Judging the Book

Justice DeWinter

Chapter One
Sixteen-year-old Ezra Standish could still remember quite clearly his shock and dismay the first time he was forced to attend a Junior Rodeo. Despite the fact that he had been only twelve at the time, he had found the idea of sitting 'outside' on 'wooden bleachers' just to watch 'a bunch of horses' both ridiculous and a complete waste of time. In fact, he had used those exact words in his protest to his guardian Josiah Sanchez. Luckily for him, his arguments had fallen on deaf ears. Four years later he looked back on that day as the turning point in his young life and the memory of it would often force a rueful smile to his face.

The first part of the Junior Rodeo had been just as bad as he'd feared; 45 minutes of small children bouncing around on the backs of fat ponies accompanied by the enthusiastic screams of friends and relatives. No matter that one of those wannabe cowboys had been nine-year-old JD Dunne, nephew to Buck Wilmington who was a close friend to Josiah. The experience had been an ordeal and a genuine trial of his patience. And then of course following the first half had been the intermission and the horrifying discovery that the rodeo used 'portable bathrooms'. Port-A-Lets, of all things. Ezra remembered pleading for the keys to the car and actually shedding a few crocodile tears in desperation. As large as his vocabulary had been even at that tender age, stoic was not a part of it.

JD had joined them in the stands for the second half of the competition, which was divided into two age groups, 13 to 15 and 16 to 18. As he had absolutely nothing else to do, Ezra watched the contestants and gradually realized there was a remarkable difference between the horsemanship of a 9-year-old and a teenager. The older kids were actually more in tune with their horse's movements. Riders and mounts moved as one with the very best of them barely pulling on their horse's reins. The boys and girls competing in the more challenging trials radiated a sense of control and accomplishment. Boredom slowly, grudgingly grew into interest and by the end of the competition, if the emotions he'd felt weren't exactly appreciation and respect they had been something very close. Close enough that when, a week later Buck had once more offered to give him riding lessons he'd actually accepted.

And so here he was, four years older, a regular competitor in Junior Rodeos and the proud owner of a horse by the name of Chaucer High Stepper, born of Witty Chaucer and Emerald High Stepper. Josiah had given him the purebred Quarter horse for his fourteenth birthday despite the numerous protests of his mother Maude Standish. And seeing as how she had spent his birthday on the other side of the planet, there really hadn't been much that she could have actually done to keep him from accepting the most wondrous gift. And oh, the look on her face when she'd finally seen them ride in competition.

Ezra had been blessed with an ample share of his mother's good looks and was quite aware of that fact. Thanks also to his mother, he was keenly aware of just how far good looks could take a person. Good grooming ranked very high on Ezra's list of priorities. His thick brown hair with its hint of auburn was kept neatly styled to better accent his handsome face. His pale green eyes were an inheritance from his deceased father along with a pair of disarming dimples that appeared whenever he smiled. Straight white teeth that had never needed braces and a complexion void of acne completed the image of wholesome goodness. When paired with the power and beauty of a purebred, chestnut colored Quarter horse, he was a sight to behold. There weren't too many boys at the rodeo that could boast their own cheerleading squad.

Ezra couldn't help the satisfied grin as he finished brushing out his horse's mane and his thoughts might have continued their wandering path had not an exuberant greeting brought them crashing back to the present.

"Hey Ezra!" JD's enthusiastic shout shattered the peaceful moment and caused both horse and owner to jerk their heads up in surprise. "Chaucer 's looking good. You got a new halter for him. I like those silver bezels. Are those stones real turquoise? You're not still placing bets on the side are you? Josiah catches you again I bet you won't get off as easy as last time. Have you seen the ads for the new X-Men movie? Sweeeet."

Compared to others in his age group, JD Dunne was slightly on the short side but made up for his lack of height by being solidly built. His thick, dark hair hung to his collar and his bangs were perpetually falling into his chocolate-brown eyes. Like his uncle, the boy seemed to exist in 'happy mode' and never hesitated to share his joy in a verbal barrage of excited statements and often non-sequitur questions. When placed in his company, Ezra often found himself either smiling with amusement or gritting his teeth while silently praying for a small earthquake. Luckily this afternoon he was in a fine mood and answered the younger boy with an indulgent smile.

