“Ye can’t hit me! Ye couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn!”
Odd that Matteo would say that, given that he was, in fact, standing in front of the broad side of a barn. And not just anybody’s barn, but Billy’s brand-new one. Or, well, it would be his someday; now it belonged to his mum because she was the one who worked and paid the bills and all that stuff. That very same barn had made Matteo’s jaw fall not half an hour ago, just as it — and the cows inside — had made Billy’s jaw fall, Ella and Roma cry out in surprise, and his mama have to wipe her eyes really fast.
And to think, he worried before moving to this new village that he wouldn’t have any friends! Silly of him. He and Matteo had been seated next to each other and had hit it off instantly. Matteo had even shown him the stash of pig’s bladders, filled with water, that he had hidden in the little copse behind the school. He had planned on using them to bombard the girls one day …
But this was more fun, and much less likely to get them into trouble.
“See what ye can do with this!” Matteo cried, grabbing a bladder and lobbing it at Billy.
Billy dodged it; it exploded when it hit the ground beside him. “Ha!”
“I try,” Billy replied, puffing his chest out and planting both his feet on the earth, like a big man. Luckily Matteo didn’t smirk or giggle, like his sisters did whenever he did that, but looked suitably impressed. “Ye gotter be fast when ye’re the man o’ the house.”
Matteo’s eyes went wide; they always did when Billy mentioned that he was the man of the house. But Matteo had a pa and three big brothers who still lived in the house — one of them was even grown-up and married! — and another brother who had married and moved away, and a third who had run away to be a sailor. When he wasn’t off sailing, that brother lived in a little room down by the docks at Port Finessa. Matteo had a little half-brother, too, and three sisters. Billy hadn’t quite figured out which of them were his full sisters and his half-sisters; Matteo barely seemed to know, either.
“Bet ye’re not fast enough to hit me!” Matteo taunted.
“Oh, yeah?” Billy cried, diving for the stash.
“Yeah!” Matteo turned around and waggled his hindquarters, practically inviting him to make them his target.
“We’ll see about that!” Billy waved the bladder aloft.
He aimed, he drew his arm back — he threw —
The bladder winked in the sunlight as it floated down through the air — first up, and then down — closer and closer to Matteo —
“Ha-ha!” Billy had to bend over and hold his stomach for laughing, especially as Matteo tried to wipe his face and pick the sticky bits of bladder out of his hair.
“I’ll get ye next time!” Matteo promised, making a face as he held a piece of bladder before him.
“Nah! Ye’re too slow!”
“Ye think! Ye gotta be fast if ye’ve got five big brothers!”
“Bah! That ain’t nothin’ ter havin’ two big sisters!”
“Big sisters don’t do nothin’!”
“Maybe not before ye stick the frog in their bed, but after …”
Matteo’s eyes bulged. Then he glanced to his left. “Are there frogs in that pond?”
“Oh, ye gurt fool! Ye can’t get a frog from my pond! Ye live two miles away! It’ll squirm free from yer hands before ye got home, else ye’d squeeze it dead!”
“Well, a dead frog would work jest as well, I’m thinkin’, cause it wouldn’t –”
Uh-oh. Billy had forgotten about that.
Why had he invited Matteo to come over on the day when Roma was having her silly party at Uncle Ash and Auntie Lyndsay’s tree, which meant that Uncle Ash was coming to watch him — with his boys — and his ma, Roma and Ella were all leaving? Because it was awful silly to invite Matteo over when he was going to have people to be with anyway. Much better to spread it all out.
And Matteo … when littler boys were involved …
“Who are ye, sprouts?” Matteo challenged, striding up to Bran with his chest puffed out and his feet planted like two trunks in the ground — exactly as he himself had stood just a minute ago, Billy realized with a sinking feeling in his stomach.
But Bran, because he was only seven and just a little bit dumb sometimes — there was a reason why Billy always used to have to rescue him from the schoolyard bullies, back when they went to the same school — smiled hugely. Uncle Ash called Bran and Ginny and Thorn, and probably baby Betony too, his sprouts. He didn’t know that the boys only called each other “sprouts” when they wanted to insult each other.
