Judging the Book

Justice DeWinter

Chapter Three
"And up next we have #312, John Dunne on Pony."

"Heeeyaaa! Go JD! Go!" Buck perched on the very edge of his seat as he whistled and shouted encouragement to his nephew.

Chris and Josiah shared an amused glance behind their friend's back while at the same time sliding a bit further away from him. Buck tended to get a little over excited while JD was competing and it would be safer to give him extra maneuvering room before the announcer called out JD's time. And this was just the barrel race, which was not even JD's best event. Chris had plans to be sitting one row back when the calf roping started and maybe two up for the bull riding.

"And that time is good enough for third! Let's give the boy a big hand folks."

"Dang! There still four other riders to go. I don't think JD's going to place in this one." Buck settled back on the bleachers, his mustache fairly drooping with disappointment.

"C'mon Buck, he did his best. And you know he'll do better in the roping." Josiah comforted his old friend as he handed him a soda.

Buck gave a small snort as he accepted the drink. "Yeah, easy for you to say. Without that Tanner kid to give him a challenge, Ezra is going to mop up in his three events."

Josiah couldn't help the proud smile that curled his lips. "Ezra works very hard with Chaucer. Sometimes I don't think he realizes just how much effort he puts into it. Of course I have to admit, four years ago I would never have imagined him competing, let alone wearing jeans and boots."

Buck laughed as he remembered the very serious boy dressed in designer slacks and shoes trying to mount a horse for the first time. Even with a mounting block it hadn't been easy because Ezra had been adamant about not soiling his clothes. Josiah had finally settled the issue by grabbing the boy by his collar and belt and heaving him straight into a pile of used bedding straw. Ezra had never worn that particular set of clothes again despite the fact that Josiah had paid to have them professionally cleaned.

Chris listened to his two friends as well as the other adults filling the stands. Cheers and applause echoed about the stadium as another young cowboy made his run around the three barrels and raced back to the starting line. A sudden, aching pain caused the muscles in his chest to tighten and his breath hissed between gritted teeth. Three years and it still felt like his heart was being crushed in a giant fist as his thoughts slipped his control once again. Would Adam have competed? Would I have stood up and yelled like Buck or sat grinning quietly like Josiah? What does it feel like? Will I ever know? God, how can I even think about replacing either Adam or Sarah?

"Hey, listen up, they're announcing the winners." Without knowing it, Buck threw Chris a lifeline as he leaned forward in his seat to hear the list of winners. Just that small distraction was enough for Chris to force back the memories and enough of the pain to focus on the words vibrating from the speakers.

"Third place, Trevor Hayes. Second place, Willie Brown. And first place for the second year in a row, Vin Tanner!"

"Damn." Buck grinned and looked over at Josiah. "You know, he's gonna give Ezra hell next year."

"Hmmph. If Ezra's still competing. He plans on buying a car to drive himself to school his senior year. I have a feeling that if he succeeds, his horse riding days may be over."

Chris slowly shook his head as he watched the three winners enter the ring just long enough to grab their ribbons and wave to the crowd. "No, he may stop competing but he won't give up riding." As he spoke, Chris watched the teenager named Vin accept his blue ribbon without even glancing at the people in the stands. "Chaucer means more to Ezra then a car every will." Didn't Tanner have parents or friends in the audience that he wanted to show off too? "And a horse gives a person a type of freedom that can't be found behind the wheel of a car." Maybe Tanner was just shy and that was why he seemed in such a hurry to leave the ring. "Ezra may spend less time at the ranch but he'll still come."

"Yeah," Buck readily agreed as he took a sip of his coke. "A car won't replace Chaucer. Now the right girl...well..."

+ + + + + + +

"Hey Vin! Congratulations!" JD called out as he led his horse Pony up to the older boy. "That was a great ride! Where're you going? Aren't you gonna stay and watch the rest of the barrels? Ezra's in the next group you know. And there's pole bending and then the flag race and gating. You know what Ezra calls 'em? Gymkhana sports. It's a fancy word he found that means something like a field day for horses. Supposed to be all the stuff like pattern racing and tent pegging. Even jousting. But I don't think anybody really does that anymore. Joust I mean. I think you have to be a knight in England. You know, like in that movie A Knight's Tale."

Vin and Peso stared in amazement. It seemed that adrenaline actually increased the speed and randomness of JD's speech pattern. The boy didn't even appear to notice that his horse was using his back as a convenient place to scratch the itch on its forehead. Locking his knees and rocking foreword slightly with each downward rub of Pony's head, JD continued his one sided conversation.

"That was a neat movie, wasn't it? I liked the part where he caught the rings on the lance. I bet you could do that. You could probably win all the events if you entered them. Are you going to be a professional rider when you get out of school? Buck did it for a couple of years. He was a steer wrestler and bull rider. In his best week he earned close to twenty thousand dollars. He says that today's asphalt cowboys have got it easy with extended-cab trucks, cell phones, horse trailers with living quarters . . ."

Vin's straying thoughts were brought into sharp focus on JD's newest topic with the mention of money. "Asphalt cowboys? What're you talking about? How did he make twenty thousand dollars?"