"Hello JD. Yes, Chaucer is in excellent health. Yes, I did get a new halter for him, thanks in part to a most generous belated birthday greeting from my mother and yes, those stones are real turquoise. As for wagers on the outcome of these trials...."

"Oh, hey Ezra?"

"You must know it is not really gambling if one is sure of the outcome..."

"Uh...Ezra..." JD's gaze was fixed on a point just past Ezra's shoulder as he tried to interrupt while making a small shushing gesture with his hand.

"And what Josiah doesn't know..."


Finally recognizing JD's distress, Ezra's mouth snapped shut and he gave a mental groan of frustration. He didn't need to turn around to know what vision had JD suddenly stuttering and speechless. How can such a large man move so damn quietly?

"Go on Ezra, finish your sentence." Josiah Sanchez was a tall, broad shouldered man, with a deep, rumbling voice to match. His dark, close-cropped hair was just beginning to show the first hints of gray, which did nothing to detract from his rugged good looks. The corners of his dark eyes were permanently crinkled with laugh lines but at the moment his expression was one of stern disapproval as he stared down at his ward. "Well? What Josiah doesn't know...."

"Yes, I was about to say that what you don't know is that I have turned over a new leaf." Ezra shamelessly met and held the steady gaze of his guardian as he lied with a poker face that only his mother would truly be proud of. "I have decided to give up gambling on the outcome of these competitions and..."

"Ezra Standish, dig that hole any deeper and you'll need a ladder to climb out of it." Josiah was not fooled for a moment. What Ezra had yet to realize and no adult was about to tell him, was that any time he started fabricating a story; the fingers of his right hand would give a small twitch. It wasn't much of a giveaway but it was all the proof Josiah needed. "Now I want you to think real hard about what happened the last time I caught you making bets."

Ezra's green eyes narrowed ever so slightly and his Adam's apple visibly jumped in his throat.

"Good. Now imagine that punishment doubled." Josiah was both pleased and a little exasperated to see Ezra's complexion grow noticeably paler. Josiah had grown up with a father who believed in the old adage, 'Spare the rod and spoil the child'. For that reason, Josiah had made a promise to himself that if he ever had children of his own, he would never resort to pain as a form of punishment. Ezra had tested that resolve to the absolute limit. By sheer dumb luck, Josiah had finally found one way to make the conniving teenager think twice about breaking the rules.


"That's right. The King's Ranch gets all the money from your gambling plus two months of your allowance and any money you earn working at Chris' ranch." Josiah knew that Ezra was saving his money for his first car and had a financial plan worked out to the very smallest detail. Two months without income would throw a very large wrench into his schedule.

"Josiah! Two months?! You can't be serious! Besides, I haven't actually placed any bets. I mean, we just got here, when would I have had the opportunity?"

JD wisely decided it was a good time for him to go find his uncle. As he slipped off and made his way along the rows of horse trailers, he felt a small twinge of guilt for getting Ezra into trouble but it only lasted a moment. At thirteen, he had yet to see the importance of having a car and was content enough with the amount of his weekly allowance. And if Ezra was so desperate for money that he knowingly broke rules set up by guardian, well he'd get what he deserved.

"JD! Over here."

Turning his head, JD spotted his uncle standing near the gate leading to the arena stands. He ginned and broke into a quick trot. "Hey Buck! Where's Chris?"

"The buyer showed up for Rascal Red so Chris is taking care of the paperwork." Buck gestured in the general direction of the open field where their horse trailer had been parked. "Did you find Ezra and Josiah?"

"Uh, yeah. Chaucer is looking real good. Ezra's got him a new headstall. D'ya think the rain will hold off till after the rodeo?"

Buck eyed his nephew and had to fight back the grin that threatened to escape. He covered it up by raising a hand and rubbing his thumb along the edges of his dark, handlebar mustache. His gray-blue eyes sparkled with mirth as he correctly guessed the reason behinds JD's blatant attempt at skirting the question.

