Judging the Book

Justice DeWinter

Chapter Five
Chaucer's head bobbed up and down next to Ezra's shoulder as the two made their way slowly to the waiting trailer. If one could read the thoughts of the horse there would surely have been visions of a lighted stall, a bin of dry hay and a bucket of moist, sweet grain. Mixed into the grain would be chunks of fresh apple and carrots, his usual reward for a job well done. And included in that wishful dreaming there might also have been thoughts of a good brushing while he leisurely worked his way through his dinner. Peaceful thoughts. Restful.

If a person could read Ezra's mind, they would find themselves quickly lost in a chaotic mess of actual events and imagined outcomes with a liberal sprinkling of mixed emotions.

Ezra walked with his head bowed, unaware that he had fallen back into the old habit of chewing on his bottom lip. He knew he'd messed things up, big time. He'd gone behind Josiah's back and made wagers on the events, he'd falsely accused Vin of cheating and then had even gone so far as to attack him. The adults seemed to think that the night was finished, everything sorted out as best it could be; but in his heart and mind, Ezra knew differently. The teenager gave a deep, long sigh and absently patted Chaucer on the neck. He was going to confess to Josiah about the bets. His mother would be horrified but Ezra knew that coming clean was the right thing to do.

The matter of Vin Tanner was more confusing and a lot harder to fix. He figured Tanner hated him, which would be only natural. He had not only hit the boy and called him a liar and a cheat but had also gotten him disqualified from the bull riding competition, the event with the largest cash prize. Thinking of the money Vin might have won reminded Ezra of the boy's worn clothing and dilapidated trailer. What does he spend the money on? Ah well, none of my business. But I should do something to make up for my actions. Ezra toyed with the idea of a written apology mailed to Tanner's house but quickly gave the idea up for lack of information. He also considered simply dropping the whole thing but knew his conscience would plague him for many days to come. Yeah, thanks Josiah. Didn't have this problem a few years ago. It looked like the issue was going to have to be handled face to face and within the next few minutes, before either of them left the stadium grounds.

Quickening his pace with a gentle tug on Chaucer's reins, Ezra caught up to his guardian who had almost reached the trailer. Get the apology over with first then tell Josiah about the gambling while we drive out to the ranch. That was going to be the worst part, especially after what Josiah had said earlier about having such high hopes for Ezra's future. It wasn't fear of his guardian's anger that made the teenager reluctant to confess, it was the certainty of seeing the look of disappointment in his eyes. Ezra wanted to put that moment off just as long as he possibly could.

"Josiah, can you take Chaucer for me? There's something I have to do before we leave."

Sanchez stopped walking and turned to his ward. The dim lighting made it difficult to see Ezra's expression but the tone of his voice had Josiah concerned. "What's wrong Ezra?"

"Nothing. Everything. Look, Vin's trailer is that light blue one over there. I just want to go and apologize for...well, you know."

Josiah smiled sadly. "Ezra, your heart's in the right place and under normal circumstances I would agree with you but not tonight. I think the best thing would be to just let it go for now and apologize the next time you see him at a competition."


William decided to butt in with his own opinion. "Better listen to him son. You go over there now and you'll be facing that Larson fella as well as his nephew. And who's to say the kid didn't know what his uncle was doing. Best to do what the judge said and just head on home."


"Ezra, I said not tonight."

"But Chris is going over there." Ezra pointed past Josiah and the two men quickly looked in the direction he indicated.


"Aww shit. Orrin's gonna have a cow."

Josiah paused just long enough to order Ezra to remain at their trailer and take care of the horses, then he was off and running with William right behind him.

Ezra watched the two men and a shiver of fear raced down his spine. What now? Won't this night ever end?

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee walked ahead of the others, his gaze taking in the few details not obscured by the darkness of the night or the shadows cast by the few pole lights scattered about the lot. Over a decade spent raising Quarter horses had given him a keen eye for the animals and he quickly spotted a familiar gelding standing near a small, pale colored trailer. His eyes narrowed as he noticed that the horse was still saddled and there was no sign of his rider. As he watched, a dim, yellowish light was turned on inside the trailer illuminating the windows with its feeble glow. A moment later a slight figure lurched past an opening followed by a second, larger silhouette.

Stopping next to his own darkly gleaming Sundowner, Chris absently tied off the reins to Pony's halter, his eyes never leaving the windows of the other trailer. Watching that closely, he saw the instant the small structure gave a sudden lurch and the startled jerk of the horse tied to its side. He was moving in the direction of the trailer even before he heard the muffled cry of pain.

"Chris! Wait!"

+ + + + + + +

"You stupid little bastard! Do you know how much money you cost me tonight? Huh? Do you!?" Bill waited just long enough for Vin to secure his horse's reins before grabbing the boy by his shoulder and shoving him into the trailer.

Vin stumble up the ramp and practically fell into the small compartment. He gasped and drew in a mouthful of the dust and bits of dry straw stirred up by his boots, choking slightly as it coated his throat making it difficult to swallow. As he caught his balance, it suddenly dawned on him one of the reasons his uncle was so angry. He thinks I did it. He thinks I cheated to win and he's so mad right now, there's no way I can make him believe I didn't. Vin stood in the darkness of the trailer and waited. He knew what was coming. He knew it was unavoidable. He'd been hoping that Bill would wait until they got back to the farm, the delay giving his uncle a chance to calm down some. But Bill was just too mad and he needed something, or rather someone to take it out on.