"You know, the pro rodeos. There's cowboys that travel the circuit just like stock car racing. Buck says it's a hard life but fun too. You're constantly on the move from one town to the next and if you don't have your own rig you have to bum rides with other competitors and sometimes you can wind up stranded and miss a show and ..."

"Hang on just a minute." Vin held up his hand and halted the barrage of information. There was something important in what the kid was saying if he could just fit the right pieces together. "You're saying there's grown men that do nothing but compete in rodeos? They make a living that way?"

"Heck yeah! Last year's all-around made over a hundred and fifty thousand. In the pro shows the winner gets eighty percent of the entry fees as prize money and that can get up into the tens of thousands. Buck said he once made six thousand in just one throw down. Course with the ranch and his age he only competes once or twice a year now but he still wins occasionally. Last year he pulled a groin muscle while riding a bull and he couldn't stand up straight for a week. Man, I hope I don't ever do that."

Vin's thoughts were spinning like leaves caught in a whirlwind. It made sense what JD was saying and he could almost kick himself for not thinking of it sooner. Bill handled all the paperwork when it came to the competitions and he was also the one that kept track of when and where the next show was, so all Vin had ever done was ride. And while Vin had overheard people talking about pro rodeos for years he'd never really given it much thought; until now. It was the perfect answer to all his troubles. Instead of just heading to Texas in hopes of finding work on a ranch, he could make a living doing what he did best. Damn! Earn money and have fun too. It was almost too good to be true.

"Hey, there's Ezra! Looks like he's getting ready to go into the box. You sure you don't want to hang around? OK, well I'll see you at the roping then. Bye!"

Finally. Vin gave an absentminded wave of his hand as he once more began leading Peso back to the trailer. It would be at least a half an hour before the calf-roping event and he had no interest in watching the other competitions.

Night had descended and clouds obscured the moon but a scattering of lights kept the open parking area from being totally dark. As he carefully made his way over the uneven ground, Vin began revising his plans for the future. Rather, his and Peso's future. They were both young and reasonably healthy so making a living traveling from one rodeo to another seemed like a wonderful idea. That thing JD mentioned with the groin muscle, that was probably something that only happened to old men like that Buck person. In all his years of riding, he'd never had worse than a sprained wrist or ankle. Course, the bulls would be full grown and not yearlings...and he hadn't tried steer wrestling but he'd seen it done and it didn't look too hard...then there was saddle bronc and bare back riding...

A smile curled Vin's lips as he lifted his face to feel the cool breeze against his skin. Before today his future had seemed as black as the cloud covered sky but now, now he had a real dream on which to pin his hopes and the night didn't seem quite so dark and empty.

+ + + + + + +

"And first place to Ezra Standish and Chaucer! That's three for three folks. I think this young man deserves a special round of applause."

Lifting his hat into the air, Ezra gallantly waved to the crowd cheering in the stands. He spotted Josiah and gave his guardian an especially wide grin. Yes, there were gong to be a few extra 'prizes' in his haul tonight and later a significant increase in his savings account. Life was indeed good.

Ezra led Chaucer from the ring and was almost immediately accosted by a group of young cowgirls all eager to congratulate him on his stunning performance. While the attention was flattering, Ezra couldn't help feeling a little annoyed. The girls kept prattling on about what a good rider he was without once giving mention to Chaucer's abilities. Didn't they realize that much of the victory relied on the horse and not the rider? Ignorant females. Might as well compliment the flags for waving in the breeze. Yet without the wind to lift them, they are merely bits of cloth hanging from wooden poles.

"Ez! That was great! Sorry can't talk now. Got to get Pony off the picket line and get ready for the calf roping. You're going into the stands right? Tell Buck I've decided on barbecue pizza for dinner and Krispy Kreme for desert. See ya at the trailer!"

Ezra gave a small shudder at JD's dinner choice. Thank god he and Josiah had plans to eat at the Japanese restaurant. This far from the coast the sushi wasn't the greatest but it was certainly better than 'barbecue pizza.' As he picked his way through the milling crowd of teens and horses, Ezra spotted Vin Tanner off to one side adjusting a stirrup on his saddle. His sharp eyes noted the fact that Tanner now had a dark bandana tied around his left hand and seemed to be favoring it somewhat. Interesting. I wonder if it is too late to make one more wager? He'll need that hand for the calf roping and ... no... better not press my luck. I'm going to have a hard enough time explaining the two saddles and three halters. Ezra grinned in satisfaction just as Vin turned his head and looked straight at him. Blue eyes met green for a long moment before Vin turned back to his horse.

Vin gritted his teeth as he finished tightening the girth strap with an angry jerk. Go ahead and laugh rich boy. Hope your daddy gives whoever trained your horse a nice bonus cause he sure made you look good today.

+ + + + + + +

"And up next is Vin Tanner and Peso. You folks may remember that Vin was last years champion and he's had a great run so far this year. If he can keep it up, he may take that title for the second time in a row."

Sitting in the box atop Peso, his rope in his hands and the pigging string held tightly between his teeth, Vin watched the calf in the pen to his right while ignoring the voice of the emcee. Waiting, waiting...