Buck was in his mid thirties and had been friends with Josiah long before the man had met and fallen for the aristocratic Maude Standish. When he'd announced that he was assuming guardianship of Maude's young son while she continued to run her international trading company, none of his friends had been surprised. Josiah made a modest living as a guidance counselor for a local high school and spent much of his free time working at the youth center. Why he'd never gotten married and had kids of his own remained a mystery. An even bigger puzzle was how he'd managed to keep his love of children while raising Ezra.

To say that the two had a slightly different set of standards was like saying the sun was slightly different from the moon. Ezra had always been something of a quick learner and traveling with his mother had exposed him to the seamier side of retail and marketing at a very young age. That, coupled with his mother's fondness for the finest life had to offer had given the child a rather skewed sense of priorities. In the beginning, Ezra had considered material possessions and the comforts of civilized living more important than family and friends. Thanks mostly to Josiah's patient and careful tutelage, Ezra's focus, if not redirected had at least been enlarged to accept that there was more to life than money.

Buck considered himself damn lucky that he had not had the same problems with his nephew. Buck Wilmington was also a confirmed bachelor but the reason why was no mystery. The self-proclaimed ladies man was a great admirer of the female form in all its many variations. To ask him to settle down to just one for the rest of his life would be about the same as asking him to quite breathing. He'd curtailed some of his playboy ways when his older sister had died leaving her son to his care. Luckily John Dunne, or JD to his friends, had been raised with a focus more on people than possessions. After the initial period of grief following his mother's death from cancer, the boy had easily settled into a wholesome life at the L-W horse ranch. Even Buck's business partner Chris Larabee, had adapted readily enough to the unexpected addition to their bachelor household.

Just like Ezra before him, Buck's thoughts were brought back to the present by JD's shout of welcome to the other owner of the L-W Ranch.

"Hey Chris!"

Approaching Buck and his nephew, Chris nodded his head in greeting. Like them, he was dressed in jeans and boots but where they had light blue western-styled shirts and light colored hats, Chris wore a midnight blue shirt and a solid black hat.

Chris Larabee was a sparsely built man of average height with blond hair kept neatly short. He was a good-looking man with finely chiseled features tanned by long hours of working outside. Piercing green eyes completed the handsome face whose appeal was only spoiled by a slight frown that seemed almost a permanent expression. Friends that had known Chris back when his wife and son were alive could remember when his emerald eyes had sparkled with laughter and his smile had come as readily as any man's. But those days had tragically come to an end when a semi truck had run head-on into his wife's car killing both her and their young son. Doctor's had tried their best to convince Chris that his wife and child had not suffered but their words had done nothing to ease the pain.

Three years later Chris was still dealing with the grief in his own, solitary fashion. With the help of Buck and his other friends he'd crawled back out of the bottle except for certain special days each year, which he celebrated by drinking himself into oblivion. The other physical manifestations of his grief were his constant look of displeasure and his wardrobe, which had gradually darkened to black or other somber colors normally worn only in the winter months.

"JD. You ready to ride?"

"Oh yeah! But this year I have to wait till the second half." JD found the thought of moving into the next level of competition both exciting and nerve wracking. Besides competing against boys older and more experienced than himself, it also meant the bulls would be bigger and the ride times longer.

Buck gave his nephew a quick, reassuring hug around the shoulders. "Just means you got more time to check over your gear."

"Buuuck! You made me go over every piece of leather yesterday. Twice!"

"Well three times a charm, now git."

A light swat to the back of his jeans sent the reluctant teenager on his way. At first his steps were heavy and plodding but JD's normal level of exuberance quickly returned. By the time he reached the row of trailers where his horse Pony was waiting, he was practically bouncing along while calling out cheerfully to the other kids waiting to compete.

"Kid's gonna do fine Buck."

"Of course he will! I ain't worried a bit."

Chris' lips twitched in the closest he ever came to a smile as he rescued a mangled rodeo program from his friend's hands. "I take it this is just your attempt at origami?"


