezra could go on together. He knew from the previous year that his brother didn’t do well with rides that were too wild or spun in circles. That narrowed down the options quite a bit. Finally, he spotted the Ferris wheel; it was a pretty steady ride. “You want to go on the Ferris wheel?” JD asked hopefully.
Ezra looked down at his little brother and couldn’t resist the sparkling eyes and hopeful expression. “Sure,” he said.
“I’ll go tell Josiah and get our tickets,” JD said.
It wound up being the choice of the others, as well, for their last ride. Vin had already used up his three rides, having gone on the tilt-o-world twice, but Josiah could see how much the youngster really wanted to go. Backing up so he was next to the twelve-year-old, the guardian asked, “How about taking this one for me? I don’t want to ride,” he stated.
Vin looked at his brother for a moment before replying, “I’ve already had my three rides. It’s not fair to the others.”
“I know,” Josiah responded, loving his brother for his honesty and sense of fairness. “But we’ve got the tickets and I don’t want to go,” before adding, “we don’t want to waste them, do we?” the oldest teased, waving the prized tickets in front of his brother.
“You sure?” Vin asked, giving his brother the chance to back out.
“I’m sure. Now get up there with the others,” Josiah said, pushing his brother toward the line.
Vin didn’t need any more than that before he was standing in line with his brothers.
JD looked up at Ezra. “You still want to ride with me?” he asked, uncertain now that the others were joining them.
“JD, am I not in line beside you?” Ezra asked with a small dimpled smile, quirking his eyebrow up in the manner only Ezra could.
“Yeah!” JD replied. In the beginning, it had taken him a while to figure out his brother’s speech pattern, but now it was now second nature to him.
Ezra rarely answered a simple question and he never, ever, asked anyone to do something with him if it really mattered to him. Ezra, they had figured out, would merely mention an event or activity and if they showed interest, then he took it as an acceptance of his backhanded invitation. If they didn’t show interest, the matter was dropped and he went on his way, never letting them see his disappointment. It had come to be after the passing of their parents, that as a rule that at least one of them always showed an interest in Ezra’s inquiries.
Their mom and dad had once explained that Ezra suffered from what they called attachment disorder. It was hard for Ezra to make attachments, but from where JD was standing, it appeared his brother was getting better at it. At least Ezra wasn’t as closed off from them as he had been in the beginning.
Buck grabbed Vin by the neck and hauled the youngster over to him. “What do you say? Partners?” Buck asked with his ever-present smile.
“Yep,” Vin answered with a vigorous nod and a wide smile, knowing that with Buck, he’d have a better chance at being able to swing the carriage back and forth than he would with Chris or Nathan.
The six brothers separated into partners and garnered their carriages. Josiah stood at the bottom listening to the laughter floating off the ride as he watched his brothers. For the first time in what seemed forever they were having a regular family moment that was going right.
“Come on guys! Get the lead out!” Chris yelled from the bottom of the stairs.
It was already close to five and they needed to be on the road soon. The judging for the Angus steer was today and they needed to get there and get it ready. ‘Larry’, as JD had named him, would need to be washed and curried before the show.
Buck was in the kitchen with Josiah fixing breakfast burritos to go. These was made of scrambled eggs, ground up sausage, diced tomatoes (for some) and green peppers rolled into a tortilla.
Four sets of feet could be heard thundering down the steps. Their mom used to say it was like hearing a herd of elephants come down the staircase. As each one headed out the door, Josiah handed them their foiled wrapped breakfast and a sealed cup of milk. For the oldest ones there was coffee. Piling into the two vehicles, Chris once again took the lead. This time, Ezra elected to ride with Buck and the younger ones, knowing the one with Nathan, Chris and Josiah would be boring at best.
Arriving back at the fairgrounds, they parked and headed inside the gates. Since it was only Buck and Chris showing their Angus steer, there wasn’t much for the others to do. After tending to all their animals, Josiah figured the best way he could help his two brothers would be to take the others out of the way.
Heading out of the barn, JD whined, “We’re not going to have to go look at the vegetables again, are we?” Looking at the plates of vegetables, were about as exciting as staring at a blank wall to the nine-year-old.
Josiah couldn’t help the laugh that rumbled out of him. He was about to respond when Vin spoke up. “We could go look at those neat animals, again,” he said hopefully.
“Yeah! Those were cool!” JD cheered as he turned on Josiah with excitement.
Josiah weighed the options: dragging his brothers through the other show barns again and listening to muffled discouraging remarks; or go over to the animal barn and enjoy the morning stress free. One look at Nathan and they both silently agreed; stress-free morning it was.
After re-examining the exotic animals, JD and Vin were both drawn to the petting zoo. Walking into the enclosed area, they were encircled by the tame animals. Vin found a corner and, after clearing the ground a bit with his boot, sat down and let the animals come to him. JD found the lambs to be full of energy and played with them. Ezra slipped over to the pen with the chicks and surreptitiously cuddled one up close, keeping his back turned from the noisiest part of the barn. Nathan and Josiah located the handler of the exotic animals and visited with him while keeping an eye on their brothers at the same time.
An hour later Josiah called to the boys and led the way back to the show barn. Since they only had the one bull to show, it had been decided that Chris would do the actual showing. Buck, already seated on the wooden bleachers, let out a low whistle and attracted his brothers’ attention. The five boys climbed up to where Buck had saved them spots. Buck, Josiah and Nathan sat on the row above the three younger ones and waited to support their brother.
Chris’ name was finally called and the blond entered the large penned arena. Parading the steer around the pen on the short rope attached to the harness, Chris gave the judges the best advantages to study the bull. After his turn was over, he tied the Angus back in his spot and joined his brothers to watch the rest of the competition. Chris patted Ezra’s shoulder and ruffled JD’s hair as he stepped between the two to sit with the older ones.
With over thirty entries, each competitor having three minutes in the ring, and the in-between time, the competition lasted over four hours. JD, Vin and Ezra, like many other children bought a book to read or small pocket games to entertain themselves. At the end of the showing, the brothers left the building and went to find shade under the entertainment canopy. Chris and Buck stopped by their designated holding lots and picked up the two large coolers they had toted in earlier. Arranging themselves around, Josiah and Nathan broke out the sandwiches and colas. The budget wouldn’t hold out to feed them at the fair for the entire week. The boys understood this and kept their thoughts to themselves. JD looked around, feeling a mite conscious and noticed that some of the boys he had played with the day before were also eating home brought meals. He quit feeling so bad when he realized they weren’t the only family having to save every penny.
After lunch, they packed up their stuff and headed back to the barns for the awards. Chris went to stand with the other participants while the remaining six headed back for the bleachers. When the winners were announced and Chris placed seventh, JD became quite upset. After the awards, Chris climbed up to where his brothers sat. He had no more than sat down when JD, in a louder than necessary voice claimed, “It’s not fair! You should have won!”
Chris looked at his brother calmly and said, “Well, thanks, but the judges didn’t see it that way.”
“They’re stupid then,” JD announced, crossing his arms and getting a fierce look on his face.
“Hey!” Josiah immediately said with a raised voice of his own. “What have you been told about calling people that name?”
“Not to,” JD answered softly, lowering his head. “But it’s not right. Chris should have won.”
“That’s just how it is, JD,” Chris said, lifting his little brother’s face up to meet his eyes. “I did my best; Larry behaved well, but I lost,” Chris said shrugging his shoulders.
Knowing that the younger ones would start showing Monday, Chris knew his reaction to losing would set the tone for the rest of the week. He didn’t want them going into any of the competitions with the idea that they were only approved of if they won. He wanted them to understand it was about trying and doing one’s best. Winning wasn’t important to him. Of course winning would help, because it made selling the animal at a higher price easier, but he kept that thought to himself.
“Do you like me any less for not winning?” Chris asked, making a point to the other two little brothers who were trying not to show how intently they were listening.
“Of course not!’ JD replied indignantly. He looked at Chris as if he had just asked the dumbest question in the world.
“Ok, then,” Chris said. He stood up and started to move down the bleachers as he said, “Come on, let’s get the animals taken care of and go home. We still got stock to tend to at home and I want to go to bed early tonight. I’m bushed.”
It didn’t take the seven boys long to get the livestock taken care at the fair or at home. Everyone was still a little tired from the late night the night before and early rising that morning. Knowing they would have to be up early again the next morning because both Chris and Buck would be showing their Herefords, everyone turned in early.