... Peso's hooves dig into the dirt floor. Vin's lasso cuts the air, over the calf's neck, tight round the saddle horn. Peso throws his weight back and takes up the slack; the calf stumbles but stays on its feet. Vin's boots kick free of the stirrups, then thump to the ground. He flanks the calf, one leg, two, three, up and away. Mentally counting the seconds, four, five, six, the calf is still tied. Done.

"What an incredible ride! Tanner takes the lead with 7.8 seconds. That's an arena record folks. "

First place. Just like he knew he would. Vin took a deep breath as he bent down to untie the struggling calf's legs. As he straightened up, a sharp stab of pain between his shoulder blades caught him off guard. He staggered half a step before catching his balance and felt his cheeks redden with embarrassment. Keeping his head tipped forward, he remounted Peso and quickly headed for the exit. Deaf to the cheers and applause, Vin's thoughts were already focused on the bull riding event and how he was going to take first place with a sore back and now an injured hand. Somehow he'd managed to ignore both once he'd gone into the box for the roping but now...

God. Feel like I wanna throw up. That'd be a good trick, considerin I ain't had anythin to eat all day.

Once clear of the ring, Vin made his way to a secluded spot outside the stadium. He remained close enough that he could hear the announcer, but far enough away that he didn't have to worry about someone spotting him as he slumped forward across Peso's neck. He wasn't concerned with the possibility of a well-meaning adult checking on him; in fact that thought hadn't even crossed his mind. Vin's only worry was avoiding the ridicule of other teenagers like the Standish kid. He may not have mastered reading or writing in school but the one lesson Vin had learned was that being different from the others made you a prime target.

Worn clothes, longish hair, a distinctive accent and trouble reading had been more than enough to set him apart from the other boys and had left him both friendless and all too often the victim of cruel pranks and taunts. The teachers might have done something but Vin had never gone to them since that would merely have given his tormentors something else to haze him about. He'd tried fighting back at first but after being dragged to the principal's office for the third time he'd given that up as well and settled on simply avoiding the bullies whenever he could. He'd become very good at melting into the background and skipping group activities.

The last note he'd been made to carry home had suggested sending him off to a place called RLC, which the principle told him stood for the Resource Learning Center. Bill had explained to him that RLC really meant Retarded Little Children and that it was a special school for stupid kids. Vin figured that the nicest thing his uncle had ever done for him was to let him drop out completely. Course the reason Bill had done it was so that Vin could spend more time practicing with Peso and working on the farm. But that was fine by him because no matter how he looked at it, driving a tractor was a whole lot better than trying to read out loud in front of a classroom full of snickering kids and an impatient teacher.

"And now we have John Dunne on Pony. John took first place at the Four Corner's Fair last fall with 9.5 seconds. If anyone has a chance of beating Tanner's score it will be this young man."

Vin pulled himself upright and shook his head. Wouldn't happen because JD had drawn calf number twenty-six. Right after the drawing, Vin had spent a good half-hour watching the calves in their holding pen; not just his but the other competitor's calves as well. He'd noticed that twenty- six was real skittish and had a habit of making sharp, left turns. JD was good enough that he'd manage to get the calf roped and tied but it wouldn't be in a record-breaking time, which was what he would need to take first.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra leaned forward as JD rode Pony into the box. Two rows down, Buck was also focused on the arena below and seemed completely unaware of the fact that he was sitting alone. Chris and Josiah had waited for Ezra to join them and then moved to higher ground, making sure to take the sodas with them. The people that had been sitting directly in front of Buck must have gotten wise to the situation as well because that bench had also been hastily vacated.

"C'mon JD! Yeaahhh!"

Josiah looked over at his ward and a wicked smile curled his lips. "Say Ezra, I'm thinking maybe I should yell like that for you. Maybe even make up one of those big signs that ..."

"Please," Ezra shuddered at the mere thought. "I assure you, a hand shake and a slap on the shoulder at the beginning of the show is all the encouragement that I require."

Chris gave a small snort of amusement at the thought of Josiah waving a huge sign with Ezra's name on it. He idly wondered if he should suggest the idea to Buck but quickly came to his senses. The last thing Wilmington needed was encouragement. Chris watched as JD's calf was loaded into its holding pen and shook his head. The animal was clearly too nervous and probably should not have been used. Ah well, too late now. JD will just have to do the best he can and both he and Buck will have to settle for second or third.

Suddenly the gate flew open and the calf streaked across the ring! As soon as its nose cleared the line, JD kicked Pony into motion and took off after it. There was a tense moment when the calf made a quick turn to the left but JD still had his rope in the air and was able to fix his aim just in time. The lasso settled around the animal's neck just fine and JD leaned back in his saddle, letting the stirrups take his weight as he braced himself against the pull of the calf.

"Oh no! What a tumble! Too bad for John, looks like he'll have to wait till the next rodeo to try and break Tanner's record."

The emcee continued to ramble while a swarm of adults entered the ring and converged on the spot where JD lay curled on his side. Ezra looked around and discovered that he was alone in the stands. Buck had been up and off his bench the second that JD had started his earthward plunge and had cut a swath through the audience making a straight-line charge for the ring. Chris and Josiah had taken advantage of the cleared path and were just a few steps behind their friend as he reached his nephew's side. Ahead of them all was a rodeo clown who waved them back with one hand while he used the other to steady JD on his side and keep him from moving.