"Origami Brother Wilmington, the ancient Japanese art of paper folding." Josiah smiled as he walked up and saw the twisted roll of paper. "Have a little faith Buck. He's been competing for what, three years now?"

Buck snatched back his booklet and stuffed it into his back pocket. "Four and I ain't worried. In fact I'll bet a steak dinner he places in all three entries."

Josiah frowned as he was reminded of his real reason for seeking out the two horse breeders. "Chris, would you mind holding Ezra's wages for the next two months?"

"King's Ranch?" Chris' green eyes flashed. "Two months... what was it this time, poker or dice?"

"Betting on the rodeo." Josiah smiled as Buck sheepishly ducked his head so that his hat brim hid his face. "Steak dinners are one thing, hard cash with the intent to turn a profit is something else." Josiah became suspicious when Buck still kept his gaze averted.

"Buck? Something I should know?"

"Welllll now Josiah...." The man was obviously reluctant to talk by the way he dug the tip of one boot into the dirt at his feet. "Was only five dollars and Ezra...."

Josiah gave a growl of frustration as he threw his hands up in the air and stomped off to join the growing crowd at the entrance to the stands. Chris shook his head and gave his friend a commiserating slap on the shoulder as he also headed for the gate. "Maybe I should hold your salary for a month as well. Set a good example for the boys."

"Aww Chris, you wouldn't do that. Would ya? Chris? Hey!"

Chapter Two

Ezra strode along the lines of trucks and trailers, looking for the distinctive black and silver Sundowner four-horse carrier used by the L-W Ranch. Two months! Outrageous! Doesn't Josiah understand how important a car is going to be for my social standing during my senior year at high school? And JD ....damn it! This has to be the third, no fourth time he's managed to get me in trouble. Surely he could have found some way to warn me instead of standing t here stammering my name like an idiot. Maybe I should come up with some kind of hand signal or code word or something.

The teenager continued to fume and mentally rant as he turned down the next row of vehicles, his dark boots kicking up small plumes of dust as he hurried along. Josiah would be expecting him in the stands and too long of a delay would cause the man to suspect the worst. And that thought led Ezra to his next concern; the fact that no matter how large or small the lie, the adults closest to him were no longer fooled by his fabrications. He knew perfectly well that it had to be a physical give away since other people were still easily taken in but the exact nature of the slip continued to elude him. He maintained firm eye contact, did not scratch his nose or jingle change in his pocket nor did he shift his feet or do any of the other dozen things his mother had warned him about. Yet there had to be something and he was beginning to suspect that even JD knew what it was.

Ezra finally spotted the trailer he was looking for and set his mind back to his original goal; finding a way to convince JD that he owed him monetary compensation for this latest punishment. Ezra's pace increased and he almost walked right past the object of his search.


Hearing the annoying abbreviation of his name, the older boy stumbled to a surprised halt. Looking around, he spotted JD standing next to a horse trailer that was so old, its once bright blue paint was faded to almost white. Dents and large patches of brown rust gave further testimony to many years of hard usage with little time or money spent in the way of maintenance. The red pick-up truck it was attached to appeared to be equally as old and in just as bad a shape with its bald tires, broken taillights and a cracked windshield. Ezra immediately recognized both vehicles from previous years of competition. The black Quarter horse and the young man checking its hooves were just as equally recognizable but for very different reasons.

The horse was a good-looking animal with a glossy, solid black coat except for a white blaze down the length of his nose and one white sock on a hind foot. What made him memorable was the way he stood out from his surroundings; it was like seeing the Mona Lisa hanging on the wall of a truck stop. The small, wooden nameplate attached to the back of the trailer simply read, "Peso", giving no hint or indication as to the animal's lineage. That he was of pure Quarter horse stock was obvious by the deepness of his barrel chest and the tightly bunched muscles in his hindquarters. A truly magnificent horse, which made it such a shame that his rider did not match up to his standards.