The next day started out like the previous day. By the time they were at the show grounds, the boys knew the routine. The younger three went to feed their individual animals while Josiah and Nathan helped Chris and Buck ready their stock. Nathan hooked up the water hose to one of the many faucets located through the barn. Josiah grabbed the shampoo and the two started cleaning the five cows that would be shown while the other two brothers, after laying out the feed and water, began to clean out the hoofs of the cows not being washed at the moment.
After Ezra, Vin and JD finished with their chores, they pitched in to help the others. Vin grabbed the dryer while JD and Ezra began currying out the clean bovine. When all five cows had been cleaned, curried and shined up, Chris and Buck, with Josiah and Nathan’s help, began polishing up their hoofs. Vin and JD were restricted from this job on the bigger cows because of the possibility of being injured by a flying kick. Ezra had helped Bobby with this job last year, but felt in the way and like he was intruding on his brother’s territory. He went to find a spot on the bleachers and read his book.
Today’s judging would take much longer because, not only were the cattle graded individually, they were also judged as a group. For this part, the judges would walk through the barn and look at the cows collectively. Placing was a big deal because it not only helped in marketing one’s ranch stock for sale, but also helped in raising the price for breeding.
Josiah soon joined Ezra after all the jobs had been finished and the equipment stored back in place. Nathan had gone to round up the two youngest and Chris and Buck went to find a place where they could change their shirts and look a little more presentable. Being a fair, the clothing didn’t have to be fancy, but everyone did try and look nice. For most, this meant wearing their ‘town’ clothes.
Josiah sat watching his brother, lost in whatever world the book created. Of all the brothers, Ezra was, hands down, the most complicated. It is said that there are three people in every person: the person one sees themselves as; the person everyone else sees; and the real person, which is usually a combination of the two. Josiah remembered how his mother would talk to him on his visits home about his younger brother. Janis had helped four previous troubled boys navigate their way through a world of hurt, pain and trauma, but Ezra had her stumped most of the times. She could never fathom how an eleven-year-old could be so mature and smart and be so clueless at the same time. Ezra, it had seemed, had a difficult time not only adjusting to ranch life, but also being treated and cared for like the child he was. Dad, on the other hand, had not bothered to worry about it and just did it. Bobby had simply treated Ezra like a child and never paid attention to the protests from Ezra. Josiah was beginning to thing his father had the right idea. Don’t listen to what Ezra was doing or saying, but to what the kid wasn’t saying or doing.
Giving Ezra a simple nudge with his shoulder, Josiah asked, “So what are you reading?”
Ezra blushed deeply and looked up his brother. “JD’s Harry Potter,” he admitted with embarrassment. “I figured I needed something to read since today would be another long and boring day,” he said hurriedly, as the false reason seemed to appear in his head.
“Ah. Good thinking,” Josiah returned. He kept the smile he felt from showing, knowing that Ezra felt he needed an excuse for any ‘childish’ action he did.
No sooner had the conversation lulled than Vin and JD came up the bleachers. “Hey guys,” Josiah greeted as Vin sat down by Ezra and JD sat down by his oldest brother.
“Hey, Josiah,” they replied.
“Guess what, Josiah?” JD asked, with an amazed expression.
“What?” Josiah asked with equal excitement, though he had no idea what it was for.
“We saw a longhorn steer!” JD exclaimed. Standing up and spreading his arms out as for as they would go, he said in a rush, “And its horns were THIS big!”
“Is that right?” Josiah asked with a large smile. He loved the little one’s enthusiasm over everything in life.
“Yeah!” JD answered.
“That’s pretty cool, huh?” Josiah asked, engaging his brother in conversation.
“Yeah, and you know what else?” JD asked, before launching into a full review of what he had learned from the owner of said longhorn. Josiah sat through the orientation and wondered if the man had recovered from the interrogation he’d received from his little brother.
The showing ran until after one o’clock. The noise level remained low as people quietly visited with one another throughout the program. JD had tried to sit still for the most part, but had too many questions and comments on different cows and owners to be silent the whole time. The youngster did know enough though to keep his voice down. Josiah knew the brother wore on the other’s nerves from time to time, but JD for the most part was a pretty good kid.
When the showing ended, Josiah took the other brothers to the canopy for lunch while Chris and Buck stayed behind with their cows. The judges were doing a walk-through to grade the cattle collectively and the two brothers wanted to be there when the judges showed up.
Josiah had kept out a couple of the sandwiches and colas to take to Chris and Buck. The two wolfed down the food with gusto. It seemed to have been forever since breakfast and they were both starved.
Since the judges were also taking a lunch break before awarding the placements, the brothers decided to walk the strip and watch the rides and enjoy the atmosphere of the fair. JD stood before the same game he had seen the previous Friday night and silently wished he could just try it. He knew if he could just get his hands on the couple of dollars it took to play, he could win something. Digging into his pockets for the umpteenth time, acting if by pure magic this time he would find stashed money, he came up empty. Sighing silently, he looked up at the sudden presence he felt at his side. Seeing Buck’s smile, he smiled back.
“It isn’t worth losing money over, JD,” Buck advised.
“But I could win, I know I could,” JD insisted.
Shaking his head, Buck said, “I know you think so, kiddo, but it’s not as easy as it looks,” Buck replied. Putting his hand on his brother’s shoulder, he began guiding the youth away from the game. “Come on, let’s catch up to the others.”
An hour later, the seven brothers headed back to the barn and found spots on the crowded bleachers.
The announcements for the groupings went first. The judge began at the bottom of the placement list and worked his way up.
“…And in fourth place with a collective total of 165…the 7B Ranch. Owned and Operated by the Walker brothers,” the judge announced over the microphone.
A loud yell could be heard all over the arena with following high-pitched whistles and endless clapping. Ranchers, like other professions, knew each other either personally or by name. Everyone in the arena knew the story of how Bobby and Janis Walker had been killed and their sons took over the ranch and kept it going.
The judge continued with the announcements and then started on the individuals.
“ In tenth place: Number 1554B, shown by Buck W. Walker,” the judge said.
Buck threw up his hand and waved wildly to the crowd causing several comments both kind and otherwise, all of it was good-natured.
The boys politely held down their clapping; there were still nine other placements to go.
“In second place: Number 1781B, shown by Chris L. Walker,” the man in the arena announced.
By the end of the list, out of five cows, one had placed high enough for a ribbon. It was pretty good considering how many had competed to begin with. After the announcements were finished, the boys split up and went to make quick work of their chores before heading home. So far, it seemed luck was on their side. Chris could only pray that it held out for the sake of his younger brothers.
Monday morning dawned as a normal school day for all except Ezra. Today he would be showing his one-year-old calf. JD and Vin had tried to get Josiah to let them miss school so that they could show support for their brother. Josiah thanked them for their generous hearts and loyalty, and then turned them down. They would miss enough school as it was.
Buck drove into town with Chris riding shotgun and a very quiet and Ezra in the back seat. Both older boys tried to keep a running dialogue to help get Ezra’s mind off the coming day. Before breakfast, Nathan had quietly let them know that their brother had had a restless night. The senior had been worried that so much stress would bring on one of Ezra’s debilitating migraines that he suffered from periodically. Chris and Buck had promised to keep a watchful eye on Ezra and do what they could to alleviate the pressure Ezra was capable of putting on himself.
Once arriving at the barn, Ezra untied his calf from his post and led her to the washing area. Buck and Chris, both, helped shampoo and rinse the good-size heifer. While Buck and Ezra took the calf back to his spot, Chris hooked up the dryer, which looked more like a small air compressor, up, so they could blow dry and comb out the animal. The whole time, Ezra remained silent. Chris gave Buck a beseeching look and after receiving a slight nod, left the two alone. Chris knew they all had their strengths and weaknesses, and dealing with Ezra was sometimes one of Chris’ weaknesses, a fact that really bothered the tall blond.
Ezra left to go change in the truck. He not only changed his shirt, but his jeans as well. When he came back to the pen, Buck was still there. Ezra picked up the currying comb and went back to brushing the calf. Buck leaned back against a rail as he watched his brother repeatedly comb out the calf’s fur. “You brush that spot any longer, the poor thing is going to go bald,” Buck said with a laugh.
“She has to be perfect. The judges are really tough,” Ezra explained.
Buck sighed, pushed himself off the railing and walked over to his younger brother. Stopping right behind Ezra, he reached over and clasped the thin wrist, stopping the stroking movements. “She doesn’t have to be perfect, Ezra,” Buck said softly in his brother’s ear.