"Hold it Buck, let me check him over first." The words were spoken in a calm tone of voice but carried such authority that Wilmington found himself freezing in his tracks. Despite the face paint and floppy hat, Buck recognized Dr. Nathan Jackson and knew that JD was in capable hands. The dark skinned medic had been taking care of both Buck and his nephew since he's intern days and it was their enthusiasm for horses that had gotten him involved in the rodeos.

When he wasn't patching up fallen riders, Nathan worked the show as a bullfighter, rodeo style. His job was to lure the bulls away from grounded cowboys and keep the angry animals occupied long enough for the riders to make their escape from the ring. Dr. Jackson was particularly good at his job as he kept his body in peak, physical condition, working out at gyms and taking a martial arts course when he wasn't on duty at the hospital. But while he enjoyed the excitement of the show and the inner peace he got from his daily workouts, healing the sick and injured was his one true passion.

"Easy JD, I know you're in pain but you've got to tell me exactly what hurts. Did you hit your head when you fell?"

A muffled sob and a small gasp preceded a low, drawn out, "Nooo. It's my ...wrist...Gawd!...it hurts! Buck?!"

"I'm right here JD. Just hang on kid, your gonna be alright. I know it hurts but we'll fix it, don't you worry."

Nathan gently eased JD onto his back, making sure he kept the boy's head and neck supported just in case. JD was holding his right arm clenched tightly to his chest and his eyes were squeezed shut against the pain. His top teeth bit into his bottom lip as he stifled back a groan of pure agony and his tears left muddy trails down either cheek. He'd never broken a bone before and hoped to god that he never would again.

"OK. The right wrist is definitely broken but that looks like the worst of it. Let's get him on the stretcher and then we'll brace it with some ice packs. Harry, can you call ahead and let'em know we're coming? Great." Nathan turned back to the still hovering and obviously worried Buck. Reaching out, he rested a firm hand on his friend's shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "He's gonna be fine. He didn't hit his head so as soon as we get him loaded I'm gonna give him something for the pain. In another hour he won't even know he has an arm, let alone that it's broke."

Buck silently nodded his gratitude, his eyes never leaving the face of his nephew. He'd broken a bone or two in his lifetime and knew the kind of pain JD was going through. He also knew that if it were at all possible, he'd take that pain on himself rather than see the boy suffer a minute longer. He had to settle instead for simply offering reassurance, keeping one hand on JD's left arm and using the other to gently brush the bangs from his forehead.

"Hang in there kid. Just a little while longer and you're gonna feel like you're flying. Doc here is gonna give you a shot of the good stuff."


"Believe me JD, after this, a needle stick is gonna feel like a tickle."


"Scout's honor."

"...never...a scout..."

"And how would you know?"

"Chris...told me...you...got caught...with the scout master's...oldest daughter..."

"Now boy, you can't go believing everything Chris tells you. Side's, it was his next to oldest and she was just helping me with a merit badge."

"you're so...full of it..."

Nathan had the stretcher prepared and it was time to get JD ready for his ride to the hospital. "C'mon Buck, you can lift him from that side and then you can sit in back with us."

Chris had been waiting close by and stepped forward just long enough to let Buck know that he would meet them at the hospital. He and Josiah followed them from the ring, leading a bewildered Pony by the reins. In his left hand, Josiah carried JD's right stirrup and in his other, the leather strap that should have held it to the saddle.

"You didn't tell him?"

"I'll wait until after JD's been taken care of and he's had a chance to calm down." Chris glanced over at the narrow but thick piece of leather that should never have broken. Both he and Josiah had spotted right off the too smooth end where the leather had separated. Someone had sliced all but the last tiny bit with a knife, knowing that it would give at a crucial point in the roping event. Since JD had left Pony tied up outside with the other horses while he watched the rodeo, there would have been ample opportunity for someone to perform the dirty deed. So the question wasn't when or even why but who? Who would sink so low as to risk seriously injuring a boy just to effect the outcome of a junior rodeo?

Chapter Four

Ezra was shocked when he saw the stretcher wheeled into the arena. He'd been expecting to see JD helped to his feet and maybe limp to the exit. Watching Buck lift his nephew like he was made of fragile glass, Ezra felt a sick, queasy sensation in the pit of his stomach. JD never got hurt, not seriously. Oh sure, an occasional bloody knee or busted lip from trying some stupid stunt but nothing that required so much attention.

Deciding that he couldn't wait in the stands any longer, Ezra stood and began making his way to toward the arena exit. It took him a little longer than it had the adults because he used aisles and stairways, so he missed seeing JD loaded into the ambulance. By the time he reached the back of the stadium, all he could see were the tail lights of the emergency vehicle as it headed across the parking lot.

"Ezra, over here son." Josiah's voice carried across the noise of the restless livestock and excited contestants. Ezra spotted his guardian standing to one side with Chris and what appeared to be a rodeo official.

"Josiah! What happened? Is JD alright? Why..?"