But why should he know that — Billy had laid flat the only boy (a bigger boy than him, too!) who dared to call Bran a sprout, even though Bran hadn’t understood he was being insulted. And all the other boys in the schoolyard knew from that if anybody else called Bran a sprout, they’d face the same treatment. They’d thought up new insults for Bran after that.
“I’m Bran!” Bran replied with his huge grin. “An’ this is my cousin-brother Thorn!”
“Leave off, Matteo, they’re me nephews,” Billy said, pushing past Matteo. “Look, Bran –”
“Cousin-brother?” Matteo spit. “What the hell’s that?”
Thorn’s eyes became huge, and Billy gave Matteo a little shove to get him to knock it off.
But Bran was big enough to giggle at the bad word, or try to giggle, to prove that he was one of the big boys now. “He’s my cousin really,” Bran answered Matteo, “but he lives with us, so he’s my cousin-brother!”
Matteo turned to Billy with his eyes narrowed. “Ye said yer biggest sister ain’t married yet.”
“She ain’t. These ain’t her kids, neither. They’re me half-brother an’ sisters kids.”
“My da an’ his ma are twins!” Bran added.
At least he didn’t say they’re Plantsims —
“An’,” Bran added, “they’re –”
Shit! Billy knew that was a bad word, because his ma had washed his mouth out with soap for saying it, and had told him she’d do it again if she caught him so much as thinking that word. But Billy wasn’t dumb enough to believe her. And he would have bet that if she could see what was going to happen if Bran finished that sentence as sure as if it was happening right now in front of her, she would have said shit and a lot worse in her head.
Billy grabbed Bran’s elbow and dragged him away. “Look, Bran, why don’t ye take Thorn an’ go inside an’ play with the toys in there?”
‘Cause I’m axin’ ye too! “Please, Bran, jest do it?”
Bran wilted like a tomato plant left for too long without water. “But Thorn an’ me jest got here!”
“I know that. I’ll play with ye after Matteo leaves.”
Bran glanced slowly at Matteo, then slowly again at Billy. “Did I say somethin’ dumb?”
“No. Not really.” Not yet, leastways.
“Then why can’t Thorn an’ me stay out here with you two? We can all be friends!”
No, no, ye really can’t! For the first time, he wondered if maybe all those black eyes and bruised heads he’d dealt out to protect Bran might have been a bad thing. Did Bran really have no idea that if somebody — like Matteo — found out that his father was a Plantsim, he’d be the one with the black eyes and the bruised head?
“Look,” Billy said, “I’m jest axin’ ye ter go inside, as a favor ter me. Please?”
Bran’s shoulders slumped, but he seemed about to nod.
“An’ keep yer da busy while ye’re in there!” Billy added — because if Matteo knew that his brother was a Plantsim, and spread it all over the playground, how many black eyes and bruises would he be sporting? He’d managed to cement his reputation on the old playground by taking on a couple of choice foes one at a time, but on this new playground, he might not get that chance.
Bran looked up. “Why?”
“Why? Because … because me an’ Matteo want ter do somethin’!”
“What?” Bran asked, then his eyes narrowed. “Somethin’ bad?”
“We — we –” He looked around for inspiration. “We want ter tip over one o’ the cows!”
“‘Cause …” Billy had no idea why someone would want to do that; Matteo had said that it was something his elder brothers did from time to time, but he didn’t know the logic behind it, either. “‘Cause it sounds like fun!”
“Well, Thorn an’ me could help! Cows is heavy, so –”
Billy turned and jumped, only to find Thorn cringing away from Matteo. Oh, brother.
“Look at ‘im!” Matteo cackled, making another lunge for Thorn, who dodged away. “Scaredy-cat!”
“Leave him alone,” Billy muttered, mostly to assuage his own conscience, because he sure as anything wasn’t going to say that loud enough for his cousin to hear him.
“Boo!” Matteo called, grabbing Thorn’s shoulders and shaking him. Thorn yelped.
Matteo let go, somehow contriving to push Thorn away with the same motion. Thorn stumbled backward. Billy couldn’t see his face, but he could well imagine the way his little nephew’s lips would quiver.
“Aww, what’s the matter?” Matteo crooned. “Little baby gonna cry?”
Billy could feel Bran watching him. He bit his lip.
“Billy?” Bran whispered.