“I told you, the judges are really hard,” Ezra said shortly, yanking himself out of his brother’s hold.
Buck took a breath and tried another route. “Was she good enough for you when we loaded her up, Friday?” Buck asked calmly.
Ezra simply nodded, fighting back the rising emotions. Buck moved closer Ezra. Still speaking softly, he said, “Look at her, Ezra. Her flanks are filled out good. No ribs are showing. Neckline shows good breeding and good nurturing. You did well with her, Ezra.”
When he received no reply, Buck continued. “If she doesn’t win, she doesn’t win. No big deal. The rest of us take our chances just like you. We can only do our best. Okay?” he stated.
Ever so softly, Ezra whispered, “If Bobby was….” Killing the rest of the sentence, Ezra shrugged it off and went back to currying the calf.
The simple fact that Ezra mentioned their father was a major milestone. Ezra rarely mentioned their deceased parents and only when forced into a conversation by one of the others about them. The fact that Ezra always addressed their dad by his name didn’t faze Buck in the least. To him it was the same as if Ezra had said “dad.”
“If Dad and Mom were here right now, they would be very proud of you, Ezra. Of that I am positive,” Buck, said, as he placed his hands on trembling shoulders. “You have done a great job of raising this calf and tending to it.”
Buck could tell Ezra was not feeling any better. A change was needed to get Ezra back on top. “Look at the two of you, you’re both classy looking. You and Betsy, here, go out there and show them what you got,” Buck said with a laugh and a soft slap to Ezra’s back. Buck had known Ezra had not named the heifer intentionally, giving her a name made it that much more personal.
“Betsy?!” Ezra said in surprise. Turning on his brother, Ezra asked in shock “What has possessed you to call my calf Betsy?”
“Problem?” asked Buck, smirking.
“Not only is it a common name, but it’s…it’s not original in the least,” Ezra shot back, forgetting all about his nerves.
“Well, if the Angus can be named Larry,” Buck said with a small grimace. “Figured she shouldn’t be left out,” Buck said, thumping the calf lightly on the rear.
“But not Betsy!” Ezra exclaimed.
“Then come up with a better one,” Buck challenged, knowing that Chris was going to kill him. By naming the animal, it became less than a commodity and a paycheck, it became personal, but Buck figured as hard as Ezra might have tried to keep his distance, he had already become attached to the animal long before now. It was also doing the trick and lighting up the mood.
“Well...” Ezra sputtered. “I can’t think of one so deserving at such a short notice.
“You can do it. Just like you can go out there and show her off to the judges,” Buck said. “Okay?” he added after a moment.
“Okay,” Ezra replied, taking in a deep calming breath.
“Okay. I’m going to go join Chris and we’ll be in the bleachers when you’re done,” Buck advised, giving his brother a little breathing room before the contest. He had no doubt Ezra could get the calf to the showing area on his own and the barn manager was there to help out if needed.
Ezra simply nodded before returning to brushing out the calf’s forelegs.
Buck returned to the bleachers and climbed up the two steps. He sat down next to Chris. There weren’t quite as many kids showing calves as there were grownups with cows, but it would still be a lengthy ordeal. Chris turned to Buck. “Well?” the blond questioned.
“Whatever he does, just give lots of praise,” Buck said.
Chris flashed his brother a dirty look before saying, “I had already planned to.”
Buck grimaced. “Sorry,” he said.
“He actually admitted to missing Dad,” Buck added quietly.
“He did?!” Chris said in surprise.
“Well…almost. He mentioned Dad. Kinda. Same thing,” Buck said.
After a moment, the black-haired brother said quietly, “Don’t say anything, though, okay?”
Chris nodded in agreement and sat back to watch the judging.
When Ezra’s name was called, Buck flashed Chris a quick ‘here we go’ smile and turned back to watch his brother. The black-haired brother never commenting on the fact that Chris had his fingers crossed and seemed to be either mentally talking Ezra through it or asking God for a little luck.
The fourteen-year-old had calmed himself down to the point where he, at least, felt relatively sure he wasn’t going to throw up in front of everyone before walking his calf over to the showing arena. Buck had said they all took chances, but it seemed the result of his gamble had a bigger loss. If the cattle hadn’t won, it wouldn’t have mattered in how Chris and Buck were respected or liked. If Vin or JD didn’t win in their competitions, they would still be seen as the little brothers who overcame their terrible tragedies. They would be seen as having courage to get out there and show their animals. But, if he lost, it was just another mark on the tally sheet of all the things he failed at and one more reason to be disappointed in him.
Ezra heard his name and straightened his back. Gripping the lead rope tighter, he said, “Show time…Betsy,” wincing a little as he said the name.
Ezra paraded his calf around the show pen, just as Bobby had taught him to do the previous year. Smiling nicely at the judges as he passed them, he stopped the five hundred pound heifer on the mark and kept ‘Betsy’ from moving for the remaining two minutes that were required while the judges made their marks. When the last judge gave him a small nod, Ezra led his calf out of the arena and took her back to the stall.
Tying up the rope, he patted the gentle black and white calf on the side.
“You performed exceptionally well, Betsy,” Ezra said, liking the name a little more. If nothing else, his brother Buck had a wry, if not warped, sense of humor.
Ezra couldn’t go join his brothers on the bleachers and watch the rest of the competition. He didn’t want to see the disappointment on his brother’s faces for things he should have done better.
Buck and Chris waited for Ezra to join them. After ten minutes, Chris walked down the bleachers to go find him. Rounding the corner of the aisle where the calf was kept, Chris hung his head in frustration as he saw Ezra sitting on the overturned bucket talking to his calf. The look on the younger one’s face said it all. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t fight the eleven years of Maude’s teaching, telling Ezra he always had to come out a winner. The judges hadn’t even scored all the showings yet and Ezra already had himself listed as losing. Ezra wasn’t the only one who missed Bobby. Chris was wishing their dad were here now. It always seemed to Chris that heir father always knew exactly what each of the boys needed. Chris always felt like he was twisting in the wind, grasping for limbs to keep from falling flat on his face.
Chris slowly walked up to the tied calf, counting in his head and concentrating on taking the slow measured breaths that Josiah swore would help him retain control over his emotions.
“Hey, Ezra, how come you’re sitting here?” Chris said evenly as he squatted down.
Ezra looked up at Chris and shrugged. He was at a loss at how to describe his feelings or his actions. He didn’t know how to explain the huge lump in the pit of his stomach or why he had expected to see Bobby and Janis sitting out there when he had slyly looked up into the stands when he was in the arena.
Pausing a moment, Ezra started, “She,” looking at the calf, “was jumpy from being around all those people. I thought it would be best if I stayed close at hand for a while,” Ezra said, hoping Chris bought the small lie.
“I see. Good thinking,” Chris said as he played with the lose dirt at his feet. “We don’t want any problems with an agitated heifer.”
Ezra lowered his head and nodded in agreement. The two sat silently for a long time before Chris heard the announcement from the adjoining room stating the results were about to announced.
“Come on. Don’t want to miss this,” Chris said, slapping Ezra on the knee as he rose.
Chris walked Ezra back to the arena and left him standing with the other kids while he went back to Buck. Raised eyebrows were the means of conversation and Buck began saying his own prayers.
The judge was going through the names of winners, beginning with the lowest ranked and working his way up. “…And in third place from the 7B Ranch with number 1674B: Ezra Standish-Walker.”
Ezra’d had a hard time with the name change when he was adopted. Janis had been the one to suggest he hyphenate it; thereby keeping his own identity and acknowledging his new one. Ezra had thought, maybe one day, he might drop the hyphen and go with Walker as his last name, but he wasn’t quite ready to do that yet.
Chris and Buck jumped to their feet, clapping and whistling loudly. At least the brother hadn’t come in any lower than Buck had the previous day. Ezra blushed ten shades of red, smiled embarrassingly and accepted his ribbon. After the awards, Ezra climbed the steps to his brothers. Before he could sit, Buck grabbed him around the waist and pulled him closer, as he snatched the prize from his brother’s lose grip and said enthusiastically, “Let’s see that ribbon!”
Ezra noticed Chris had his cell phone out and wondered whom he was talking to. He didn’t have to wait long. “Hey, Josiah! Guess what? Ezra took third!” Chris spoke into the phone, his voice carrying a happy lilt.