Poor was the first word that popped into Ezra's mind when he spotted the boy hunched over a raised hoof. He felt a slight flush of embarrassment at making such a quick assumption and gave a small frown of annoyance. Josiah was starting to have a bad influence on him. He knew it was morally wrong to judge people by their appearance and even worse to classify them by their income but reading people in such a way was one of the very earliest lessons his mother had taught him. Another lesson had been to avoid those of an impoverished nature at all cost.

Watching the boy slowly and carefully cleaning around the frog of his horse's hoof, Ezra believed his mother had been exactly right in her opinion. If he remembered correctly, Peso's rider was named Vin Tanner and had established a reputation in the Junior Rodeo circuit as being the best calf roper in his age group. The calf roping and bull riding competitions had the largest cash prizes and last year's top award had been a new Cartwright, single-horse trailer. Why wasn't Tanner using the trailer or any of the other merchandise that Ezra knew the boy had won over the years? Beside the trailer there had been a saddle, headgear, blankets and even certificates good for clothes at some of the best western wear shops in the area.

Ezra's frown deepened as he gazed at the worn saddle with its mismatched pieces of leather and the reins on the halter that looked on the verge of snapping in any one of a dozen places. And Tanner's own attire wasn't any better. The jeans were as faded as the paint on the horse trailer and looked to have been patched in both knees. It was hard to tell the original color of his boots from under the layer of dirt but they might have once been a dark brown. The blue flannel shirt had frayed cuffs and there was at least one place on the right sleeve where a tear had been crudely sewn shut. If Maude Standish had been standing in her son's place she would have shook her head and tittered at the disgraceful display of poverty.

"Ezra, you remember Vin don'tch ya? He beat you last year at barrels. Guess it's a good thing you moved up a level this year. Course next year you'll be competing against each other again. Hey, but at least he don't ride in the pole bending. Say Vin, how come you don't ride the poles? Peso 's good with barrels, I bet he would do great at ..uh...no I don't, bet I mean. I mean bet bet...I mean not a real bet...no money or nothin." JD's voice trailed off as he looked from the silently glaring Ezra to the still bent over and equally silent Vin. "Uhm, yeah well, gosh look at the time! I'm supposed to be checking my tack. See ya'll later! Good luck Vin! Luck Ez!"

Ezra could only watch dumbfounded as JD made good his escape. How does he do that? It's like he's able to stun a person with a barrage of pointless comments and questions. There ought to be a way to make use of such a talent.

"If he could rope calves as fast as he talks, he'd be this year's champ." The softly spoken words with their heavy southern drawl drew Ezra's attention back to the boy slowly straightening up from his hunched over position.

Ever on the lookout for weaknesses in his opponents, Ezra couldn't help but notice that Vin appeared to be moving like an old man as he drew away from the side of his horse. No, not an old man exactly. More like a young man with a sore back. An injury perhaps? A pulled muscle or inflamed tendon? Something that would slow him down, perhaps even eliminate him from the bull riding? Tanner was the favorite to win, which meant the odds would be in his favor. Ezra's mind quickly sifted through the possibilities but his excitement crashed when he remembered his winnings were already forfeited to the King's Ranch.

But Josiah has only laid claim to my hard earned money, nothing has been said about material possessions, which could be sold for cash at a later date. No doubt that is exactly what Tanner has been doing with his prizes. I wonder what he could possibly have spent the money on since it obviously did not go to his horse or his attire?

A new word popped into Ezra's head as he watched the younger teen using his pant's leg to remove the dirt from the point of the hoof pick. Scruffy described Tanner's appearance to a 'T'. Not only were his clothes old and worn, they also appeared to be one size too large. The shoulders of the shirt fell half way down the boy's upper arms and what Ezra had thought to be cuffs were actually the folded over ends of the sleeves. An old leather belt held the pants tight around a waist that looked thin even for an active teenager. Vin's light brown hair brushed the top of his shoulders and framed his angular face in ragged uneven locks while his thick bangs looked ready to fall across his eyes at a any given moment.

"Whatever it is, I ain't buying it."

Ezra blinked in confusion as he met the blue-eyed gaze of the teen in front of him. "What?"

