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“Oh, look. If it isn’t the little chief and his pale face sidekick.”
Charlie grabbed Billy’s arm and steered him away from the bigger boys who were leaning on the porch posts and rails of the reservation store. “Billy, don’t listen to their crap. Let’s just get Harry and go fishing.”
Billy’s face darkened in anger as he kicked a rock across the dirt road. “I didn’t ask to be chief!”
“Maybe they’re just jealous or something,” Charlie hissed in his ear. “Who are those guys? Why are they hanging out there?”
“Jim Parker and Roger Akiha. I don’t know who the one in the blue shirt is.” Billy scuffed through the gravel. “They hang out there all the time because they’re stupid. They’re in high school, so I don’t know why they keep screwing with me, or why they have to call you pale face.”
“Maybe because I’m a pale face?” Charlie flipped up the bill of his ball cap, gave Billy a big cheesy grin and wiggled his eyebrows, trying to cheer him up.
“Well,” Harry said, drawing out the word as he ran up to his friends. “Not everybody is lucky enough to be born as handsome as me!”
“Whoever told you you were handsome?” Charlie punched the taller boy in the arm.
“Watch it! That’s my casting arm!” Harry skipped to the side, swinging his fishing pole out of harm’s way.
Charlie snorted. “At least now you have an excuse for not catching any!”
“Ha! I can catch more fish than you guys any day! Ain’t that right, Billy?”
“So why don’t you?” Cackling with laughter, Charlie escaped toward the well-worn trail through the trees.
Seeing Billy wasn’t joining in on the usual boasting and teasing, Harry ignored Charlie for the time being and fell into step with the quiet boy. “What’s up, Billy?”
Harry twisted around to walk backward and squinted as he glared back toward the store. “Those jerks giving you a boatload of crap again?”
Billy’s head hung low, and he shrugged his shoulders as they entered the woods.
“Don’t listen to them.” Harry’s voice hardened. “They’re just … they’re just assholes and don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”
“I never asked to be chief,” Billy whispered as he fidgeted, adjusting his cap. He knew he had been born to it, he’d been told about his importance to the tribe since he was a baby. A shiver went up his spine as a misty memory of three huge wolves floated into his mind. How he had longed for the dreaded Cold Ones to come to their quiet town. As chief of the tribe, and a descendant of Taha Aki and Ephraim Black, he would magically transform into one of the giant Spirit Warriors, protecting their lands and saving his people.
In the meantime, he had begun to worry that he’d never be able to live up to the illustrious chiefs that had come before him. They were the stuff of legends, and he was just a boy. Even if he didn’t have to worry about the Cold Ones ever returning—sometimes he wondered if they were even real—he hoped to have a family one day in the future. He would captain a fishing boat like his father and he could take care of his wife and children, but for one man to be responsible for the whole tribe? The thought of it scared him, never mind the possibility of red-eyed monsters that he’d never even seen.
Charlie reappeared around a bend in the trail. “What’s taking you guys so long?” he shouted, raising his arms and rattling his pole and tackle box. “We got fish to catch!”
“You’ll be a good chief, Billy.” Harry switched his little box of lures to his other hand and thumped Billy’s shoulder. “You can do it. I’ll help you.”
“Me, too, Billy.” Charlie nodded vigorously in agreement. “You won’t have to do it by yourself. You’ll have us, and the council, and—”
Charlie’s encouraging words were interrupted by a high-pitched, indignant scream.
“What was that?” Billy threw down his gear and bolted back up the wide trail, his hat flying off his head.
Bright and shiny lures flew from Harry’s and Charlie’s tackle boxes and glittered in the pale sunshine as they tossed them away and bounded after Billy, who was running as fast as he could go, following the ruckus which seemed to be coming from the general store.
When they broke from the cover of the trees, they saw Billy’s sisters and their little friend Sarah surrounded by the three high schoolers who had antagonized them earlier. The much taller boys were holding the littlest girls’ plush wolves above their heads, taunting them.
Nora, being the oldest, was yelling at the bullies and trying to grab the toys. The twins were trying to block the boys from getting any closer to Sarah and their little sister Emmie.
When one of the boys jeered at Nora and jumped to the side, waving a little grey wolf in the air, he plowed into the smaller girls and tumbled right over them, knocking them down onto the sharp stones of the gravel parking lot.
Billy let out a sound that was as close to a snarl as a human could get and launched himself into the air.