Bill paused at the entrance to the trailer, his hand reaching for and finding the bottle of Ol' Grandad he kept hidden in a feedbag hanging on the wall. He took a long pull of the fiery alcohol, his adam's apple bobbing with each deep swallow. Lowering the bottle, he wiped his mouth with the back of his arm and reached with his other hand to turn on the small, overhead light. The dirty, yellow-stained cover blocked much of the glow from the small bulb contained within but it gave enough illumination for Larson to see his nephew's expression.

The blue eyes that met and held Bill's were rich with emotion. Fear and resignation were natural and it was a look that Vin's uncle had seen many times before. But this time he thought he saw something else, something he'd seen in the eyes of the men that had surrounded him just a few moments earlier. Disgust. Contempt. Bad enough he had to take it from total strangers, there was no way a boy, his own nephew was going to look down on him like that.

Dropping his bottle of whisky with a strangled growl, Bill stepped forward and pushed Vin further into the trailer while his left hand began working at the thick buckle of his belt. As the wide strip of leather hissed clear of the cotton loops, Vin turned his back to his uncle, pressing himself against the board at the nose of the trailer with one arm covering his neck and the other the top of his head.

"You ungrateful bastard! You ought to be thankful to me for making sure you win these damn competitions."

The first blow landed and Vin did his best to stifle the cry of pain. Yelling only seemed to make it worse so he gritted his teeth hard and waited for the next slash of the belt. And the next. And the ....

"What the hell?! Who...? Let go of me!"

Vin blinked his eyes open as he heard his uncle's surprised outcry. Cautiously turning around, he was shocked to see Bill being dragged from the trailer by a sinister looking shadow. It took him a moment to realize that what appeared to be a solid piece of the night choking his uncle was actually a man dressed all in black. Another blink and he recognized the stranger as the same person who had kept him from being trampled by his own horse. What didn't become clear was why the man seemed to be attacking Bill.

"Damn it! I said turn me loose! You got no right...!"

"No right?" Chris yanked the belt from Bill's hand as he shoved him back. "I'll show you right." The words were hissed between clenched teeth as Chris' arm rose, the worn piece of leather clutched tight in his fist.

"Chris! Stop!" Josiah was just in time to grab his friend's wrist and stop the blow from falling. "C'mon Chris, ease down. He ain't worth it. You wouldn't let Buck do this and ..."

"Let go of me Josiah. This ain't about a cut strap or cheating anymore."

"Then what...?"

"He was beating his nephew! He was using this, " Chris shoved the belt under Josiah's nose. "On the boy's back!"

Josiah's eyes widened and turning his head, he saw Vin huddled at the far end of the old horse trailer. "Sweet Mother have mercy."

William shook his head; he'd seen and heard enough to know that this was way outside his job description. "All right gents, lets pack this up and head over to the judge's office. We'll let him do all the shiftin and sortin."

"I ain't goin and you can't make me!" Bill snarled as William reached for his arm.

Chris' hand flashed out and his fingers latched into the fabric of Bill's collar. Pulling him in close, Chris got a whiff of the alcohol on his breath and his temper flared even higher. "You'll go even if I have to hog tie you and drag you kicking and screaming all the way."

Josiah turned his back on the scene and walked up the ramp of the trailer. Making his deep voice as soothing as possible, he moved slowly forward; much like a person trying to approach a wounded animal. "It's alright son, he's not going to hurt you anymore, the judge will see to that."

Vin's mind raced as he watched the large man step closer. Once the light hit his face, Vin recognized Josiah as the man who had held the Standish kid back. What's he doing here? What does he mean about the judge? He tried to piece together everything he'd seen and heard but it wasn't making any sense. The men didn't seem to be mad at him but they wanted him and his uncle both to see the judge. But we were going there anyway for the refund, I don't... And then it all clicked into place.

Bill cut that stirrup tie! He heard Standish bragging about JD's time and wanted to make sure I won. He didn't trust me to do it on my own. They must have figured it out and now they're going to have him arrested. But, what happens to me while he's in jail? Maybe they think I knew about it. They'll probably send me to one of those kid-prisons Bill's always telling me about. But if we're both locked up, who will take care of Peso?

"Come along son, every things going to be fine." Josiah tried to sound like he really believed what he was saying but looking at the expression on Tanner's face, he didn't think he was succeeding. "Do you need a hand?"

"N...no sir. I can walk just fine." Vin straightened up and waited a moment while Josiah made room for him on the ramp. As he emerged from the trailer, Vin was intensely aware of being the focus of everyone's attention. He ducked his head and kept it down as they began following William back toward the stadium. He was still aware of the moment they passed a fancy black and silver trailer with Ezra and two horses waiting beside and found himself too embarrassed to even glance in their direction.

"Josiah?" Ezra's voice held a raspy tone of stress as he called out to his guardian. Sanchez responded by pulling the teenager into a quick hug. Normally Ezra abhorred such physical displays of emotion but this time he welcomed the feeling of security the contact gave him. "What's happening?"

"It's nothing for you to worry about. I want you to stay here and keep the horses calm. People are going to start loading up and pulling out soon so they might get a bit skittish. We're taking Larson and his nephew to see the judge and then we'll be right back. Just hang in there a little while longer, OK?"

Well, no it wasn't exactly 'OK' but Ezra didn't see where he had much choice. "Yes, alright. I'll unsaddle the horses and get them ready to travel."

"Thanks Ezra. I'll explain what happened once we're on the road."