Ezra couldn’t figure out why his brothers were so excited. He’d lost and placed a measly third. Ezra was pondering this when Buck spoke up with clear happiness in his own voice. “Hey, she beat Larry and most of our cows,” he said, giving Ezra a squeeze around the narrow waist.
Ezra thought about that and grinned. Buck was right. Smiling at his brother, he said, “Next year, she will attempt to break that record.”
“I bet you, she will,” Buck replied with a wink.
Just then, Mary Travis, a reporter for the big newspaper in Ridge City, interrupted them. She was also the owner, operator and sole employee of the weekly Four Corners newspaper. The family knew her fairly well. She and Chris had dated for a very brief period, but it hadn’t worked out. Chris and the newspaperwoman were still friendly towards one another, but not friends per se. She had come out to the house for a human-interest story when Josiah had been trying to retain custody of the boys.
“Hello, Ezra!” she greeted warmly, as she climbed up the bleachers.
Ezra turned and greeted the woman. “Afternoon, Mrs. Travis,” he said courteously, glancing out of the corner of eye at Chris. His brother had found the lady to be too demanding and self-righteous for his taste. Mrs. Travis also liked the affluent life, while Chris was more of the down home type.
“I was wondering if I could take your picture for my newspaper,” she said, emphasizing the word ‘my’. I want to acknowledge all of Four Corners’ kids that participated in the fair. Plus, I’m doing a piece for the Ridge City Journal.”
Ezra looked at Buck for guidance. He wasn’t sure if he wanted people knowing he only placed third. He also wasn’t sure he wanted to be in the paper in case Maude was keeping tabs on him.
Buck winked and him and nodded. He was proud of his brother and wanted the boy to get his due. The picture was taken along with a brief statement from the fourteen-year-old about his experience at showing. Turning to leave, she nodded towards the older two brothers. “Chris. Buck,” she acknowledged the other two in a cool professional tone.
“Mary,” the two responded at the same time. The three shared a brief glance before Mary turned and left.
It didn’t take long or the three brothers to get ready to go home.
The next morning was Vin’s turn at showing. The night before, the youngest had once again tried his best to persuade his brothers to let him go and support his brother in hopes of missing school. Once again, his efforts were applauded but denied. Ezra had slapped his little brother on the back. “Nice try, JD, but perhaps they are wise to such actions because they, themselves, might have employed such attempts in their own youths,” he had said in a consoling tone.
JD had looked at his older brother and could see where that might be true, especially for Buck. Buck was like him and would rather be out around the family than stuck in some classroom knowing his brothers were at the fair.
Chris walked quietly into the younger boy’s dark bedroom. “About ready, Vin?” he whispered. Vin was using the light from the closet to get dressed, letting JD sleep. The only bad part of participating in the fair was having to get up so early to get there by six.
“Yeah, just need to get my extra shirt,” he answered, going to the closet and pulling out a red, western-cut, long sleeve, shirt. Leaving it on the hanger, the two walked down the stairs together and departed with Buck in tow. It would be another couple hours before Josiah headed for school with the other three.
Vin was very much into caring and preparing his goat for the event by himself and, while Ezra was the same way, washing and drying a couple of goats was far different than tending to a calf. Once on the fair grounds, Chris and Buck's offer to Vin to help ready his two goats, was turned down with an ‘I got it’ reply. Chris and Buck went to find some a cup of coffee and visit with some of the other men.
Vin had retrieved the cart needed to wash and bathe his goats. The flat cart was on four wheels and stood about two feet off the ground. It had a push handle and an iron ring through which one ties off the animal. He had just loaded one of his goats onto the cart and had tied it off when he heard some muttered remarks and the sound of someone straining behind him. Vin turned to find a girl, with one of her arms in a bright purple cast, struggling to push one of the carts over to her pen. Vin left his goat and went over to the girl.
“Here, let me help ya,” he said as he took over pulling the heavy cart to where she directed.
“Thanks. I thought I could get started while my dad went to find out what time I was supposed to show,” the girl replied.
“No problem,” Vin said. Looking at the pen that held three Boer goats, like his, he asked, “Which one you want to do first?”
“That one is fine,” she said, pointing to the closest one.
Vin looped a rope around the goat’s neck and led it out of the pen and into the aisle. Picking up the goat, he lifted it onto the cart and secured it.
“Thank you,” the girl said.
“You’re welcome, “ Vin answered. “If you get done before your dad gets back just holler and I’ll come back and help ya,” the twelve-year-old directed.
“I appreciate it,” the girl answered.
Vin went back to his own business, but kept a watchful eye on the girl to make sure she managed all right by herself. After a few moments, a tall man walked up to the girl and Vin quickly identified him as the father. Vin smiled as he worked. He was really proud of his two goats. To the average person, most of the goats would look identical, with their white coats and brown heads. Only judges and those that were around the goats all the time would know what to look for in the distinction.
Chris walked up to Vin as he was drying his second goat. Both had beautiful coats and really shined. Leaning over the pen on crossed arms, the blond asked, “Nervous?”
“Nope,” Vin replied without stopping his work.
Chris couldn’t help the smile at his brother’s cocky assurance in himself. Vin wasn’t always so sure of himself at school, even though he had made remarkable strides and was now almost at age-level in all his subjects.
Chris was about to say something else when a man walked up beside him. Chris turned to look at the new arrival and recognized him as one of the new ranchers in the area. “Hi. Chris Larabee Walker,” he said.
Even after so many years it was hard not introduce himself as Larabee. So, like Buck, he had made it his middle name. He knew Bobby and Janis would have understood if he had dropped his last name altogether and went back to Larabee, but somehow that just felt like he was slamming the two people that had helped pull him back from the destruction he had fallen into after his family’s death.
“Sam King,” the man said. “Just wanted to come over and thank the young man for helping out my daughter earlier.”
Vin had stopped and laid down the brush before walking over to the railing. “It was no trouble. Just being neighborly,” Vin explained, trying to ignore the large smile and inquiring eyes of his older brother. He was going to really catch it from Chris after the man left.
Chris realized there was a moment of silence and quickly made the introductions. “Sam, this is my brother, Vin. Vin, this is Mr. King,” he said.
Vin stuck out his hand to shake the man’s hand. “Please to meet you, sir,” he said.
“Please to meet you, too,” the man replied as he shook the youngster’s hand, impressed with the quality of manners the boy was showing.
“Well, good luck today,” King said as he started to move off.
“Same to your daughter,” Vin replied.
The man nodded with a smile and walked away. No sooner had the man left than Chris slapped Vin on the arm. “Taking lessons from Buck, Romeo?” Chris teased.
“You’re just jealous ‘cause Buck’s lessons don’t help you,” Vin smarted back, ducking out of the way just in time.
“Hey, boy!” Chris yelled as he jumped the railings into the pen and grabbed Vin into a playful chokehold.
Vin was laughing so hard, he couldn’t cry ‘Uncle’. Chris let the boy go and ruffled the shoulder length hair. “Sure, you don’t need any help?” he asked, looking around at the goats.
“Nah, I got them all done. Just got to go change my shirt,” Vin said.
“Okay, I’ll see you out in the arena, then,” Chris said.
“Okay,” Vin replied, completely calm.
By the time all the participants had shown all their animals, it was getting late in the morning. There were more kids showing goats than there had been calves. Unlike Ezra, Vin put his animals back in the pen and rapidly joined his brothers on the bleachers. Buck passed him his lunch and they ate on the bleachers. After Vin finished eating, he moved down to the other side of Chris and dug out his books from his backpack. With Chris’ assistance, Vin finished the homework. The three were having a good time cutting up and laughing when the judges gave the five-minute warning. Standing up, Vin said happily, “See you guys in a minute.”
“Good luck,” they both responded.
Vin shrugged and smiled. ‘Thanks,” he said without care.
Buck turned to Chris and asked, “Why can’t we get Ezra to have the same laid-back attitude?”
Chris shrugged as he spoke back, “All we can do is keep trying.”
Buck had to acknowledge that was right. The two sat back and watched the awards.
In the end, Vin’s goats won 4th and 6th place. Vin took his fourth place ribbon and waved to the crowd before joining his brothers at the bottom of the bleachers. It was turning out to be a good year for the Walker brothers. Like Ezra, Vin was greeted by Mary and asked for a picture and a brief statement. While Mary took the picture, Chris walked over to where Sam King was helping his daughter take care of her goats, on the pretense of talking to the man. In reality, Chris was just uneasy being in the woman’s presence. Breaking up with the woman had not been easy. He had liked her well enough in the beginning, but as time went by, he began to realize they were not cut out for each other.