"He's going to be fine." It warmed Josiah's heart to see the open, honest concern on his ward's face. He'd known all along that under Ezra's cool and often distant exterior there was a loving, caring spirit. He was sorry that it took a near tragedy to bring it out into the open but at least it was a start. "He landed on his right wrist at just the right, or rather wrong angle. Nathan thinks it's a clean break and after they reduce the swelling they should be able to set it without surgery. A few weeks in a cast and he'll be good as new."

Ezra let out a sigh of relief, muscles loosening in his chest and back that he hadn't even realized had tightened. When Josiah draped one arm across his shoulders, he actually found himself leaning gratefully into the embrace. Stupid JD, getting me all worried for nothing. And I suppose now I'll have to get him some kind of get-well gift. Sigh. Maybe a DVD? But that would only give him a couple of hours of entertainment. Perhaps a computer game, one of those puzzle-solving things he likes. Maybe both the game and a movie. Say, I wonder if I can use this as an excuse to keep my money from the rodeo?

"I'm sorry Mr. Larabee, but without more evidence there's nothing we can do. I can call the police and you can file a report with them if you'd like."

"No thanks. Like you said, we really don't have much to tell them." Chris shook hands with the official and walked over to where Josiah and Ezra waited with Pony.

Ezra noticed the piece of leather and the stirrup in Chris' hand and looked up at Josiah. "What happened exactly?"

"We can't really prove it, but it looks like someone cut the strap for the stirrup. They did it at a place under the fender so it wouldn't show. Chris spotted some dark stains on the underside of the leather that might be blood so we think the low life may have cut himself as well."

"Cut the strap?! But why? Why would someone want to hurt JD?"

Josiah gently pulled Ezra around so that he could look him straight in the eyes. "We don't think it was done specifically to hurt JD. Whoever did it was probably just trying to make sure JD didn't place." Sanchez could tell by Ezra's frown that he still didn't quite understand. "Son, this is one of the reasons why I don't approve of betting. There are some that will do anything to make sure a contest ends just the way they want."

"I would never...!"

"I'm not talking about you." Josiah quickly reassured his ward. "I know you would never stoop so low but not everyone has your sense of honor. Ezra, I know that right now you don't really see the harm in betting and all I can do is repeat what I've told you a hundred times before. People can become addicted to gambling just the same as alcohol or drugs. And there are those that will sometimes cheat to win, even at the risk of hurting a complete innocent. You are an extremely intelligent and gifted young man. I know you're capable of great and wonderful things and I don't want to see you put your future at risk by starting down that path. Do you understand Ezra? I care too much about you to let that happen."

Still reeling from the shock of seeing a close friend carried away in an ambulance, Ezra blinked at the unexpected moisture that blurred his vision. It wasn't just Josiah's words that were getting to the teen; it was the sincerity behind them. No one, not even his mother had ever voiced such faith and confidence in his potential or such fierce devotion. Forcing a swallow past the lump in his throat, Ezra silently nodded his head. Looking into his guardian's eyes, he truly did understand for the first time that Josiah really cared for him. Always at the back of his mind Ezra had believed that he was just a link to his mother but now he knew the truth and would never doubt his guardian again.

Chris was forced to turn away from the touching scene as the familiar ache in his chest started to grow. He was man enough to admit his jealousy but too much of a coward to actually try and do anything about it. Logically he knew that there would come a time when he would have to let go of the pain if he were to ever have another family of his own but his heart seldom listened to reason. Slowly he began leading JD's horse away from the arena, giving Josiah and Ezra a chance to complete their talk and still catch up.

Catching sight of Chris walking away, Josiah gave Ezra a warm, reassuring smile and a gentle shake before turning loose of his shoulders. "Now go fetch Chaucer so we can get him loaded in the trailer. Since Chris has to pick up Buck and JD, I figure we can take the horses back to the ranch for him and he can drive my Explorer. I'm afraid that Japanese dinner is going to have to wait till next weekend."

Ezra grinned, not at all disappointed at missing out on his sushi. "That's fine but what will we have instead?"

"Oh, I don't know...didn't you mention something about barbecue pizza earlier?"

"Please. I'd rather eat your chili."

"Well I don't think ...wait a minute! Is that a crack about my chili? What's wrong with...? Ezra Patrick Standish, get back here!"

Ignoring his guardian's joking outrage, Ezra strode along the picket line, his thoughts once more on what he would buy for his friend; only now he knew that he would gladly be pulling the money from his savings account to make his purchase. From behind him came the sound of the emcee announcing the winners of the roping event and at first he barely paid the words any notice but then an all too familiar name caught his attention.

"And first place with a new record time, Vin Tanner!"

Ezra froze as he quick mind suddenly pulled out several random bits of information and fitted them together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. First was the memory of a scruffy teenager standing next to his horse with a smug look on his face as he confidently declared, "The fact I ain't gonna lose." Then came the more recent memory of that same teen adjusting his saddle with a bandana tied around his left hand. And finally Josiah's words, "we think the low life may have cut himself as well." They all fit together perfectly and the picture they formed was horribly clear.

"That son of a bitch!" Ezra had known anger before but never had he felt such an overwhelming surge of pure rage. He had to grit his teeth as a tidal wave of adrenaline rushed through his system. "That ... stupid...sorry...son of ...he did it! He cut the strap!"