"That look on your face," Vin tossed the hoof pick into an old wooden box as he spoke. "Like a fox that thinks he's found a way into the hen house. Whatever scheme you've got cookin, you can leave me out of it." And with that said, he reached for a thick, metal comb and began working at a tangled knot in his horse's mane.

Putting on his best let's be buddies smile, Ezra ignored the obvious dismissal and moved one step closer.

"Watch it!"

The warning gave Ezra just enough time to dodge a very large set of snapping teeth. Quickly jumping back, he stared in shock as Vin dealt his horse a firm blow right between his ears.

"Done warned you about that you stupid mule. Gonna bite the wrong person one of these days and give yourself rabies or aids or somethin." Vin delivered his warning while calmly dodging a hoof aimed straight for the toe of his boot.

Ruined. Ezra thought as he watched the ill-tempered display by the Quarter horse. He must have suffered years of mistreatment to behave like this. What a horrible waste.

"Now settle down before I take a stick to yor mangy hide."

"You will not!"

Vin and Peso both froze and stared at Ezra, obviously startled by his outburst. The horse stood with his ears folded back close to his skull, his nostrils flaring wide as he gave a loud, puzzled sounding snort which Vin obligingly translated.


"I said you will not beat that horse!"

Vin frowned while Peso bent his neck to rub his nose along his rider's hip. "Course I ain't gonna beat him. What gave you that fool idea?"

"You! You just said..."

Tanner shook his head and turned his back on the older boy. "Just goes to show what you get for butting in to other people's business." Giving the once more docile Peso an affectionate scratch between his eyes, Vin resumed the task of removing the tangle from his horse's mane.

Ezra's hands knotted into fist as he fought to control his temper. The conversation was not going at all the way he wanted and he had the distinct impression that he was being laughed at by both the younger boy and his cantankerous horse. Squaring his shoulders and drawing a deep, calming breath Ezra tried again, this time staying well clear of threatening teeth and hooves.

"I was merely going to ask your opinion on JD's chances of placing in the calf roping competition."

"What's his number?"

"Uh 312, I think."

Vin continued to work at the snarl of hair but his eyes narrowed in thought. "Three twelve... twenty six... second place."

Ezra was a little taken back by the certainty in the boy's voice and suddenly found himself feeling very defensive of his friend. "I should tell you that he had the fastest time at the local fair. A time, I might add that came very close to the record you set last year."

Finishing up with his horse's mane, Vin just shrugged his shoulders as he flipped the comb into the wooden tack box. "Don't matter"

Tanner's complete and total dismissal of JD's chances to win first place made Ezra forget his original goal of calculating a new set of odds against the other teenager. Just who does this boy think he is? Just because he made Junior Champion one year he thinks he knows everything?

"And yourself? Do you also know where you'll be placing in the calf- roping event?" There was a distinctive sneer in Ezra's voice as he questioned the younger boy but Vin appeared not to notice it; or care if he did.


"Of course. And third?"

Vin stared at the tip of his boot for a moment as if reading the answer in the dirt permanently ground into the creases of leather. A few seconds passed and then he looked up and met Ezra's green eyes once more. "Either Jed Clancy or Will Davis. Depends on whether or not Will's horse got over that frog fungus."

Ezra just stared in open mouth surprise at Vin. Those names had also been on his list as favorites to win but despite his words to JD, he had been no where near as confident of the competition's outcome as Tanner seemed to be. He found the boy's arrogance annoying and decided to push him even further.

"So tell me Mr. Tanner, how do you come by these predictions? A magic 8 ball? Tea leaves?"

If Vin was offended he didn't show it. He busied himself with shaking the dust out his horse's blanket, keeping his back turned to the disgruntled teen.

"And I couldn't help noticing that you seem to be moving a little stiffly while John Dunne is in peak, physical condition. Are you sure you don't want to rethink the outcome of this event?"

"I'm sure."

"You're positive you're are going to have the best time?"


"Please excuse my curiosity, but I must know on what facts do you base your confidence?"

"The fact I ain't gonna lose."