Watching Josiah catch up to the others and disappear into the night, Ezra suddenly found himself wishing that he had never talked to or even met Vin Tanner. This is really all JD's fault. He's too friendly for his own good and I'll be sure and tell him that the first time he complains about his cast itching.

+ + + + + + +

"Come in." Orrin looked up from the ledger on his desk and the frown on his face turned in to a full-blown scowl. "I could be wrong, but I don't think it requires this many people for a simple refund."

Chris stepped forward and threw the thick, leather belt down on the desk in front of the judge. "We were headed when I spotted Larson here ..."

"I did it!"

Vin's shout caught all the men off guard. Stepping forward to stand in front of the judge, the teenager looked briefly into Travis' eyes then stared down at his boots. "I did it. I cheated to make sure I would win the calf roping."

The idea to confess to Bill's crime had come to Vin just as they had reached the door leading to the stadium office. Vin figured that if they locked him up instead of Bill that would leave his uncle free to return to the farm and care for Peso. Vin hoped they wouldn't sentence him to more than a few months; not for something like cutting one strap. Of course he'd have to give back the prize money but still, that was better than losing his horse.

Bill Larson didn't know what had inspired his nephew to lie but he was willing to take advantage of the situation to save his own skin. "That's right, he did it. And I was just punishing him with a few licks of my belt when this 'cowboy' jumps me from behind."

Chris almost growled he was so angry. "Licks?! He's probably got marks on his back from where you hit him." He pointed an accusing finger at the man as he turned back to the judge. "He had the boy in their horse trailer and was 'beating' him with that belt."

Orrin sighed and rubbed his eyes; this was supposed to have been a long and relaxing weekend. Even if Orrin hadn't already known what kind of man Larson was, he was ready to accept his guilt just on Chris' testimony. He'd known John Larabee, Chris' father for more than a decade and had watched his son mature into a responsible adult. He knew Chris well enough to take his word for fact.

Larson on the other hand didn't know Chris and had no idea that he was in such good standing with the judge. "He's full of shit and buttin in where he don't belong. You don't hear the boy complaining do you? And he just admitted to cheating. Nothing wrong with a little discipline. A good walloping is all teenagers understand these days."

When both Orrin and Chris remained silent Bill figured he'd won the round and reached confidently for his belt only to find his hand blocked by the judge's. Chris had seen the hard glint enter Travis' dark eyes while Larson shot his mouth off and was content to let the older man handle the situation.

"Just a moment, I have a few questions I would like to ask your nephew." As Bill reluctantly backed away, Travis studied the boy in front of him, noticing how Vin was avoiding eye contact with everyone present. His posture was stiff but not defensive; more like a condemned man resigned to his fate. Something about his confession bothered Orrin and in his many years of serving justice he'd learned to follow his instincts.

"When did you cut the strap, before or after you left to fix your horse's shoe?"

"Uh, before." Vin answered as quickly as he could, hoping to satisfy the judge and get the whole ordeal over with.

"I see. It must have been difficult fixing that nail with a sore hand."

"No, I was nearly finished when he ... I mean, yeah, yeah it was. Difficult." Not nearly so difficult as stacking one lie on top of the other.

"Hmmm. And tell me again, which strap did you cut?"


"Yes, right or left?"

Vin licked his lips and tried to remember. Surely someone had mentioned which one it was. "Le..." He shot a quick glance to his uncle and saw the man's right hand jerk. "I mean right. It was the right one."

Orrin leaned back in his chair and sighed. He didn't know why the teenager was lying other than the possibility that his uncle really had been beating him, forcing him to take the blame. But why bother? Without evidence, he'd been prepared to let the both of them go. Now Chris had raised the issue of possible abuse, which opened up a whole new can of worms. Orrin decided to act as if he believed the story and see what happened.

"You realize that the boy whose saddle you tampered with could have been hurt very badly? I've seen falls where people have done more than just break an arm or leg. I've seen spinal injuries and even broken necks. A person can die from something as simple as falling from a horse. When you cut that strap you actually put an innocent boy's life in danger. Is winning really that important to you; that you would be willing to kill to get first place?

"No! I would never ...I ...I mean I didn't think ..." Vin rubbed his eyes as he tried desperately to figure out what to do. The judge was right, JD could have been hurt a lot worse and it would have been his fault. And if he kept on competing, his uncle would keep on cheating and more kids could be injured. He'd been selfishly worried about keeping his horse when he should have been more concerned with stopping his uncle. But what could he do now? He'd just confessed, they wouldn't believe him if he tried to back out. And even if they did, what then? What would Bill do if he refused to ever compete again? He'll kill me for real. As that chilling thought settled in Vin's mind, he realized it was the truth. Oh, his uncle wouldn't mean to do it but he'd either be too drunk or just to angry to stop when he should and ...

"Vin? Is there something you'd like to tell me?"

"What?" Vin blinked his vision clear as he lifted his head and met the judge's eyes. He'd been caught off guard by the sudden gentleness in the man's voice and now found himself trapped by the understanding, sympathetic gaze.

Seeing that he had Vin's undivided attention, Orrin slowly leaned forward and rested his hands lightly on the belt stretched across his desk. "I know...you didn't cut that strap. And I know ...that it was your uncle who did. Now ...there is something else...I need to know. Was your uncle... hitting you ...with this belt... when Chris arrived?"

After a breathless moment of hesitation Vin slowly nodded his head, his eyes never leaving the judge's.

"Has your uncle...hit you...like that...before tonight?"

Another slow, jerky nod was his answer.