"Ezra? What...?" Josiah cautiously approached his ward. He could see by the expression on his face that Ezra was very upset about something but the words he was growling were not making sense. "Who are you talking about?"

"Tanner!" Ezra spat the name out like it was the foulest taste he'd ever had in his mouth. "He .."

And speak of the devil. In turning to face his guardian, Ezra spotted the object of his anger slowly making his way from the arena exit. The sight of the shining blue ribbon clutched in a bandana wrapped fist stole away the last of the teenager's control. Ignoring Josiah's confused shout and clutching hand, Ezra launched himself toward his unsuspecting target.

+ + + + + + +

Well, that's two down, only one to go. Wonder if drinking some water will help settle my stomach? Wish now I had taken some of Bill's painkiller's when he offered 'em. Certainly couldn't have made me any sicker.

Walking with his head bowed, Vin's only warning that he was in danger was the jerk of the reins in his hand when Peso came to a sudden halt.

"Hey! Wha ...? Umph!" Vin gasped as the air was forced from his lungs by a hard shoulder ramming into his gut. His arms windmilled for a split second as he instinctively tried to remain on his feet but the weight of his attacker drove him to the ground and he gave a sharp cry as his sore back connected with the hard packed dirt of the arena staging area. Gulping for air and disoriented by the pain of the sudden assault, Vin lacked the ability to fight off his unknown assailant. The best he could do was twist his body at the waist and cover his head with his arms.

"You! Son! Of a! Bitch!" Ezra's shouted words were punctuated with blows of his fists that landed mostly on Vin's shoulders and arms. He straddled Vin's hips and kept the younger, lighter boy pinned to the ground despite his frantic attempts to squirm free. "You! Stinking! Cheater!"

"Ezra! Stop it! Ezra!" Josiah wrapped his large hands around Ezra's upper arms and dragged the cursing, kicking teen from his victim. "Ezra! That's enough! Now calm down!"

Excited, anxious cries filled the air as children rushed to view the spectacle while adults tried to maintain calm and order. Rodeo officials converged on the scene and attempted to make sense of the confusion. One tried to catch the reins of Vin's horse and the already nervous animal reacted by lashing out with his hooves. Peso's frantic steps took him perilously close to where Vin still lay on the ground, dazed and confused. Before any of those gathered could react, a lean, blond haired man in dark clothing dashed forward and lifted the teenager into his arms, barely avoiding an iron-shod hoof aimed at his skull. Dodging clear of the panicking animal, Chris Larabee carried the boy a safe distance away before crouching down to place him once more on the ground.

"Step back and give that mule some room! You! Move those kids away! And someone get a medic over here!" Chris barked out the commands in a tone of voice that got instant results. Rodeo employees herded the spectators like they were cattle and slowly but surely cleared a wide area around the horse, the two adults and the teenagers they held. Chris' blue eyes flashed with anger as he turned to where Josiah stood with his struggling ward. "Mind telling me just what the hell is going on here?"

"Damned if I know." Josiah spoke over Ezra's head as he kept a tight grip on the teen's arms. He could feel the muscles still flexing and was reluctant to turn him loose.

"He cut JD's strap! That bast...!"

"Ezra! Stop it! I said that's enough. Now take a deep breath and then tell us why you think Tanner is guilty."

Chris looked down at the boy lying by his knees. Vin had rolled to his side and was attempting to push himself up into a sitting position. His movements were slow and he groaned as he used his arms to brace himself upright. Chris noticed a bruise forming under the boy's left eye where at least one of Ezra's punches had landed on his face. Reaching out a hand to steady the teen, Chris found himself clutching at empty air as Vin quickly dropped his shoulder and scooted backwards with a push of his boot heels.

"Leave me alone! I ain't done nothin."



"He was boasting earlier that he was sure he would win the calf roping. He was positive. And look at his left hand. It wasn't wrapped up during the barrel race so he had to have hurt it afterwards. JD left his horse tied to the picket line so he had plenty of time to cut the strap. He was afraid JD would beat his time so he did it to make sure JD would lose."

Vin's own anger grew as he finally understood why he had been attacked. He'd heard the announcer say that JD had fallen and had felt sorry for the kid when he'd seen him carried out on a stretcher. Climbing to his feet, he took one threatening step in his accuser's direction. "That's a damn lie! I ain't no cheater!"

Chris and Josiah both moved to block the paths of the two angry boys. Vin once again shied from Chris' touch; backing up as he fastened his flashing, blue eyes on the man in front of him. "I didn't do it!"

"Do what? What the hell is goin on here?" Bill Larson strode up to his nephew, grabbing his collar and giving it a hard jerk. "What kind of trouble have you stirred up now boy? I swear I can't leave you alone for one damn minute." Still on edge and feeling threatened, Vin reacted by twisting his upper body in an attempt to pull free. The flannel of his shirt started to slip through the thin, leather work glove worn by his uncle but Bill twisted his fist and gave another hard jerk, throwing Vin off balance.

Seeing the rough treatment, Chris reacted instinctively, taking a quick step forward; but before he could speak, a new voice, one carrying the heavy weight of authority drew the attention of all those gathered.

"Mr. Larson, why am I not surprised to see you at the heart of this disturbance?"