Ezra couldn't take any more. Tanner's smug confidence in his abilities was doubly annoying for the fact that he probably would win given his past record. And if Ezra had to be honest with himself, he had to admit to a certain amount of relief that he'd moved up a level and would not be competing against Vin in the barrel races. Gritting his teeth, Ezra spun smartly on his heel and stalked away, his hands once more clinched into fists. Of all the arrogant, smart-assed, hillbilly, redneck ...who does he think he is and where does he get that I ain't gonna lose bull shit? Even if JD doesn't win I hope someone beats that jerk's time and I'm there to see the look on his face.

Watching Standish stomp his way down the row of trailers, Vin couldn't help a smirk of satisfaction. If there was one thing he didn't care for, it was the rich kids that thought they knew everything just 'cause they had money to ease their way through life.

The loud squeal of a rusty hinge wiped the smile from Vin's face and he turned to see his uncle emerging from the cab of the pick-up.

Bill Larson was a heavyset man in his mid-forties. Red faced and balding, he looked more like a man in his late fifties thanks to years of excessive drinking and poor healthcare. Wiping sweat from his forehead with a dirty bandana, he squinted after the departing teenager and scowled in annoyance. "That was the Standish kid that almost beat you last year in the barrels?"

"Yeah, that was him." Vin went back to work on his gear while at the same time warily tracking his uncle's movements from the corner of his eye.

"Gonna give you a problem this year?"

"Nope. He's moved up a level."

Bill hawked a wad of phlegm and spit it out, narrowly missing his nephew's boot. "What about that JD kid? He as good as Standish says?"

"He's good. He won't beat me though."

"Ya sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure."

Bill stared at his nephew, his dark, blood-shot eyes clearly showing his dislike of the boy who he'd never really considered as his nephew.

Vin was the son of Emily Tanner who had died from pneumonia when she was just twenty-six leaving behind the seven-year-old boy. Emily had been the stepsister to Bill's wife Clara who, as it turned out was the only living relative Emily had. As for Vin's father, that space on the birth certificate had been filled in with the simple but damning word 'unknown.' With no other family to claim him, Clara had brought Vin home to live with her and Bill. Things had been tolerable at first with Clara running interference between the boy and her husband but then she had fallen ill herself and had waited too long before seeing a doctor. A high fever and a weak heart had seen Clara laid to rest in old family cemetery a week before Vin turned twelve.

Bill was many things and few of them good. He was lazy, short tempered and overly fond of whisky, which made him even more short tempered and lazy. One good thing Bill had been was deeply in love with his wife. Without her calming presence, his moods became darker and more violent as he resorted more and more to alcohol to ease the pain of his loss. Unfortunately for Vin, Clara's absence also meant that he was left alone with his uncle who had no patience and even less love for the boy he felt was responsible for his wife's death. Many a night had ended with Bill standing over his nephew, a beer bottle in one hand and a leather belt in the other while he yelled at the boy for being a worthless burden that had most assuredly killed his own mother just as he had killed his aunt.

One lasting legacy Clara had left to her husband and nephew and it was both a blessing and a curse depending on Bill's mood at any given time. For Vin's tenth birthday, Clara had taken a near lifetime's of savings and bought the boy a purebred Quarter horse and all the tack he needed to ride it. She had gotten a good deal on the horse because the owner had been a young college student that hadn't really known anything about caring for the animal. He'd bought the horse to impress a girl who had later dumped him for another boy. Poor Peso had been forced to share in his master's unhappiness so it was an ill tempered, distrustful gelding that took up residence in the Larson's old barn. Clara had warned Vin about the horse's temperament and apologized in advance that it was the best she could do. Her words had fallen on deaf ears because for Vin, it had been love at first sight.

Days. Weeks. Months. Anyone else would have given up on the horse. Anyone with a lick of common sense would have cut their losses and found another buyer/sucker to take the animal. Lucky for Peso, his new owner was every bit as stubborn and mule-headed as his horse. Whenever their wills clashed, it was usually Vin who wore the bruises and scrapes, sometimes even teeth marks but he always went back for more and eventually his patience paid off. Five months into Vin's tenth year, he and Peso made it through a whole day without a tussle. Four months after that, they entered their first Junior Rodeo. It cost money to enter so they only picked one event, the barrels. They took second and made back their entry fee plus a little more. The next time they competed, they took first.