"Vin, I know this is very difficult for you. Your tired ... confused ... worried ... maybe even a little scared, but I need you to trust me. Trust me to do what is best for you. Can you do that? Can you give me that trust?"

This time the affirmative movement of Vin's head was barely perceptible but Orrin took what he could get.

"Good. Very good." Travis eased back slightly but kept his hands on the belt and his attention focused on the teenager who was hanging on his every word. "The first thing I need for you to do is to remove your shirt..."

"Now look here...!" Larson stepped forward to protest but both Chris and William moved to block his path, the bodies of the two men forming a more than adequate blockade.

Josiah was aware of the shift in positions but kept his eyes riveted on the scene playing out in front of him. Seeing the interaction between Judge Travis and Vin Tanner was like watching a defenseless rabbit caught by the mesmerizing stare of a snake. Until Bill had spoken, Vin had been totally and completely focused on the man in front of him and even as Larson grudgingly backed down, Travis used his voice to regain control.

"Vin...I need you to remove your shirt," Orrin ignored Larson and finished his sentence; pulling Vin's eyes back to his. "And let me see your back. Take your time. Think about it if you need to. The decision is yours."

Vin didn't want to think about it. He didn't want to think about anything ever again. He just wanted it to all be over with, one way or another. He had no idea what would happen after he let the judge see his back but the man had asked for his trust and there was something about Orrin Travis that made it hard to refuse his request. Slowly, Vin's hand's rose and his fingers began fumbling with the top button of his flannel shirt.

"Stop right there boy! Don't listen to him; he's just an old fart looking for an excuse to lock me up and then he'll dump you in some institute ..." Larson suddenly found himself shoved against a wall with William's fists knotted in his collar.

"That 'old fart' is the finest judge to ever sit a bench and you ain't fit to clean his spurs with your tongue. Now you open that mouth one more time afore he tells you to and I'm gonna cram my fist so far down your throat I'll have to clean shit out from under my nails."

"William, that's enough." Orrin would have found his friend's colorful vocabulary amusing had he not been watching a fifteen-year-old boy visibl trembling with fear. "Mr. Larson, I will remind you that, (a) you are not among friends here and that (b) you are vastly outnumbered. I suggest you do what William says and remain silent throughout these proceedings. Besides, I'm sure that anything you could possibly have to say would only damage your case further."

Vin stood with his eyes closed as he listened to the judge speak. As silence descended on the room, he suddenly realized a very important difference between his uncle and Travis. In all the years he'd been living with Bill Larson, not once had he met a person that actually respected or even liked his uncle. In fact, while his aunt might have loved Bill at one time, there towards the end even she had seemed more and more disappointed in the man.

Now Judge Travis on the other hand, here he was a real 'ancient' with younger men jumping to follow his orders and people like that William fella ready to do violence over a simple insult. While the judge was a good-sized man and apparently fit, he certainly didn't appear the type that could use physical threats to gain obedience. A man that could get that kind of respect was asking Vin to trust him. Asking. Him. Like he mattered. Like he was something other than a dumb, lazy, good-for-nothin bastard.

His fingers still shook a little but Vin managed to quickly undo the rest of the buttons and then pull the oversized shirt free of his pants revealing another shirt underneath; an old, stained t-shirt with a faded logo on the left breast. Also revealed were his slender arms which showed the dark red marks where Ezra's fists had struck him earlier as well as several black and purplish looking bruises the size and pattern matching that of an adult's fingers.

Knowing that William had Larson under control, Chris turned so that he could see Vin's back. He noticed the bruises on the boy's arms first and felt the heat of his anger begin to rise once more. As he watched, Vin slowly tugged the bottom of his t-shirt up and then pulled it over his head.


"William. Josiah. Would you two please stop Chris before he kills the man? I would prefer that Larson be the one to stand trial, not Chris."

For the first time Josiah did not rush forward to stop a friend from physically harming another human being, perhaps because for the first time he'd actually met a man he considered to be less than human. William summed up his feelings best when he asked the judge, "Can we at least wait until he's broken every bone in the bastard's body?"

"No. He's disturbing Vin."

That simple statement was all it took to galvanize the two spectators into action. They each grabbed an arm and pulled Chris off his cowering victim. Bill's face was covered in blood and it was obvious by his labored breathing that his nose was broken. Blood also ran from a gash on his bottom lip that looked bad enough to need stitches.

As Josiah and William restrained a red faced and silently raging Chris Larabee, Orrin concentrated once more on the boy standing in front of his desk.

Vin's blue eyes were wide with shock as he stood staring at the battered face of his uncle. His hands had a death grip on his t-shirt, which he clutched tight against his chest. Small tremors shook his thin body, as he stood mesmerized by the bright red blood that ran down Bill's face and dripped onto his shirt.

"Vin. Vin. Vin." Travis finally got the frightened blue eyes turned in his direction and kept his voice firm but gentle as he spoke. "You can put your shirt back on now. And when you are dressed I'd like you to take a seat over there. You did the right thing son, showing us your back. Remember that. You did the right thing."

And now it was up to him to do the right thing. Looking down, Orrin realized he was squeezing Larson's belt so tightly his knuckles were bone- white. Slowly opening his hands, he drew in a deep breath and forced himself to think the situation through calmly and logically. He'd dealt with a few abuse cases before but they never seemed to get any easier. Usually by the time they reached his courtroom the brutality was confined to documents, testimonies and photographs without the children actually present. This was his first time witnessing such horror firsthand. Lord help me. How do the doctors and social workers deal with these kinds of situations and keep from pulling a gun?

