MARK MY WORDS by Beth Green

A "Little Britches" ATF story

Characters: Buck, Vin, Ezra

Author’s Notes: This was inspired by, of all things, the name of the band, "Better Than Ezra." My muses started making noises about something occurring to cause Buck to declare himself to be better than Ezra. And so, with a little beta help from Phyllis, begins my foray into the LB AU.

Ezra’s patient tutoring of young Vin was producing results. The lad’s English skills were definitely improving. However, as the improvements were relatively small incrementally, Vin, himself did not always see or believe in his own progress. Usually when Vin began to doubt himself, a quick check of his early journal entries compared to his latest entries was sufficient to restore his confidence. Ezra was preparing to do so when Vin abruptly pushed himself away from the computer.

It had been a particularly trying session for Vin. The recent rain had finally stopped today, and the weather was extremely pleasant. Vin had very reluctantly left the backyard when it was time for his lesson. He found it difficult to keep his mind focused on the task at hand. Consequently, he was making more errors than usual.

Ezra had just finished gently correcting him. "When you’re referring to ‘I,’ singular, you want to use the small word, ‘was.’ When the subject is more than just one, or the longer word ‘you,’ you should use the longer word, ‘were.’"

This was far from the first time Vin had heard Ezra say the very same lesson. It never seemed to stick in his head. He pushed himself away from the computer. His voice heavy with frustration, he declared, "I guess I’m just too dumb to remember all the rules. I ain’t never gonna get it right." As soon as the words of his final sentence left his mouth, Vin knew that they were not the correct words. Tears filled his eyes. Needing to leave the scene of his latest failure, he ran from the room.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Buck had been sharing sections of the daily newspaper companionably between them in the next room while Ezra conducted Vin’s lesson. They heard the repeated mistakes followed by the patient corrections. Finally, they’d heard the self-disgust in Vin’s voice followed by the boy’s rapid exit from the room. The slamming of the screen door announced his retreat into the backyard.

Chris prepared to follow when Buck stood in front of him, blocking his path. Before Chris could angrily question his action, Buck stated, "Let me talk to him, Chris. I reckon I might know a little bit about what’s goin’ on in his head right now. I think I might have a few words that’ll help." Buck stared steadily at his best friend, seeing the angry expression gradually leave to be replaced by a calm acceptance. Chris stepped out of the way, giving a nod of approval.

Buck didn’t have far to go to find Vin. The boy had only traveled as far as the back porch. He sat on the steps, a picture of misery. His knees were tucked up under his chin, his arms wrapped around them. His back bowed so that his head rested on his knees. Buck sat next to him. The older man waited and watched. It took a while, but finally the tense little ball that was Vin began to unwind. Buck judged the time was right to place a hand on the boy’s back as he began a slow, gentle massage. He felt the tense muscles relax under his talented fingers.

When he figured Vin was as relaxed as he was going to get, Buck began to speak. "I guess you had kind of a rough time with Ezra today." Silence was Vin’s only answer. Buck continued, "I don’t know as it makes any difference, but I’ve always found English lessons a trial myself. Grammar and all them rules just don’t necessarily make a whole lotta sense. Especially when someone tries to get you to write different from the way you talk."

Buck was encouraged to see that Vin was paying attention to his words when the boy nodded his agreement. "You see, I ain’t so good about puttin’ words together all neat and proper like Ezra. See what I mean, there’s that word ‘ain’t’ again. ‘Ain’t’ isn’t a proper word but I use it all the time. Now me, I been usin’ words the wrong way for a whole lot longer than you. So it’ll take me a whole lot longer to figure out how to do it right. But you know what? I’m learnin’ right along with you. Sitting outside that room, I can usually hear everything Ezra says. I gotta tell you, he’s a pretty good teacher."

Vin didn’t look at Buck. He was too busy watching his foot make slow circles as he swung it against the bottom step. His low self-esteem was evident as he replied, "Guess I ain’t a good student."

Buck quickly corrected Vin’s mistaken impression. "NO, no, that’s not what I was tryin’ to say. There’s a reason that schools make kids take ten years of English classes. English is a da-," Buck stopped himself before he had contribute to the swear jar, "a real hard language to learn."

Vin groaned at the idea of ten years of English lessons. The thought was almost too painful to consider.

Buck encouraged, "You gotta give yourself some time. You ain’t - there I go again – you aren’t gonna learn it all in a few months. All you need to do is go back and look at how you were writing when you first started working with Ezra and compare it to how you’re writing now. You’re doing good Vin, real good."

Now that he’d calmed down, Vin could remember the last time he’d reviewed his work. Ezra had made sure to point out the ways in which he was progressing. The young man let his frustration show as he commented, "But there’s just so much to know! Sometimes it seems like I’m just too dumb to remember it all."

Buck gave him a gentle shake. "Vin, can I ask you to do something? Please, don’t ever refer to yourself as dumb. It’s not true, and you’re not giving yourself enough credit. You’re smart in a whole lotta ways. Heck, there’s no way you and JD could’ve made it on your own if you weren’t one of the smartest kids I know."