Once Bill had seen that there was some profitability to be had from the rodeos, he'd stopped complaining. His small farm had never done very well, thanks mostly to his lack of effort though he found a hundred other things to blame it on. When Clara died, he settled on Vin as the source for all of his miseries. He let the boy know right off that the only thing he was good for was welfare and food stamps and since neither of those covered horse feed, Peso was going to have to earn his keep. For Vin, the daily practices that had been fun became hard work. He became the best because he had to, because to lose at a competition was to lose not just his horse but also his best friend. His only friend. And then he'd be alone in the world except for an uncle that hated him. So Vin competed in the highest paying entries and he won. And his prizes went to his uncle who spent the barest minimum on horse feed and the rest on himself.

Bill watched as Vin began saddling Peso, getting the horse ready for the first event, which would be the barrels. He saw the way the boy kept his head turned so that he could keep a wary eye out for his uncle's position at all times. The same was true for the horse, which snorted and shifted uneasily making it harder for Vin to get his gear settled properly. A small, remorseful part of Bill's soul ached for the harm he'd done. The last three years had been hard on the boy and he knew the next three wouldn't be any better. When Bill pushed aside the anger and bitterness long enough to actually feel something else, he found only guilt and sorrow. But that only made him turn again to the nearest bottle and the whisky gave credence to his actions. And if what he did was right, then there was no reason to feel guilty.

With no bottle near at hand, Bill focused his thoughts on the rodeo and the cash to be won. "Heard you say that if that JD kid could rope as fast as he talked he'd be this year's champ."

Vin paused in the act of tightening the cinch on his saddle. He stared at his fingers wrapped around the leather strap as his mind raced, trying to figure out if that had been a bad thing to say. Would it be better or worse to deny the words? Taking a shallow breath, Vin finally admitted the truth. "Yeah, I said that."

"So the boy's got a chance."

It wasn't a question and Vin didn't know what his uncle wanted him to say. He licked his lips and finished looping the leather through the dull, silver ring. "Reckon everybody's got a chance."

"Don't sass back to me boy."

Vin flinched. He couldn't help it. And Bill cursed as he stalked off muttering about, 'ungrateful bastards' and 'taking care of the problem himself.'

Vin breathed a small sigh of relief as his uncle turned at the end of the row of trailers and disappeared from sight. He didn't know what Bill had been mumbling about and he didn't really care as long as it meant he'd avoided another beating. Giving Peso an affectionate pat on the neck, Vin decided then and there that just as soon as he turned sixteen he and Peso were making tracks for Texas.

Out of habit, Vin began talking aloud to his horse. "Hell, if it weren't for all the free stuff from the government, he'd probably have kicked us out right after aunt Clara died." Peso gave a loud snort as if voicing his opinion and Vin answered him. "It's true and you know it. Ain't no point in staying where we're not wanted. Kept hoping things would get better but they haven't and likely won't. Bill's gonna get drunk one of these days and really lose his temper and that'll probably be it for me. Then who would take care of you?"

Such grim statements would have shocked most people; especially coming from such a young boy but the only one to hear Vin's words, as usual was Peso. Vin truly believed that it would do no good to tell any one about his situation. He couldn't imagine there being even one adult in the whole world that would care what happened to him. As he'd told Peso one time, "I ain't starving to death in some other country, I ain't one a Jerry's kids and the farm ain't never gotten hit by a tornado, earthquake or any other kind of disaster, so I guess that sort of leaves me out in the cold."

His mind made up, Vin finished saddling his horse, moving carefully to avoid aggravating the sore places on his back any more than he had to. He considered himself lucky that the bull-riding event was the very last entry. He really didn't want to think about what his back was going to feel like after that. Yeah, Texas was looking better and better each day.


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