Larson's pathetic sniffling and whimpering drew the judge's attention once more and helped him focus on the immediate problem. "William, there should be a roll of paper towels in that cabinet over there; give them to Mr. Larson so that he can stop bleeding all over the carpet."

I won't be able to take the bench on this case but perhaps I can get it shifted to McWayne's venue; he'll make sure Larson gets the maximum amount of jail time. Orrin's gaze shifted back to Vin who had done as instructed and was sitting hunched forward in the straight back chair, his arms wrapped around his chest as if trying desperately to hold himself together. Travis frowned as he considered what was about to happen to the teenager. The questions. The medical exam. The photographs. Counseling, more questions and eventually a foster home. Days and weeks filled with strangers telling him what to do and where to go. Oh, to be sure they would all be properly concerned and sympathetic adults but strangers non-the less.

A rustle of fabric drew Travis' attention back to the other side of the room where Sanchez was apparently trying to access the damage, if any to Larabee's knuckles. As he watched, he noticed that Chris' eyes kept darting towards the huddled teenager and every time they did his jaw would clench tight and his body would shift restlessly with pent up anger. An idea, or rather an inspiration suddenly struck Orrin like a bolt of lightning straight out of the blue. The thought was so irrational and yet so perfect, it caused him to slump back in his seat and catch his breath in a quick gasp.

I must be going senile to even think it could work. And if it doesn't...if it blows up in my face...well hell, Evelyn has been nagging me to retire; it'll make her happy if nothing else.

Travis decided to act quickly before he could come to his senses. "Larson, on your feet. I should pick up this phone and call the police right now but I'm not going to. Arresting you would take up the rest of my evening as well as their's and I don't intend to waste any more of our time on you tonight. So I'm letting you go ... but the boy stays here. I recommend you first get that lip seen to by a doctor and then spend the night at home in your own bed since you probably won't be seeing it again for some time to come. I'll give you until 10:00 a.m. tomorrow morning to turn yourself in. I'd strongly suggest that you don't make the police come looking for you since the majority of the officers have families and are very fond of children."

Bill Larson was mad enough to spit nails but he knew he was beat. The next time he appeared in court it wouldn't be for something as simple as drunk driving and he would probably wind up doing some serious time. It's all that damn kid's fault. The little bastard's ruined my life. Took away my Clara and now he's gonna cost me my freedom and my farm. Should have kicked his butt out of the house soon as the funeral was over. Lucky for him, Larson didn't say out loud what he was thinking as he staggered toward the door. His control broke as he looked down on the object of his hatred and he stopped directly in front of Vin's huddled form.

Vin looked up and met his uncle's hate filled gaze. For one split second Bill's anger left him as he stared into his nephew's blue eyes. Deep inside he knew that a child's eyes should never hold that much pain, that much sorrow or so little hope. He remembered the moment Clara had given Vin his Quarter horse and how those blue eyes had sparkled with laughter and joy. Maybe one day that light would return but Bill was sure he would never see it. The sudden thought of the prison cell awaiting him rekindled the hate and anger in Larson's heart and he snarled down at his nephew, "I know how much that stupid mule means to you so don't you worry, I'll make sure you get to see him again. Just wait a week and then go buy yourself a can of Alpo."

"How much?"

"What?" Bill turned at the growled question; surprised that Larabee was talking to him.

"I said how much for the horse. You need the money more than you need revenge on the boy and I've got a thousand in cash right here." Chris opened his wallet and pulled out four, five hundred dollar bills; part of the payment that he had received earlier that night for the sale of one of his thoroughbreds. "The judge will write out a bill of sale. You sign it and leave the animal here."

Bill looked at the money in Larabee's hand and barely hesitated before nodding his head. Travis was a little surprised by the sudden business transaction but quickly wrote out the necessary document and had William sign it as a witness.

"Hope you like mending fences and barns; cause with that mule you're going to be doing a lot of it." With that said Bill grabbed up the money and left the office without even a glance in Vin's direction.

"Josiah, William would you please follow Mr. Larson and make sure he leaves quietly and without the horse? I have something I would like to discuss with Vin and I would prefer that Chris remain behind."

"Sure boss, be glad to."

As he moved toward the door Josiah spoke to Chris. "I'll wait at the trailer for you. Ezra and I will go ahead and get Chaucer and Pony loaded."

"Yeah, thanks." Chris barely noticed when the two men left; he was too busy wondering what the hell had sparked him to waste a thousand dollars on a horse he didn't want and couldn't use.

"Now then Vin, I need to explain exactly what is going to happen to you over the next few days." Travis didn't sugarcoat his words even though it pained him to see the boy become pale beneath his tan. From the corner of his eye the judge watched Larabee's expression and was pleased to see a growing frown of displeasure. "So the next few days will be necessarily unpleasant but soon you will be settled into a foster home with adults that will provide adequate care for you until you are able to fend for yourself. Do you understand? Do you have any questions?"

Vin first nodded then shook his head. Oh, he understood alright. He understood that Bill had sold 'his' horse, the horse that Aunt Clara had given to him on his tenth birthday. Five years and it was all over, just like that. A scrap of paper and wad of money and Peso was gone from his life forever. Vin tried to comfort himself with the thought that Peso was going to a good home but he had seen first hand Chris Larabee's temper and he knew how mean and destructive his horse could be. How long would it be before Larabee decided to cut his losses and put a gun to Peso's head like Bill had always threatened to do?