He was waiting for him to do something, the way he always used to when the big boys would start to menace Bran on the playground back at their old school. He was waiting for Billy to stride up to them, put himself between Bran — or in this case, Thorn — and his tormentors, plant his feet in the ground like two trunks and puff his chest out. He was waiting for Billy to tell Matteo that anyone who messed with his nephews messed with him, and Matteo didn’t want that. He was waiting for Billy to remind Matteo or whoever the tormentor was that they’d all seen what he had done to Lawrence Abraham and Nery Chandler and Oliver Reilly, and they didn’t want to see him do that to them.
But Matteo hadn’t seen any of that.
Billy didn’t move.
“Poor little crybaby!” Matteo chortled. “Here, ye can even hit me if it makes ye feel better!” He gestured to his upper arm, almost pointing out the spot.
A sound — a movement — something sprung up in Billy. He knew what that trick was. If Thorn got within striking distance, Matteo would grab him and push him down, or put him in a headlock, or —
Thorn looked up.
Billy could not see his nephew’s face, so he had to wonder. Were his eyes red-rimmed with uncried tears? Glassy? Angry? Hopeful? Did his lips quiver? Or did he smile, thinking the danger was over?
He couldn’t see his face, but he could see the way Thorn’s spine was set straight as a tree. “No.”
Thorn turned on his heel and walked to the gate.
“Aww, look at him! Crybaby! Chicken! Wimp!” Matteo crowed. “Too scared to come an’ hit me like a man?”
“Leave him, Matteo,” Billy found his voice, “he’s only four.”
“Seems more like three ter me! Or two! Ye gonna go cry ter yer mama, baby Thorn? Thorn!” Matteo laughed. “Some name! He don’t even stick!”
Beside Billy, Bran sighed. “I guess we’ll go inside.”
Billy didn’t reply — he didn’t have time to. He was too busy watching Bran jog up to Thorn and sling his arm over his shoulders.
It made Billy flinch. Not so long ago, that had been him slinging his arm over Bran’s shoulder, leading the little guy away from bigger boys who were tormenting him, all the while plotting revenge. And he had gotten his revenge, too! Those bigger boys hadn’t known what hit them, even though they’d been ten and he’d only been seven!
And now he was ten, and Bran was seven. Was this what all ten-year-old boys were like? Was this what he had to be?
“What babies!” Matteo laughed. “Come on, let’s have some fun with them before they run away!” Matteo ran after them. “Oh, boys!”
Bran, that fool, actually turned around.
“Matteo! Matteo, wait!”
Matteo turned to him with an eyebrow raised. And Billy had to think of something. “Tag!” he shouted, batting his shoulder. “You’re it!”
Get inside, get inside, get inside —
Matteo looked at his shoulder and at Billy, who had danced just out of Matteo’s range. “Are ye daft? Come on. Tag?”
“I could use a good run!” Billy shouted and tried to laugh. “Leave the little boys alone. Tormentin’ ’em ain’t no fun.”
“What? Are ye mad? Come on, Billy, we could have some real fun!”
Are ye inside yet? Please be inside —
They weren’t inside.
Instead they were standing by the well, looking at each other. If only Thorn was a little more confident! Then he could grab Bran’s shirt and drag him into the safety of the cottage, and Billy could keep Matteo distracted until he forgot about the little boys, or until it was time for him to go home.
But Thorn wasn’t that confident. He simply stood there and wrung his hands, looking like he was wishing he was anywhere else but here.
“Ye’re actin’ like this is some sort o’ crime or somethin’,” Matteo sighed. “Come on. It’s jest a little bit of fun.”
He turned around, heading for the little boys.
Matteo turned back around.
“I got — I gotta tell ye somethin’!”
Billy looked around for inspiration — help — something —
All he saw was Bran, standing by the well with that big, hopeful smile he always used to wear when the big boys would come up to where he was playing with his little friends, their knuckles cracking, and he would spy Billy on their heels.
Billy grinned back.
“That I’m Billy Thatcher!” he called out. “An’ I gave Lawrence Abraham two black eyes, an’ I busted Nery Chandler’s ankle, an’ I made big, scary Oliver Reilly go cryin’ home fer his ma, all because they messed with me nephew!”
And as Bran and Thorn cheered and Matteo jumped, Billy shouted, “An’ if ye mess with me nephews — I’ll do the same ter ye!”