“Get his good side,” Buck called out jokingly, as Mary positioned Vin with his goats.
“Buck! This boy is just fine! Leave him be,” Mary reprimanded the twenty-three year old brother. She liked Buck well enough, even though he was a bit too cow boyish for her taste.
“Buck’s just jealous ‘cause he don’t have a good side,” Vin shot back with a laugh.
“Hey!” Buck shouted. Buck waited until Mary had her picture and then pretended to grab his brother and wrestle with him. In reality, it was just a way to give his little brother a hug. Vin, like Ezra, was like a vase with a hole. Neither could ever be filled up with enough hugs and love.
After Mary left, Chris came back and admired the ribbon that Vin had attached to the gate of his pen, so people could see his goats did well.
Wednesday was turnabout day and, since none of the boys had any animals showing that day, Buck and Chris had vetoed anyone missing school. They had already determined that they could haul Vin’s pigs, JD’s lambs and their sheep in by themselves and bring back the other animals. It would be an almost all day affair, but they had expected it and therefore preplanned.
By Wednesday afternoon, the week was taking its toll on Chris and Buck. They had been away from home and stressed to some degree every day. In the beginning, they had tried to figure out a way they could rotate the days of going to the fair, but hadn’t been able to do it. At first, Chris had said he would go on Vin’s showing days and Buck could go on JD’s, except that presented two problems: a) how would they choose who to go with Ezra without making it look like they drew straws and therefore compounding the boy’s inferiority complex, and if both went it would be unfair to the other two brothers; and b) by going with their respective younger brothers, it could be construed as showing favoritism, an idea they were trying hard to squash. In the end, the two brothers figured the only way to be fair was for both to go everyday.
Josiah easily recognized the signs of the stress mounting in both brothers when he walked through the front door that night. Therefore, he suggested a cookout with him as the chef. Chris and Buck were quick to agree and Josiah rounded up the younger four to help set the table, prepare the salad, mash potatoes and make dessert. By the time supper was over, both Chris and Buck seemed more relax and in a better mood. Everyone got to bed at a decent hour.
Thursday morning bought gray clouds and chilly weather. The weatherman promised it would blow over by mid-morning and Buck was holding him to that promise. This day would be the busiest because, not only were Chris and Buck showing their Columbia? sheep, but JD was showing his lamb, too. Thankfully, the lambs were shown in the morning and the sheep were to be judged in the afternoon. On the down side, it meant it was going to be a very long day.
JD climbed into the backseat of Buck’s truck. Chris and Buck had decided to save on the trucks and themselves by switching out everyday. It was the same routine as the other mornings: get checked in, get a schedule, and begin grooming the animals. Since JD would be one of the first to show, Chris and Buck helped the youngest ready his lamb, Clyde. Chris had figured by the time the fair was over, they were going to have more pets than livestock.
After everything was done, Chris wished his little brother well, and then moved off to find a cup of coffee and possibly a donut. Coffee was the staple that made this ordeal survivable. JD changed his shirt there in the pen with Buck razzing him, trying to keep the kid from getting nervous when a woman of about twenty-or-so stopped at their pen.
Buck immediately straightened up and walked over to the railing. Ezra had once pointed out how Buck’s casual walk changed when a woman was around. JD noticed his brother’s observation was correct.
“Hi,” Buck said smoothly. Plantings his hands on the top rail and leaning forward a bit.
“Hi,” the young woman answered with a wide smile, stepping closer to the railing, herself.
The two stood looking at each other for a moment before the lady looked down on the lamb. “So, what kind of lamb is this?” she asked, flirting with the good-looking dark-haired man and not really caring at all about the animal.
JD popped up saying, “It’s a Suffolk.”
“Oh really?” she said, trying to ignore the nine-year-old.
“Yep. Buck and the others helped me raise her,” JD added.
“Others?” she asked nicely, turning her attention to the little boy for the first time, her smile fading a bit.
“Yeah, there are seven of us. That’s why we’re called the 7B Ranch,” JD said with pride.
Buck turned around to his little brother, giving him a look that definitely said, ‘Go away’.
Buck turned back to the woman and asked, “Are you here with your husband?”
The woman giggled, making JD make a face. “No. I am here all by myself.”
“Ahh, now that’s a shame. A pretty woman like yourself shouldn’t be alone at the fair.”
JD turned back to the couple and said, “Buck could tell you all about the sheep. He’s here by himself, too, ‘cause Inez won’t go out with him, even though he keeps asking her out.”
Buck turned back to his little brother once more. His face clearly saying, “When we get alone, You. Are. So. Dead.’
JD was surprised at Buck’s look and backed off. He turned his attention back to his lamb. He learned Buck didn’t upset often, but when he did it was for real.
Buck turned back to the woman and tried to laugh his brother’s comments off. By this time, the woman was backing up a little. Her face showing the uncertainty she felt in getting to know a man with six brothers and a possible girlfriend.
A moment later, they heard the judges give the five minute warning and the woman said, “Well, I’ll be letting you finish getting ready.” The woman turned and walked hastily away.
After the woman was out of sight, Buck whirled on his brother and said irritatedly, “What do you think you were doing?”
“I was just trying to help you,” JD said angrily.
Buck, seeing his brother’s hurt look, softened up some and said, “I appreciate that little brother, but I got animal magnetism all over me. I don’t need help.”
Not getting a reply, Buck shrugged it off. JD would get over it quick enough and it was time to get to his seat anyway. Slapping his little brother on the back, he said, “Good luck. Knock them dead.” Then he opened the gate and walked out.
Watching Buck walk away, JD stuck out his tongue and muttered, “Yeah, you got animal something, but it’s not magnetism and it’s on the bottom of your boots.”
JD latched the lead rope onto the harness and hurried to get his lamb over to the showing arena. Upon arrival, a nice rancher, who was there helping out the kids, helped the youngster get in his place.
When his name was called out, JD paraded out into the arena with complete pride in his lamb. He heard Chris and Buck both cheer for him. Stopping in front of the judges, he turned on his million-dollar smile that he used to use on his mom and later on Buck when he really wanted something.
After the showing, JD put up his lamb and joined his brothers. The earlier fallout with Buck completely dismissed. “Hey, Chris! Did you see how well she behaved in there?” JD yelled out as he ran up the bleachers.
Chris leaned back from the charging nine-year-old, not sure JD was going to stop before he landed in his lap. Luckily, JD put on the brakes just as he reached his older brother. Standing before Chris with a huge smile on his face, JD waited for the complement he knew was coming.
“Yeah, pal. She behaved real well. You did a good job handling her,” Chris replied with a smile.
Turning to Buck, JD announced with confidence, “I’m going to win first place and show everyone how good my lamb really is.”
Buck squirmed inside. He wasn’t sure how he could prepare his brother for the possibility of losing without also squashing his confidence altogether.
“Well, JD, I hope you do win. But if you don’t, you still have to be a good sportsman, okay?” Buck said, completely serious.
“I know, but I’m going to win and then next year you’ll let me show as many animals as I want,” JD replied surely.
Chris and Buck looked at each other and then turned twin scowls back on their little brother. “JD! You know good and well why you weren’t allowed to show more than one animal, and furthermore if you get too big for your britches, you can be given extra jobs to help you slim back down,” Buck said sternly.
JD deflated instantly. “I just wanted to show you I could do it,” he said glumly.
Buck reached out and pulled the small boy onto his lap and gave him a squeeze. Chris turned and looked him in the eye. “JD, we had no doubt you could do it, but dad’s rule had always been: only one show animal until you turn twelve,” the blond said. “Just because it’s just us now doesn’t change the rule,” he said softly.
“Okay,” JD said lowly.
Chris and Buck looked at each other, both lost as to what to do now. Buck figured he could sacrifice himself a little for his brother’s benefit. “Hey Chris,” Buck started, looking up at the blond and winking, “I met this beautiful woman while talking to JD in the holding pen.” Buck waggled his eyebrows and gave a big smile.
Chris caught on and nudged JD, “How married was she, JD?” he asked.
JD looked up and said, “She was single. I told her Buck was single, too. Buck got mad. Said he didn’t need help ‘cause he had ‘animal magnetism’.” JD rolled his eyes.
Chris bursts out laughing. “Still trying to convince yourself of that, are you, Buck?”