"Very well, I'll make the necessary phone calls and get someone here to pick you up. There's a coke machine out in the hall. Why don't you get a drink and use the restroom while you wait?"

"Don't have any money." Vin mumbled but still stood up and moved toward the door figuring that where there was a bathroom there was bound to be a water fountain and he needed something in his stomach beside the big knot of fear and despair that was currently filling it.

"Here," Chris reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of change. He didn't know how much the machine took so he just dumped the whole amount into the boy's hand. "If you've got enough there, how about getting me one too?"

Vin said "Thanks." and turned back to the door but stopped with his hand on the knob. Should he or shouldn't he? Did he have anything to lose by asking?

"If you don't mind...would it be alright if I walked out and just ...kind of said good-bye to Peso? I won't stay long and I'll come straight back here."

Travis glanced at Chris and getting a slight nod of agreement said, "Yes, that's fine. Are you sure you'll be able to find this office again?"

"Yeah, I don't get lost." And with that simple statement, Vin quickly exited the room.

The sound of the latch clicking into place was Chris' signal that he was free to speak his mind. "What the hell did you mean when you said he would have to spend a few days in a correctional facility? His uncle is the one who needs to be locked up!"

"It will take time to find Tanner a home and he can't be placed with other children until they make sure he is not a threat. He won't be treated like the teenager's actually sentenced there and will be kept isolated...

"Isolated? You mean solitary confinement? Damn it! He's done nothing wrong! He's the victim!"

"And he will be cared for but the system ..."

"To hell with the system. You are not locking him up."

Travis fought hard to keep the triumphant smile off his face as he leaned back in his chair. Instead, he raised an eyebrow and inquired quite innocently, "Oh, and just what would you have me do with him? Send him back to his uncle?"

"No, damn it. He can stay with me until you get him 'processed' and into a home."

"With you? And John? What if he turns out to be violent like his uncle? Are you willing to put Buck and his nephew at risk?"

"He's not violent and there's no risk." Of that Chris was absolutely positive. He was also positive that he would not be able to sleep thinking of Vin locked in some juvenile correctional facility while Bill Larson roamed free. "I'm taking him home with me and there's not a damn thing you can do about it."

"I see." Travis quickly looked away so that Chris would not see the satisfied gleam in his eyes. "Well, in that case you had best leave me a number so that I can call you when it's time to bring him in."

"Here." Chris tossed one of his business cards down on the desk as he stalked from the office. As he walked out, Orrin could hear him muttering about 'so called judge...throwing the defendant in jail' and 'thought justice was blind, not stupid.'

As the door closed, Travis let out a long sigh. Had he done the right thing? There were a thousand ways his scheme could go wrong and only one way it could end right for both Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner. "Ah well, if worse comes to worse I suppose I could always plead senility. I can think of several attorneys that would buy that story in a heartbeat."

+ + + + + + +

Vin trudged through the mostly empty parking lot; his quiet sniffs of suppressed sorrow masked by the sound of his boots scuffling through the dirt. He held a can of coke in either hand having decided it best to go ahead and get Mr. Larabee's and just leave it for him at the horse trailer. Actually he was half hoping he might get a chance to talk to the horse breeder just one more time before heading back to the judge's office. Vin wanted tell him a few things about Peso that might make things go just a little bit smoother provided the man was willing to listen.

Nearing the now familiar Sundowner trailer, Vin slowed his steps and took in the sight of his horse standing docilely while the Standish kid ran a brush over his back. It felt like the ultimate betrayal, seeing his tough-as-nails, mean-as-snot, no good, jug-headed mule of a horse accepting the attention of another boy. It was almost like he already knew he was going to a new and better home.

Ezra heard a strange sound and looked up to see Vin Tanner watching him. The overhead light cast the boy's face in shadow so Ezra couldn't quit make out his expression but he bet himself that it was a surprised one. The teenager's first instinct was to gloat over his achievement but remembered what Josiah had told him about the night's events. Ezra tried to imagine himself in Vin's place but that was just too far of a stretch for his imagination, although he did guess correctly that the younger boy was there for one last moment with his horse. On that one thing he could empathize; he knew how upset he would be if someone took Chaucer away from him.

Lowering the brush and stepping back, he called out to Vin. "Lucky for me your horse has a well developed sweet tooth. I always keep a few molasses nuggets on hand to reward Chaucer with after a good show. I used a few of those to bribe yours into good behavior otherwise I don't think he would have let me within ten feet."

Vin hesitated long enough to wipe one arm across his face before moving closer. "Oh, he would have let you get within four feet, 'his' four feet, before turning on ya. You talk about luck, you're lucky you didn't lose a finger feeding him."

"My mother did not raise a fool. I placed the first two pieces on a board and served him from the other side of the ramp. Only when I was sure we had reached a mutual understanding did I dare to approach him." Ezra looked back at the animal they were discussing. "You know, he really is a magnificent example of a the Quarter horse breed. It's a shame you don't know his lineage."

"If'n by that you mean who his dame and sire are I sure as hell do know their names." Vin sat the two drinks down on the ramp and walked over to stand at Peso's shoulder. "His full name is Bandit's Last Peso. His sire is Bandit Lover and his dame is Pesos and Roses."

"Bandit Lover? But...that's the name of one of Buck's studs." Ezra looked again at the horse and realized there was a resemblance. He knew that people would pay Chris and Buck for the use of their studs but had never before encountered one of the resulting offspring.