The gray haired gentleman that approached was dressed in an old style, dark suite complete with a black leather string tie. Though past his prime, it was obvious by his stride and bearing that the man kept himself in peak physical condition. The rodeo staff still gathered around recognized the him instantly as Judge Orrin Travis, long time supporter of the Junior Rodeo and head of the local Board of Directors. All of them breathed a mutual sigh of relief and all but two returned to their other duties knowing that Judge Travis would soon have things sorted out and squared away.

Orrin stopped in front of Bill and his nephew and frowned disapprovingly at the sight of Bill's hand twisted in the fabric of Vin's shirt. He'd recognized Bill not from the competitions but from the numerous times the man had been brought before the bench on charges of disorderly conduct and driving while intoxicated. It disturbed him to think that the man might actually have a son growing up to follow in his footsteps.

Seeing the frown on the judge's face, Bill dropped his hand and stepped away from his nephew while lifting his head and jutting out his chin as if physically denying that he was backing down. But it was plain to every man present that he had done exactly that.

Travis gave a quiet snort and then glanced around at those that seemed to be involved in whatever was holding up 'his' rodeo. "Perhaps someone that was here from the beginning could fill me in?" Ezra started to speak but Travis cut him off. "Someone with a few more years under his belt and a slightly more objective standpoint?"

Josiah stepped forward and quickly explained about the sabotage to JD's saddle and why Ezra suspected Vin Tanner of being the culprit. When he reached the part about Ezra attacking Vin, both teenagers glared at each other past the adults that still kept them apart.

When Sanchez finished speaking, Judge Travis turned to the only person unaccounted for. "And Mr. Larson, what role do you play in this drama?"

"This here is my nephew. He lives with me on account he ain't got no other kin. I'll admit he's a worthless piece of sh.." Bill suddenly thought better of cursing in front of the judge and stuttered to a stop. "Well anyways, he don't need to cheat to win."

"I see." Orrin turned his gaze to the accused and spotted the damning bandana. "So tell me Vin, how did you hurt your hand?"

Vin Tanner would be the first to admit that he wasn't an outgoing, sociable kind of person. When forced to mix with other people he tended to keep his head down and avoided conversations whenever possible but right now he was being blamed for something he hadn't done and being called a liar on top of that. Pulling himself up straight, Vin looked the judge right in the eyes as he spoke.

"Peso had a shoe come loose during the barrels. I was putting a new nail in when he jerked his hoof back and the point of the nail caught me across the palm. I tied the bandana around it to keep it from bleeding all over the place. I barely got back in time for the start of the roping." Vin shifted his gaze to glare at Ezra. "And I ain't never needed to cheat to win."

"A reasonable explanation. Did anyone see you tending to your horse?"

Vin gave it some serious thought before replying softly. "No sir." There might have been a few people that saw him walking out to the trailer but he had no reason to think that they would speak up for him. And that meant it would be his word against the rich kid's. Weren't no question there about who the judge would believe.

Judge Travis turned to Ezra. "And did anyone actually see Tanner near JD's saddle at any time?"

Ezra didn't have to give it much thought. If there had been a witness then Tanner would already be in custody where he belonged. Reluctantly he shook his head, 'No.'

"So, no witnesses and no solid evidence against the accused. In my jurisdiction a person is innocent until proven guilty." Travis turned back to Vin and his uncle. "Mr. Larson, I suggest you take your nephew and go home."

Bill was quick to protest. "We can't go yet! He's entered in the bull riding."

"I doubt very seriously your nephew is any condition to compete."

Orrin's statement caused everyone to take a good look at the boy in question. Vin ducked his head at the unwelcome scrutiny and mumbled something that sounded like, "I'm fine."

Travis shook his head and gestured to the man that had followed him up and then stood waiting quietly for instructions. "In fact, I suggest you have Walt here take a look at him before you leave. Nathan has been training him and ..."

"He said he's fine and I paid thirty dollars for him to ride!" It took the possible loss of income to give Bill enough backbone to stand up to the judge and Orrin was not impressed by his anger.

"I will go to my office now and withdraw the funds from the safe to reimburse you the entry fee. You can stop by on your way out. Now if you will just let Walt..."

"He don't need no doctorin. C'mon boy, grab your horse and let's get the hell out of here. We'll make up the money next week at Eagle Bend." Bill Larson didn't even bother to wait for his nephew. Pushing his way past Chris and Josiah, he stomped off into the night, his arms swinging at his side and his gloved hands tightly fisted.

Vin gathered up Peso's reins and followed at a slightly slower pace. He kept his head down as he passed the adults but raised it long enough to give Ezra a baleful glare of such pure hate that it caused the older boy to step back defensively. Unspoken but plain in his blue eyes were the words, 'This is all your fault.'

Judge Travis motioned forward one of the staff members still waiting. "Follow them out. Maker sure Mr. Larson does not cause any further disturbances."

"And if he does?"

"Use your radio and call for assistance then escort him to my office. I will be waiting there with his thirty dollars. Monday is a holiday and I would just as soon not have to deal with the problems of having him arrested."

Orrin next turned to Walt and shook the man's hand. "Thank you for waiting. I believe that they are about to start the bull riding and you may be needed ringside."