Though surprised by the noise that came out of Billy, Charlie and Harry didn’t hesitate. As Billy landed on top of the boy sprawled in the gravel, fists flying, Harry zigged left and Charlie zagged right, each catching their targets unaware.
Billy’s fist crashed down. “Roger, don’t you ever touch Sarah or my sisters again!” With another hammer-like punch, blood was pouring from Roger’s flattened nose and split lips.
The girls screamed and scrambled away, scraping their legs and hands.
Charlie had latched onto the blue-shirted guy’s back and began pummeling his head. Blue Shirt snatched at Charlie’s arms, spun around and slammed into the store’s porch railing, breaking through the turned spindles. They both landed with a heavy grunting thump on the decking.
Charlie wasn’t as muscled as his friends, but he was wiry. He kneed Blue Shirt in the ribs, forcing him away. Freed from beneath his much heavier opponent, Charlie lurched to his knees and ducked as a large fist came right at his face. The glancing blow propelled him into the Coke machine.
Harry had marginally better luck. He’d led with his fist, catching the boy named Jim on the side of the head. The weighty blow staggered him, causing him to release the little stuffed toy, but he caught himself and swung around, backhanding Harry and dropping him.
When Harry hit the dirt, he rolled away and clambered to his feet in time to see Nora sweep up a broken spindle and leap to Charlie’s defense by whacking Blue Shirt on the back. When he turned to go after her, Charlie tackled him again, and they flew back through the gaping hole in porch rail and thudded onto the parking lot below.
With warbling battle shrieks, Jennie and Connie grasped hands and lunged at Jim. They rammed him right in the bread basket, knocking the wind out of him and shoving him over Harry’s conveniently outstretched leg.
“What is going on here?”
The deep voice thundered from the store’s open front door and shocked everyone into stillness, except for Emmie and Sarah who bolted for Billy.
Billy was standing over Roger, who was lying prone on the ground and groaning through his bloodied and swollen mouth. Billy’s chest heaved with each breath. His skin was scratched up, his clothing was torn, and he was covered head-to-toe with grey dust and Roger’s blood, but the littlest girls didn’t care. They ran to him and threw their arms around his waist, their sobs and cries muffled in his chest.
He wrapped his arms around them both and hugged them tightly. “It’s all right. It’ll be okay,” he murmured to them.
“William Black, Junior!” The grey-haired man set the baseball bat he was brandishing against the soda machine and stood tall, staring down at the bedraggled children. “Your father is going to hear about this!”
Nora jumped down from the porch and helped Charlie up off the ground. “Mr. Fox, me and my sisters and Sarah were just walking to the store to buy some candy, and those jerks,” she jabbed a finger toward each of the bigger boys still lying on the ground, “stole Emmie’s and Sarah’s wolves, and they wouldn’t give them back!”
The boy at Harry’s feet struggled to sit up and clutched at his stomach. “We were just play—”
“You shut your mouth, Jeremy Longtree.” Mr. Fox snatched up his bat again and pointed it at the boy’s face. “You, Jim, and Roger are all in high school and more than twice the size of those girls, and you took their toys?”
“And Roger pushed down Jennie, Connie, Emmie, and Sarah!” Nora’s eyes flashed and her fists shook.
Jim rolled to his side and struggled up from the dirt. “Roger didn’t push them down—he tripped over ‘em. Then the pale face and the little chief—”
Mr. Fox’s worn boots were loud as he stomped heavily down the wooden porch steps and tapped Jim, not so gently, on the shoulder with the bat, making him flinch. “Watch yourself, Jim Parker. The way I see it, you hooligans were picking on a bunch of little girls—the Chief’s daughters and their friend. The Chief’s son and his buddies were only protecting them.” Mr. Fox’s head snapped up, and he peered down the road. “My wife called the Chief’s house, and from the sound of that engine, I believe he’s on his way. You can explain what you were doing to him.”
Harry and the twins, and Charlie and Nora, limped and shuffled as quickly as they could through the rocks to stand in solidarity with Billy, Emmie, and Sarah while they waited for Billy Black, Senior to arrive.
Charlie brushed at the dirt on his forehead with the back of his hand and then gripped Billy’s shoulder. He leaned over and whispered in his ear. “You got nothin’ to worry about Billy. You got this chief stuff locked up.”
Harry nodded wisely, lips pursed, and murmured, “Yes, grasshopper.” Then a grin spread across his face. “Your kung-fu is strong.”
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