"You mean Buck as in JD's uncle?"

"Yes, Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee own the L bar W ranch. It would seem that Peso is to be reunited with his father." Ezra cringed as the last word left his mouth. Stupid. Stupid. Should never have brought up family relations.

If Vin was hurt or offended by the remark, he gave no sign of it. Instead one corner of his mouth turned up in a very small smile as he gave Peso an affectionate scratch between his ears. "Hear that boy? You got a family reunion coming up." Peso's only response was a wet snort and vigorous shake of his head.

Josiah chose that moment to emerge from the trailer where he had been stowing the last of the tack. The boys' voices had carried very clearly and he was as surprised as Ezra to learn of Peso's ancestry. Hmmm, wonder if that's why Chris decided to buy him. Wouldn't surprise me; that man's whole life centers around Quarter horses. He probably recognized the bloodlines right off.

"Pardon the interruption, but I need to talk with Ezra about something."

"Uhm, can it possibly wait just a minute more Josiah?" Ezra wasn't sure how long Vin was going to stay and he desperately wanted a chance to ease his conscious by offering an apology. He had convinced himself that it didn't really matter whether or not Vin accepted; it was just the attempt that mattered.

"No Ezra, it can't."

Reluctantly the teenager allowed himself to be led several feet away. "Josiah, I ..."

"Ezra, we're just giving Vin a moment alone with his horse. I saw the look on his face when his uncle made the arrangement with Chris, like his whole life was coming to an end. I think that animal is the closest thing he has to a best friend so we'll just give them a few minutes alone together but keep an eye out so that you can catch him before he leaves."

A horse for a friend? Ezra was dumbfounded. Josiah must be exaggerating but if he wants to believe such nonsense it's certainly not my place to correct him. As long as I get a chance to admit my error and relieve myself of this unpleasant feeling of guilt he can take all the time he wants.

Vin was grateful for the interruption and even happier to have a chance to say good-bye without the other boy looking over his shoulder.

"Well Peso, I know things seem kind of weird right now but it's all for the best. At least that's what they keep telling me. All I know for sure is that I won't be seeing you anymore. Bill took a thousand dollars and even though you weren't his to sell, they got a judge to write up a document that says you belong to a fella named Chris Larabee. I guess if a judge does it, that makes it legal." Vin swallowed the lump of anger and resentment that formed in his throat threatening to choke off the rest of his words. "Tonight you're going to a new home; a real ranch where you'll be with other horses and taken care of like you should be. I'm not sure where I'm headed but I think maybe you got the better end of the deal." Vin fought hard to hold back the tears but it was a losing battle. "Thanks for putting up with me for all those years. Sorry... about the way Bill treated you. Hope ...hope you're happy...in your new home. Gonna... miss ya...ya sorry mule."

Peso ducked his head and pushed his nose against Vin's hip causing the boy to stagger back a step. Vin used the momentum to turn his body away from where Josiah and Ezra stood, hoping to hide the fact that he was using his sleeve to dry his cheeks. "Just don't seem fair. I didn't ask Bill to cheat for me. And if I'd known what that judge had planned I never would have taken off my shirt." Vin ran his hands down Peso's neck then tangled his fingers in the thick mane as he spoke. Suddenly he was struck by a wonderful idea.

"We could run away. Both of us. Right now. If we head across the lot to the trees, we could reach the hills without ever coming near a road. They'd never catch us and we could ...we could..." What? Live in the woods for the rest of their lives? "Well, why not? You can graze and I can...find...something..." No, it was a stupid idea. Besides, even if he could find food and water what would he do for shelter or a fire? "Maybe not for the rest of our lives then. Maybe just for tonight and tomorrow. Just one more day and then I could bring you back to...your new owner." And then it hit him; Peso wasn't his anymore.

Vin loosened his grip and let his hands drop to his sides. That morning things had seemed so simple and straightforward. Ride Peso, win the rodeo, get the prizes, head back home and practice for the next competition. And now in just a few hours all that had changed, maybe for the better, more likely for the worse.

Vin pulled himself up straight despite the pain in his back and the ache in his heart. Giving Peso's neck one last scratch, he stepped away and found a truth that he could live with. "I don't know if you'll be happy on that ranch or not but I do know I'm not a cheater or a thief. I'm not like my uncle. I won't be like him. I've only got a few more years and then I'll be on my own. I'll get a job and earn some money and then buy you back. And we'll get us one of those papers that says your mine and won't nobody ever take you away again. Ever. I promise."

Watching from several steps away, Josiah let out a sigh of relief. He had spent years dealing with teenagers and had become an expert at reading body language. The moment Vin had grabbed hold of Peso's mane; Josiah had correctly read his intent. Ride. Run away. Be free. Silently he had willed the boy to stop, to think it through but at the same time he had tensed the muscles in his legs and calculated the distance he would have to travel before Vin managed to get the reins free of the trailer. He was glad to see that the boy had come to his senses. Hang in there Vin, things aren't quite as bad as they seem.

"Josiah? You want to help me get this horse loaded so we can go? I just got off the phone with Buck, he and JD are ready to leave the hospital." Chris strode up to the trailer as he spoke. His voice carried a clear note of irritation and suppressed anger that had Josiah as well as the two boys jumping to comply.

"Sir, before you go ..." Vin found the courage from his new resolve to step in front of the rancher and demand his attention. "I need to tell you about Peso. He ..."

"Tell me on the way to the hospital. I don't want to keep Buck waiting any longer than I have to."