Buck thought that he might finally be getting through to Vin. At least, he hoped so. He continued, "I got a question for you. Now, I want you to be honest with me. Who do you think is smarter? Me or Ezra?" In order to make sure Vin shared what he was really thinking, Buck added, "I promise I won’t get mad if you say Ezra."

Vin paused as if he was thinking it over. Actually, he needed to think about Buck’s reaction if he said "Ezra." After a minute, he recollected how both Chris and Buck always encouraged him to tell the truth. If he added in the fact that Buck had made a promise, it was safe to say his answer out loud: "Ezra."

Buck nodded. "A lot of people think that." Buck, himself, thought it to be true. However, for the purpose of the point he was trying to make, he figured that a judicious lie would be better. So, he continued, "And a lot of people are wrong about that. If you was to give me and Ezra an IQ test, I guarantee you that I’d win."

He smiled at the doubtful expression on Vin’s face. "You don’t believe me? Try asking Ezra to fix the timing on a carburetor some time. He don’t know his way around the underside of a car hood. Even better, take him out in the woods. I’m telling you, the man don’t know a rod and reel from a trotline."

Vin recalled the last time Ezra had accompanied the family on a trip to a local wilderness area. Ezra had seemed rather lost, requiring a lot of assistance from his companions. Maybe Buck was smarter than Vin had given him credit for.

Buck didn’t know it, but Vin was thinking exactly what Buck wanted him to be thinking. Hoping for the best, Buck continued, "All my life, people have accused me of being dumb. I don’t pay ‘em no nevermind, ‘cause I know better. Besides, I understand why they’re thinking the way they’re thinking. You see, when I was just a little tater tot, I didn’t have no one like Ezra to teach me English. So I never learned it right."

Warming to his subject, he stated, "When people hear me sayin’ words like ‘ain’t,’ they figure that I’m not smart ‘cause of the way I talk. They hear Ezra talk and they figure he must be the smartest man in the world ‘cause of the way he uses words. What I’m tryin’ to say is, if you got a chance to learn to talk like Ezra does, take that chance. Keep tryin,’ and don’t give up."

"Me and Chris and Ezra, we only want what’s best for you. And, let me tell you, you’re well on your way to havin’ both my smarts and Ezra’s words. And when you do, with that combination you’ll end up smarter than the both of us, and that’s a fact."

Vin stared at Buck, seeing no sign of joking or teasing. The man was absolutely sincere. Looking inside himself, Vin found the small kernel of hope that he’d temporarily forgotten was there. Buck’s words had nurtured it and caused it to grow big enough that he was aware of its presence. It gave him a warm feeling to replace the previous despair. He smiled at the idea that he could be smarter than Buck. The smiled dimmed as he thought of the interrupted lesson, then disappeared altogether. He sighed, then stated, "Guess I better be gettin’ back to my lesson."

Buck looked at the sad face, then out at the beautiful day spread out before them. He made a show of looking at his watch, then he said, "Well, it looks to me like it’s got to be too late in the day for lessons. Let me go back inside for a minute and see if I can’t get Ezra and Chris to join us for a game of catch, instead." At the hopeful look on Vin’s face, Buck vowed to himself that there would be no more lessons today. He just had to convince Chris and Ezra of the fact.

As it turned out, convincing Chris and Ezra was already a done deal. The two men had eavesdropped on most of Buck and Vin’s conversation. They both agreed that Vin had learned a pretty good lesson already today under Buck’s tutelage.

As they headed out into the backyard, Ezra put out a hand to stop Buck’s forward progress. Nodding his head to the side, he asked, "Mr. Wilmington, if I might have a moment of your time?"

Buck allowed Ezra to lead him out of earshot of the others. Considering the fact that JD had now joined Vin and the two boys were engaged in a rowdy game of tag, the two men probably could have stayed right where they were and not have been overheard. Ezra stated, "I could not help but overhear your declaration of your superior intelligence. I ask you to mark this day in your memory so that you may reflect upon your words if some mysterious prank or other should suddenly befall you sometime in the near future."

Buck shook his head as Ezra walked away to rejoin the others. He thought to himself, "Aw, Hell!" The last prank war had resulted in Buck’s seriously considering taking an impromptu trip to Alaska just to avoid the fallout from one of his pranks gone wrong.

Buck’s suddenly sagging confidence was given a much needed boost when Chris walked up, clapping a hand on his shoulder. Bestowing one of his rare smiles on his friend, Chris declared, "You done good, Buck."

The quiet moment between the two men was broken up by the noisy arrival of JD. "Da!" The young boy latched onto Buck and began pulling him toward the center of the yard. "C’mon, Da, you said you were gonna play!"

Buck laughed and picked up JD. He tossed him over his shoulder, stating, "Yep, I sure did." Work done, it was time to play.