‘Hey, it’s true!” Buck said indignantly.
JD started laughing at the pair. “I think it’s animal and it sticks to ya, but it isn’t a magnet,” he said.
“Now, hold on, squirt,” Buck laughed, squeezing the small kid tighter. “Just for that, you’re going to walk home.”
“Nah uh, Chris won’t let me,” JD answered, enjoying the teasing.
“That’s right, JD. We brothers got to stick together, don’t we?” Chris said, yanking JD playfully from Buck’s grasp and pulling him into his own lap.
“Hey, wait a minute!” Buck said.
The fake arguing continued until the judges called the warning. JD bounded out of Chris’s lap and called out, “Gotta go.”
Before either brother could wish him luck, JD was gone.
The judge started announcing and, the closer to the top of the list he got, the more nervous, Chris and Buck got for their little brother. They weren’t sure how JD would handle it if he didn’t win first place and, on the other hand, they weren’t sure they could live with him if he did.
“…And in first place, with number 1655B…JD Walker with the 7B Ranch,” the man said clearly over the intercom.
Chris and Buck were on their feet instantly. They halfway expected the nine-year-old to do cartwheels out onto the straw-covered area, but instead, JD walked very politely over to the head judge, shook his hand and received his ribbon without one misstep.
Once outside the arena was another story. JD came running up the bleachers at breakneck speed. “Whoa!” Buck and Chris both yelled as they put out their arms to stop their brother.
“Did you see it? Look! I won! I won! Did you see me?” JD called out as he hopped from one brother back to the other, waving his blue ribbon in their faces.
Finally, Chris managed to grab the flying arm and get his little brother’s attention. “JD!” he said loud enough to stop his brother’s actions. Smiling, Chris said, “Yes, we saw you win. We’re very proud of you.” The threesome started back to the lamb’s pen, so they could attach the ribbon.
“Wait until I tell Ezra and Vin. I can prove my animal is better than theirs,” he rattled before suddenly stopping. Before Chris or Buck could say anything, JD said softly, “Maybe we shouldn’t tell them I won. It might hurt their feelings.”
Chris and Buck stared at their brother. It always amazed them how fast JD’s mind could switch gears and go in another direction. Taking a minute to absorb the change, they realized they had a new problem.
“JD, it’s okay that you won,” Buck started out.
“Buck’s right. You have the right to be proud,” Chris added.
“But…Ezra and Vin really tried hard and I don’t want them too feel bad,’ JD tried to explain. He was young and he didn’t understand everything about his brothers, but he did understand how it felt to want to do something really bad and not be able to do it.
“It’s nice you don’t want to hurt their feelings, but they are tougher than you think. I think they are going to be real proud of you,” Buck said. Staring down at his brother, he was grateful to have such a caring brother.
“You think so?” JD asked hopefully.
“I do,” Chris said sincerely.
“Okay,” JD said, the bounce returning in his personality. “Let’s go hang this on the gate, so everyone can see. You think Mrs. Travis will take my picture, too? I wonder where she is?” JD prattled on as they made their way back to the pen.
Chris and Buck just shook their heads as they followed their brother. Mary was waiting at the pen for JD when he got there and took several photos of JD with his lamb and his first place ribbon.
JD changed his shirt back and, after their picnic lunch, helped Buck and Chris with their three sheep. JD liked combing out the thick, curled hair of the sheep. Summer was over and their coats were thickening up to shield them from the coming winter. In the spring, they would shear them all down and sell the wool. When he had first come to live with the Walkers, he had been a terrified seven-year-old. One of the first animals he had become attached to was an old mamma sheep that would let him lay across her back while he scratched her under the chin. Janis had taken a dozen pictures of him and that old sheep. JD tried to shut out the memory before the tears started falling. Last thing he wanted to do was cry like a baby in front of a bunch of people and upset his brothers.
JD turned his attention back to the job at hand and concentrated on controlling his breath and forced the image away.
“Hey, squirt. You about done?” Buck’s voice called over to him.
JD perked up and called back, “Just about. Need to comb his head.”
“Seems like that’s what we tell you in the mornings,” Chris put in with a laugh.
Buck joined his blond brother in laughing as JD responded with a, “Ha Ha.”
Since both brothers were showing together, JD would have to sit in the bleachers alone. Buck positioned JD on the front row where they could keep an eye on him. They knew JD wouldn’t walk off and, though it was doubtful that anyone would try to lead him out, precautions were the rule.
Sitting JD down on the bleachers with his backpack, JD pouted, “Why can’t I do my homework tonight after I get home?”
“Because this is part of the deal. You do your school work or you don’t show next year,” Buck said sternly. “Always has been. Always will. Besides, we promised Josiah you’d have it done before you got home.”
JD was still not happy about it, so Buck did what any brother would do. “Vin finished his in three hours. I bet you can’t do it any faster,” Buck challenged.
Vin and JD had been in the same grade for a while; both in fifth, but while JD could do the work, he struggled socially with the older students. His knowledge and stature hadn’t helped. So, they had put him back in fourth with his peers and gave him extra work that was more on his level. Vin had made such strides in his learning that they had been able to put him in classes on his grade-level. With everyone’s help, he was coping well.
“I can too!” JD barked back. “Just watch!”
“Okay, pal. We’ll check on you after the showing is over,” Buck said, as he stood up. Before leaving, he said, “And JD.” He paused while he got his brother’s attention, “no shortcuts.”
“Yeah, I know,” the youngest one said. He had tried that before in math and had been reprimanded severely and given extra chores.
Buck met up with Chris at the pens, and each grabbed a sheep and harnessed it. They were showing four in all. That meant that as soon as one was done showing, they would have to race back to the pen and get the next one ready for its turn. The judges had fixed the schedule to make this possible, simply because there were many ranchers doing the same thing.
There were far more sheep being shown than lambs and, by the time all of them had been shown, it was getting close to four o’clock. The judges were supposed to take thirty minutes to tally the markings. During this time, Chris, Buck and JD fed and watered their animals and made sure they had plenty of straw in their pen. They hoped that they would be able to leave immediately after the awards.
It took the judges longer than expected, due to a difference in opinions about a couple of the sheep. It was close to five before the awards were announced. JD wished both his brothers the best of luck as they headed towards the grouping of contestants. Chris didn’t care what place he got, he was just tired and ready to go home.
JD stood on the floor in front of the bleacher where his brother had ‘parked’ him and hopped up and down with crossed fingers, pleading for a great outcome for his brothers. When the judge got down to the last five placements, JD increased his pleading and added a promise to be ‘extra good’.
So far, there had been no placements for them. Meaning either it was really bad for their stock or really good.
“…And in fifth place: from the 7B ranch. Number 345B. Shown by Chris Walker,” the judge announced.
JD almost came apart. Clapping wildly, he cheered for his big brother.
“Well, I see you got one fan, Chris,” the judge said, causing everyone else in the arena to laugh.
Chris just smiled and waved to JD, who had instantly calmed down. “Yep, sure do,” he said.
“Okay, then,” The judge continued, “In fourth place,” pausing a moment, he smiled before saying, “from the 7B Ranch: Number 368B. Shown by Buck Walker.”
Again JD went wild with applause. He was so proud of his brothers.
The judge just shook his head and smiled. He announced the third place winner without the same type of fanfare.
Looking at the next spot on his paper, the judge smiled to himself before announcing, “There will be no second place winner. We have a tie for the number one spot, folks.”
Looking over his shoulder at JD, who had every finger crossed, the judge asked, “You ready?”
JD nodded vigorously.
“In first place, the first winner is: from the 7B Ranch, number 342B. Shown by Buck Walker,” the judge shouted through the microphone, dragging out the last name.
JD was practically bouncing off the walls. All the other adults were standing there watching and laughing at the little boy’s complete joy in his brother.
The announcer whistled into the microphone gaining JD’s attention. “We got to announce the other name, now. Okay?”
JD turned beet red and stilled himself. He was always getting accused of being too rambunctious. Ezra had told him once it was sometimes an embarrassment. JD didn’t want to embarrass Chris and Buck.
JD, looking abashed, said quietly, “Sorry.”
“That’s okay, son, we like your enthusiasm,” the judge said before turning back to the claimants.
“And the other winner is,” putting his finger in his ear and glancing toward the small boy with a large grin on his face, the judge said, “7B Ranch: Number 335B. Shown by Chris Walker. Looks like this is the Walker’s luck day, folks.”