Vin was confused. "I'm riding with you? But...I thought ... the judge said..."

Chris drew a deep breath and forced himself to slow down, reminding himself that he was angry with Larson and Travis, not the boy. "I spoke with Orrin after you left. We both agreed that it would be better if you stayed at my place while he gets everything arranged. He'll let me know when it's time to bring you back."

"Oh. All right" Well, what else could he say? It was just one more added twist to the night's craziness. He felt a surge of panic as he thought about spending the night at Larabee's home. He'd never been a houseguest before and had no idea of the proper way to act.

"Josiah, here's the key to the truck. When you get to the ranch, just back up the trailer to the side corral and let Vin's horse out there. The water trough should be full but if you could throw in a couple of blocks of hay I'd appreciate it."

"Sure, no problem." Josiah handed over his own key and nodded to where Vin stood waiting. Dropping his voice so that his words wouldn't carry, he expressed his concern with the new arrangement. "Are you sure about this? You don't really know anything about the boy."

"I know enough." Chris could see that Josiah was about to say something else and quickly cut him off. "Look, I mentioned this to Buck while I had him on the phone and he agreed with me; Vin is not going to be locked up while his uncle goes free."

"Calm down brother, I wasn't going to argue with you." Josiah griped Chris shoulder and gave him a reassuring smile. "I was about to offer to take him home with me. My place is closer to town and I do have a sleeper- sofa."

Chris shook his head. "Thanks. I appreciate the offer but I started this so I'll see it through. Just get the horses settled for the night and I'll treat you and Ezra to a steak dinner next weekend."

"Done and done."

The two men shook hands and Chris headed toward the cab of the truck to fetch jackets while Josiah ambled up to Vin. Ezra joined them, secretly relieved that Tanner would not be spending the night in his house but still desiring a chance to apologize. Since it did not appear that he would have a moment of privacy, he decided to just go ahead and get it over with so that his conscience would settle down and leave him alone.

"Vin, before you leave I would like to apologize for accusing you of cheating and knocking you down."

I guess I should just say thanks and be done with it but this whole mess is his fault. Probably didn't want to apologize. I bet that Josiah fella is making him do it. Vin decided he was tired of being agreeable and that Ezra was going to have to work a bit harder for his forgiveness.

Cocking his head slightly to one side, Vin regarded Ezra with a quizzical expression. "What about calling me a liar?"

"Yes, well that too."

"And ya didn't just knock me down, you punched me a few times as well."

Ezra shifted his feet and made a vague, dismissing motion with his right hand. "Yes, I want to apologize for all that."

"OK." Vin crossed his arms and stood watching the other teenager. "Go ahead."


"Get on with it. You said you were going to apologize."

"But...that was it."

Josiah couldn't help the small laugh that escaped and looking over his shoulder, he noticed Chris watching the exchange with an amused look on his face as well.

"That was what?"

"The apology." Ezra felt his cheeks redden with embarrassment, fully aware that the two adults were witnessing his failing attempt at relieving his guilt. Why is Tanner being so difficult? He's not supposed to make a big deal about this.

Vin gave a snort and tossed his head. "You call that an a apology? My horse can do a better job than that."

That was the final straw. "Look, I'm sorry alright?! I'm sorry I called you a cheater and a liar!" Ezra's voice got steadily louder as he listed out his mistakes. "I'm sorry I attacked you and knocked you down! And I'm sorry I hit you! I was wrong, OK?! I screwed up! I admit it! I'm sorry. There! Are you satisfied?!"

By the time he finished Ezra was breathing fast and his hands were knotted into fists at his sides while Vin stood calmly regarding the older boy as if judging his performance.

"Well, still ain't as good as Peso could've done but if that's the best you've got...then yeah, I'll take it."

Ezra took a menacing step forward and Josiah quickly intervened. "OK boys, that's enough. Chris needs to pick up JD and we still have to get this horse loaded."

The two boys fell silent but exchanged a couple of knowing looks, silently acknowledging that their business with each other was not finished.

"Josiah's right, c'mon Vin let's go."

Vin started to follow Chris but remembered the two soft drinks. "Oh, almost forgot." He grabbed the two cans and handed one to Larabee while shaking the other, which he then gave to Josiah. "Just stand at the top of the ramp and open it. But first make sure you have Peso's reins looped over his back and be ready to move quick once you pop the lid."

Josiah accepted both the can and the advice with a straight face and a grateful nod. "Thanks. Any special trick to getting him unloaded?"

"Open the gate and stand back."

"Gotchya. Good-night Chris. Tell JD we'll stop by and see him in a couple of days and that we're thinking of him."

"Will do. G'night Ezra."

Not as good as his horse!? What was I supposed to do, drop to my knees and kiss his ....?"

"Ezra, Chris said goodnight."

"Hmm? Oh, good-night Mr. Larabee. Please tell JD that I will come by for a visit within a few days and that I hope his arm does not pain him too terribly." Ezra finished speaking and was a little confused by the soft laughter he received in response. "What?"

Chris merely waved his hand and began leading Vin to Josiah's green and white Suburban parked several rows over.

"Josiah, what were you laughing about?"

Shaking his head in amusement, Sanchez simply started up the ramp with the coke in his hand. "Just one of those nights Ezra." One of those nights where you have to either laugh or cry. "Now since you've become such good friends with Peso, why don't you get his reins loose and we'll see about getting this circus on the road. I don't know about you but that barbeque pizza is starting to sound better by the minute.


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