"Hopefully not. Should I check this one's hands before I leave?" Walt nodded toward Ezra who stared at him in confusion.

Josiah saw the puzzled expression and patted his ward on the shoulder. "Ezra, look at your knuckles."

Lifting his hands, the teenager was shocked to see bruises and even a little blood from a small split in the skin. Seeing the damage also broke the pain-dampening barrier caused by the earlier flood of adrenaline. Flexing his fingers, Ezra hissed at the sharp ache caused by the simple movement.

Walt carefully examined both hands and declared them free of broken bones but suggested Ezra soak them in a sink of ice water as soon as he got home.

As the medic left, Ezra continued to stare at his throbbing hands. How could they have taken such damage and he not even notice? True, it had been his first fight, if one could really even call it that. Ezra winced as he suddenly had a very clear vision of the younger boy struggling to escape. His stomach gave a queasy lurch and for a moment he thought for sure that he was going to throw up. Luckily his attention was caught just in time by the conversation going on around him.

"I apologize for the trouble Judge." Sanchez's deep, rumbling voice held an undeniable ring of embarrassment. "I'd like to promise that it won't happen again but I'm sure you know how teenagers are."

"Yes, I have vague memories of being one myself a long time ago." Orrin was really unconcerned with the altercation between Ezra and Vin; it was the vile act of sabotage that had caused the fight that truly bothered him. "Mr. Larabee, I trust that what happened here today will not keep John from competing again?"

"I don't think two broken arms would keep him away, let alone one." Chris quickly reassured Travis before jumping right on to the real issue. He gestured in the direction that Bill and his nephew had taken. "You noticed the gloves he was wearing?"

Orrin frowned as he nodded. Even Josiah seemed to understand what his friend was talking about and Ezra looked from one man to the other in bewilderment.

"I noticed. And if I recall correctly, Mr. Larson is left handed. You did say it was the right stirrup that was tampered with? Yes, the style of the fender would make that side more accessible for a left handed person."

Ezra's stomach gave a new lurch as the men's words started making sense. "Wait. You mean Vin didn't cut the strap? It was his uncle? How do you know?"

Chris took a deep breath before slowly answering. "Bill Larson was wearing leather gloves of the same kind we use when working the ranch. Thick enough to keep out splinters and prevent rope burns or blisters but thin enough that we can still get a good grip on things."

"Yeah, so?"

"Bill's not on a ranch and Vin seems to take care of his horse himself. Why would the man need to be wearing gloves right now?" Chris answered his own question while holding Orrin's gaze. "The only reason I can think of is that he was trying to hide an injury to one of his hands. Maybe a cut caused when his knife slipped."

Judge Travis met the hard, green stare without flinching. "Proof, Mr. Larabee. Witnesses. I could no more hold him accountable than I could his nephew. I don't like repeating myself but I will say this one more time. A man is innocent until proven guilty. You find me that proof and then we'll discuss a suitable course of action. Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I have a refund to make. William, will you escort these good folks to their trailer and make sure they don't run into any problems?"

Both Josiah and Chris bristled at being assigned a watchdog but William was an older man and a long time friend of the judge. He simply grinned and hooked his thumbs in the tops of his jean pockets.

"Sure thing boss. I'll see to it they don't have any more trouble."

"C'mon Josiah, I think we've worn out our welcome." Chris growled as he stormed off to where he'd left Pony standing when he'd heard the announcer start naming the winners of the calf roping. He couldn't say exactly why he'd stopped; maybe it had just been curiosity. The important thing was that he'd been close enough to act when Ezra had jumped to the wrong conclusion and then let his anger get the better of him. For some reason Chris suddenly found himself picturing in his mind the sight of Vin Tanner, his blue eyes flashing with defiance as he declared his innocence. Of course he didn't do it. A kid that good and that confident really doesn't need to cheat. Fool of an uncle should have more confidence in him.

Chris felt his own anger increase thinking of Bill Larson getting away with his crime but Travis was right, without more evidence there wasn't anything that could be done. Still, he would have to tell Buck everything that had happened and then hope the man didn't go off half-cocked. When it came to protecting his nephew, Wilmington tended to be a little overzealous. Shame Tanner doesn't have an uncle like Buck or a guardian like Josiah to set him a good example. Still, I suppose Larson can't be all bad if he lets him compete in the rodeos.

+ + + + + + +

The walk back to the trailer was both the longest and shortest distance Vin had ever traveled. All of the aches and pains he'd been feeling earlier were now doubled and each dragging step made his head throb. Of course the worst part was knowing for a fact that the night still wasn't over. Bill was mad. Bill was mad and the people he was mad at were out of his reach. Vin shuddered as he looked ahead to see the dark shape of his uncle waiting by the trailer. The rodeo employee that had walked them out was already headed back to the stadium. For a split second, Vin actually thought about calling out to the man. But what would he say? 'Please, don't leave me alone with my uncle?'

Vin drew in a shaky breath and kept walking. In his mind he kept repeating the phrase that over the past year had become almost a prayer. 'Just get it over with and move on. Things will get better someday.'

"Hurry up boy! You're in enough trouble already. Don't make it worse by keeping me waiting."

'Yeah, things will get better someday.'


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