The judge could hardly be heard over JD’s enthusiastic cheers as the nine-year-old bounced up and down happily. Chris and Buck collected their ribbons and began walking out of the arena. No sooner had they stepped outside of the gate than a very excited little brother attacked them. “You guys won!” JD announced loudly.
“Yep, we sure did!” Buck said, as he ruffled his brother’s hair. “Took the sweep almost,” he added.
“That means we’re going to get good prices for them when we sell, right?” JD inquired, bounding along as they walked back to the sheep’s pen.
“Hoping it works that way,” Chris said, as he tied his two ribbons onto the gate.
“It will,” JD said confidently.
Buck just shot a smile at Chris as he tied his ribbons alongside the others. “Come on, kiddo. I’m ready to go home.”
By the time they got home, it was seven o’clock. Chris had called Josiah on the way home and let him know the outcomes. By the time they arrived, Josiah had their suppers heated and the table reset for them. Everyone met the three winners at the door and sat around the table as JD recounted almost every moment of his brother’s awards.
“So, JD. I heard you took first place, too?” Nathan asked, wondering why his little brother hadn’t mentioned that, yet.
JD looked at Ezra and Vin and simply nodded. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “Sorry, guys,” he said apologetically to his two brothers.
Ezra and Vin looked at each other with complete confusion before Ezra turned back to JD. “Why would you be apologetic in achieving such a high standard? Was that not the intentions of these exercises?” Ezra asked.
“Yeah, but I’m sorry because you guys tried hard, too and didn’t…” JD stopped, remembering it wasn’t nice to ‘rub someone’s face in defeat’, as Josiah had once said when he won a race and had bragged a little too much to the loser.
“Look, JD, we all can’t win first place. Doesn’t mean no one should,” Vin explained logically.
JD looked from Vin to Ezra, both nodding their heads in confirmation.
“Well….” the nine-year-old started, “it was pretty cool. You see…”
For the next hour the youngest filled the other brothers in with every detail he could remember and, for the sharp little boy, that was a lot of details.
Josiah finally called it to a halt at eight and directed the youngest to go get a shower and get ready for bed. For once, JD didn’t argue. It had been a long day and, despite the excitement, he was having an adreline letdown and it was all catching up to him.
Later, when Vin came up to go to bed, JD whispered form beneath his blankets, “Vin?”
“Yeah?” the twelve-year-old answered back.
“You and Ezra really not mad ‘cause I won first place?” the little one asked timidly. He may have been bold on the outside, but it still mattered to him what his brother’s thought of him.
“No, JD. We told you, we’re proud of you and glad you won first place,” Vin said sleepily.
“Goodnight, Vin,” JD said as he yawned.
“Goodnight, JD,” his brother said, rolling over towards the wall.
“Vin?” JD said, “I hope you win tomorrow.”
“Thanks,” Vin breathed out as he started breathing steadily.
Most people think that pigs are the dirtiest animals there are, when in fact they are one of the cleanest. Today, Vin’s Hampshire pig was extra clean. After taking a stiff brush and scrubbing the pig to an almost glowing shine, Vin combed down the wire-like hair. Neither he nor Ezra had told JD, but both were actually a little jealous of their brother. They didn’t want him to have lost; they just wished they could win, too. Ezra had only showed the calf, so he didn’t have any more chances, but Vin was showing his pig today and he had every intention of doing everything he could to win first place.
“Hey, Vin!” Buck said as he walked up to the pen.
“Hey, Buck,” Vin answered.
“You about ready to quit and go change your clothes?” the big brother asked.
“Yeah, just a give me a minute,” Vin said as he continued brushing down the hair.
Buck watched his little brother intently for a minute before saying, “He looks real good, Vin. You should be proud of yourself.”
Vin blushed at his brother’s praise. It was still kinda hard to accept nice words from his brothers after some of the homes he had lived in. “Thanks,” he said quietly.
Vin continued combing and Buck finally enter the pen. “Okay, that’s enough. Why don’t you go change and I’ll finish up here for you,” the oldest said, taking the comb from his brother’s hand.
Vin looked uncertain for a moment before agreeing. “Okay, but I’ll be right back,” he said, walking out the pen.
“I’ll be right here. Ain’t going anywhere,” Buck called after him.
Chris walked up at that moment and watched as his little brother walked out the barn doors. “How’s it going?” he asked.
Buck shrugged. “Think he really wants to win today,” he said, letting the statement speak for itself.
“Yeah, figured as much,” the blond said with a sigh. This had been his fear all along, one brother winning and one not. It wouldn’t have mattered who the winner had been. The others would think, ‘He’s better than me,’ or more likely, ‘I’m less than the others.’ That was always the problem when having so many brothers with so many different issues. It helped that they were stronger as a family than they were individually. Together, they had a better chance of defeating such demons that plagued each other.
It was Friday and, for the last time, Chris and Buck found a spot on the bleachers and settled in. It had been a long week and both were ready to see the end of it. It had been fun at times, but mostly strenuous. Come Monday, life would get back to normal and both men were looking forward to it.
Vin put the harness around his pig and led him though the barn towards the showing area. His stomach was doing flip-flops. Rationally, he knew that, no matter how low he placed, his brothers would still love him and life would go on. Irrationally, he was beginning to see the ribbons as Ezra did, tallies of self-worth. He had forced himself not to think of his parents this week, but now, just for a moment, he pictured them in the stands like they had been last year, both cheering for him. Janis had had that anxious, excited look she often got when good things were about to happen and Bobby had sat there calm and steady with a smile that made Vin feel good all the way through. Bobby had a way of making him feel as if nothing he did could disappoint the man. Vin took a deep breath and pushed his feelings aside. He walked out into the arena when his name was called, and glanced up into the stands. Bobby and Janis weren’t there, of course, but Buck and Chris were. Buck had the same anxious smile Janis wore and Chris was sitting there smiling his calm, go-get-them, Tiger smile. For a moment, it was like having Bobby and Janis smiling down on him with pride.
Vin led his pig around the arena and then stopped in front of the judges. After showing, Vin once again climbed the bleachers and got out his books. Chris wasn’t going to let him put his schoolwork off until Sunday night.
They would be going home in a while and tomorrow some of them would come back and gather up the animals. This was the end of the showing season for this year. 4-H showings wouldn’t start again until next March.
Buck went to their holding pen and picked up the cooler he had stored there earlier. Stepping up to where his brothers sat, he set it down and the three brothers ate in companionable silence.
The judges announced the warning for the awards and Vin stuffed his books back in his bag and headed down to the arena. Buck rubbed his hands nervously on his jeans and hoped for the best. Chris crossed his arms and waited calmly.
Starting at sixth place, the judge made his way up the list. With each name called, Buck rocked back and forth a little harder while Chris’ spine grew a bit stiffer.
“…. And in first place from the 7B Ranch,” the judge was momentarily interrupted by a loud whoop coming from the stands as Buck leapt to his feet.
“Number 1377B. Shown by Vin Walker,” the judge finished.
Buck was already pounding his way down the bleachers with Chris hot on his heels. No sooner had Vin got to the gate with his ribbon than Buck grabbed him and swung him around. “Buck!” Vin cried plaintively.
Buck set him down and Chris grabbed him around the neck and hugged him while ruffling his hair. “Way to go, pal,” he said as he released his brother.
The thousand-watt smile on their little brother’s face said it all. Vin was really proud of himself. “Piglet did good, didn’t she,” Vin said.
“Yep, she sure did. So did you,” Buck replied, leading the way to the pen.
Chris walked a step behind his two brothers and rolled his eyes, He wondered if his dad had this problem with them naming their animals. As far as he could remember, he had not become attached to the animals he showed, but then again he hadn’t wanted to attach himself to anything back then. He tried to remember if Josiah and Buck named theirs and figured Buck would have. His brother attached himself to everything he cared about. ‘Poor dad,’ he thought as he walked along.
That night was cause for a big celebration cookout at home now that the fair was basically over. All they had to do was drive into Ridge City and pick up the animals and come back home. Next week would settle back into a normal routine and Chris was looking forward to it. Vin had been as hesitant as JD to bring up his winning to Ezra, but the brother had already learned from Josiah, who learned via cell phone, how his brother had done and was the first to congratulate him.
Ezra laid in his bunk staring into pitch blackness. He had been happy for all his brothers and their wins. At the same time, he was angry and frustrated with himself for not being able to accomplish the same. He thought back over his own showing performance with a critical eye, reviewing every step with a skewed 20/20 hindsight and saw all his flaws and mistakes. He berated himself for once again being a loser. The tears threatened once again to flow. Sucking in a deep breath, he resolved he wouldn’t allow it. As his mind scuttled from one thought to another, Ezra turned over to face the wall and recounted the many relatives and friends of Maude he had lived with and wondered once again why the Walkers had kept him when he hadn’t been good enough for anyone before them. He had wanted to go out there in that arena and win. He wanted to show the judges and all the other people just how good the Walkers had been and how much they had improved his live. He had failed miserably.
Ezra was still awake and had been moving restlessly when Nathan came into the room. The senior had kept a special eye on his brother tonight during the celebration. He didn’t know whether Josiah and the others truly understood the amount of pressure Ezra put on himself and how important it was to Ezra to win. He knew what winning meant to Ezra and the fact the other’s had all come out with first place wins hurt his brother, whether Ezra showed it or not.
Nathan squatted down by the low bed. “Ezra,” he said quietly.
Ezra didn’t move. He didn’t want to talk to his well-meaning brother right now.
Nathan wasn’t deterred. “I know you’re not asleep, so listen up. It might have mattered in the past how well you accomplished things, but not anymore. We all win at something; it’s just a matter of how you look at it. You may not think you won, but you did. Just by getting out there and showing. One day you’re going to win first place. In the meantime, you’re doing just fine. I promise,” he said with conviction.
When there was still no answer, Nathan rose and jumped up on his bunk. Leaning over the side, he whispered, “Night.”
“Night,” a very soft voice answered him back.
The next morning, Chris and Buck got up to get the sheep and pig by themselves, but were met at the door by Vin, JD and Ezra.
“What are you guys doing up so early?” Chris asked, seeing the boys dressed.
“You said we we’re responsible for our animals all the way through. That includes bringing them home,” JD said matter-of-factly.
“Okay,” Chris said in understanding. “But why are you up?” he asked, nodding towards Ezra.
The fourteen-year-old shrugged. He couldn’t say for sure why he was going. He had heard Vin and JD in the next room rustling around and had just got up and joined them. Chris stopped waiting for Ezra to think up an excuse to go with them and walked out the door, signaling it was time to leave. As they walked out the door, Josiah and Nathan came walking up from the barn.
Buck called out, “Hey, looks like we’re all going to the fair this morning. Want to come along, too?”
Josiah and Nathan looked at each other and shrugged before nodding yes. It was a bit of a squeeze, getting all seven into Buck’s truck, but by putting Chris in the back with Nathan and the young ones and Ezra up front in the middle they managed.
Once the animals were loaded, JD pleaded to go one more time and look at all the games in the midway. The older ones finally relented and followed their brothers down the fairway. Once again, JD stopped in front of the carnie with the balls and baskets. “Please, Buck! I know I could win! Please!” JD begged.
Buck pulled out two dollars, “Okay, but if you lose, you owe me a chore,” he said. He had no allusions his brother would win, but figured JD would have to learn that lesson on his own.
JD paid his money and three basketballs were set on the counter. His brothers gathered around to watch. JD picked up the first ball and carefully aimed. Rocking his arm back, he threw with all his might. The ball hit the rim and bounced off.
“Aww,” the carnie said.
“That’s okay, I still got two more throws,” JD said assuredly.
Buck and Chris just looked at each other.
Once again, JD pulled his arm back and threw the ball. This time it went inside the rim, spun around and fell out.
JD hung his head, talking himself. He could do this. He knew he could. Picking up the last ball, he aimed for a long time, rocked his arm back a forth a few times and threw the ball. It went inside the basket and then popped back out.
The carnie looked at the small boy and said, “Sorry. You want to try again?”
Chris stepped forward and said, “No he doesn’t.”
The carnie backed off. “How about you, sir? You want to try?”
“No thanks,” Chris replied.
Ezra stared at his little brother. JD’d had such faith in himself and now he had failed, and on top of that he owed Buck a chore.
Just as Chris turned to go, but Ezra dug into his pockets and pulled out two dollars. “I’ll play,” he said.
The six brothers turned back in shock. Ezra was frugal to say the least with his money. They knew he knew the game was fixed. They couldn’t believe their brother would throw away his money like this.
Chris stepped forward. “JD lost fair and square, Ezra. He had to learn the hard way, but that’s no reason for you to throw away your money, too,” he said softly. Ezra tried to be the tough guy, but Chris had learned to see through the veneer.
“It’s okay, Chris,” Ezra said, turning his back to the carnie. “I know a lot of things," he said with a wink.
The carnie placed the three balls on the counter and Ezra picked one up. Shifting his stance slightly, he threw the ball low. It went into the basket and stayed.
“Yeah!” JD and Vin shouted.
“We have a winner,” the carnie said, going over to the pile of small animals.
“Wait a sec. I have two more balls,” Ezra said, stopping the man in his tracks.
The carnie looked back, caught the oldest brother’s stares and smiled weakly. “Yes, you do.”
Ezra threw the next ball in the same manner as the first. Once again, the ball stayed in the basket. He rubbed his hands on his jeans and picked up the last ball. With all his concentration, Ezra sunk the ball.
JD bounced up and down wildly. Vin beamed at his brother and Chris and Buck both acknowledged him with a big smile, while Josiah and Nathan patted him on the back wholehearted.
“Okay, what it’ll be?” the carnie asked? Going over to the medium size stuffed animals.
“Excuse me, sir. I sunk all three. I believe that entitles me to a selection of my choosing,” Ezra said directly.
Buck and Chris immediately came to attention and landed the man hardy stares, while Josiah glared from the back of the pack. As the carnie looked around at the remaining young boys, he noticed they all had the same stance and glowering look, though some were more menacing than others. The carnie knew trouble when he saw it and backed down.
“Of course. You choose,” he said with fake graciousness.
Instead of choosing, Ezra turned to JD and asked, “Which one should I get?” He silently hoped JD wouldn’t pick the giant purple ape.
JD looked over all the big stuffed animals carefully as if it was his choice instead of Ezra’s. “I like the big white dog,” he said.
“I agree with your selection,” Ezra said with a smile. Turning to the man behind the counter, he said, “I’ll take the big white dog.”
The man nodded once and hooked the dog off its peg. Handing the oversized dog to the boy, he asked, “Anyone else want to try? You saw how easy it was.”
Josiah growled, “No thank you.”
The seven brothers began walking back up the fair grounds, when JD hopped up bedside his brother, who was wagging the best prize he’d ever seen. Meaning to be nice, he said, “You’re a real winner, Ezra.”
“Thanks,” Ezra said, not sure how to take the compliment.
“Yeah, he sure is,” Nathan called out from the far side, where he was walking. This bought a small dimpled smile to the fourteen-year-olds face.
Buck clamped his hands onto the boy’s thin shoulders and lightly shook them in a playful, but meaningful gesture. “We’re all winners, JD.”
“Yes, we are,” JD said, craning his neck up to look at his big brother.
Chris slowed his pace and position himself next to Ezra and in a low voice asked, “How’d you do it?”
Ezra smiled broadly. “Told you, Chris, I know things.”
Chris cocked an eyebrow at his brother and Ezra laughed then sighed. “Maude worked in a carnival for a while as a fortune teller. I learned all the tricks,” the brother said with a sad tone.
Chris simply gripped Ezra lightly around the neck and kept walking.
Sunday night, Josiah came in from the workshop where he had been all day. “Okay, everyone go get their ribbons,” he called out. When Ezra didn’t move off the couch, Josiah nudged him said, “Everyone.”
Soon the seven brothers met up in the kitchen where Josiah was. It had been a long standing tradition that every year, their dad would build a frame big enough to hold all the ribbons won by the family. This year Josiah had taken over that role. A role that burdened his shoulder at times and uplifted his spirits at others. As each brother handed Josiah their ribbon, Josiah pinned it onto the matte and then underneath it wrote who won and for what. This year the frame had been one of the biggest made. After all the ribbons were in place, Josiah put the backing on and held it up for everyone to see. They walked into the study and Buck climbed up onto the stepstool and hammered a nail into the wall next to the previous year’s frame. Josiah handed the frame to Buck and Buck carefully placed the frame over the nail. Stepping down, Buck joined his brothers in staring at the frame of ribbons they had won as a family. A tribute to their parents. They were going on without them, but by sticking together they held a winning hand.
7 B Ranch Index