Billy Fisher pushed his cap off his forehead and wiped the beads of sweat off his warm brow. It was a good five miles from Horse Water Junction to his place on the flats, and the road under his feet was hot. But aching as he was to stop and rest under the shade of a big cottonwood tree, he knew he’d best keep traveling the rutted stage trail that pointed toward the sod house.
The sun was more down than up, and Billy had chores waiting for him, and he needed to study for a big test the following day at school. Mr. Beecher’s a tolerable enough schoolmaster, Billy pondered, but he’s awfully strict—especially toward me. “Is it because I’m a Mormon, Ma?” he had asked one day as he helped fetch water for washday.
“We are the only Mormons in all of Spillman County, but only God and Mr. Beecher know for sure, Billy,” his mother had replied as she dragged the huge black kettle into the yard.
“Why do the Saints get so tromped on sometimes, Ma? It doesn’t seem right.”
Billy’s mother had walked with him back down to the creek that trickled by the family’s vegetable garden. “Now, Billy,” she had started, with a gentle wisdom that the boy often stood in awe of, “the Lord doesn’t backhand a good person, but He just might bless him with a little trial and tribulation every now and again to keep him meek and humble. Like the bumps on the road between our place and town, there’s just enough of them to keep a body watchful.”
Billy’s mother had sat down on a fallen tree by the creek and pushed a loose strand of hair out of her eyes. Billy had plopped down beside her and let his bare feet dangle in the cool water.
“I do believe,” she had continued, “that if the righteous could stack all their hard times under them, they could rise almost to heaven.” She had brushed at the tangles in the boy’s matted hair. “I suspect a rose without a thorn is only half a rose, honey. And if the rain can make the flowers grow, why not the rest of us too?”
Billy sighed as he plodded along toward home. What his mother had said made sense, just as it had when she’d talked about a light shining its brightest when surrounded by the blackest black and about having to fight and maybe even die for what’s right. Yet, the knowledge that what Ma said was true didn’t always make life any easier.
Billy stopped to rest a moment and to pat his dog, Banjo. The dog was hitched to a travois loaded with supplies from J. D. Hollins’s mercantile store. Billy dug into his huck shirt and withdrew a crumpled list his mother had given him. “I’d better make double sure we got everything Ma wanted, Banjo,” Billy said. “It’ll be a long walk back to town if we forgot anything, and I just have to study for that test Mr. Beecher is giving us tomorrow. Let’s see. We got the flour, hardtack, dried beef, salt, four yards of gingham, the new bullet pouch for Pa, the whetstone, and the—”
“Hey, Holy Joe!” a derisive voice shouted. “You haven’t shown me your horns yet!”
Billy whirled around. The voice belonged to Silas Marsh. Twelve-year-old Silas had taunted Billy on more than one occasion, and the jeers were usually followed by shoving and blustery threats. Besides being considerably larger than Billy and most of the other children in and around Horse Water, Silas had a mean streak in him. Billy had seen the effect of that meanness more than once. He stiffened as Silas swaggered up, grabbed him by the shirtfront with one hand, and rumpled his hair with the other. “Where’d you stash those horns, Mormon?”
“You’d better let go of me,” Billy sputtered weakly, “or my dog will—”
“What could that mutt do,” Silas snarled, pulling a knife from his boot, “with this toad-sticker between his ribs?”
“Please don’t hurt him, Silas,” Billy pleaded.
Gloating because he had the upper hand, Silas slit the leather straps binding the mercantile goods to the travois and dumped the bundles out onto the road. “Looks like you had a little accident, Mormon,” he sneered, grabbing Billy by the arm. “And you’re going to have an even bigger one tomorrow after school if you don’t give me the answers to that test. I’ll pound you so far into the ground that they’ll have to drop a light to find you!” Giving Billy one last shove, Silas tromped off down the road.
Billy kicked his foot in the dirt. He didn’t like the idea of looking at the world through a couple of black eyes. He’d seen it happen to Stanley Jackson, the boy who sat three seats behind him. Silas had told Stanley to give him the piece of cherry cobbler packed in his lunch. Without thinking, Stanley had said no, and Silas had blackened both of Stanley’s eyes and had taken the cobbler too.
Won’t slipping Silas a few answers be better than taking a beating? Billy wondered.
In school the next day Billy felt a breeze on the back of his neck from the open window. It was a welcome relief as he sweated over the test questions. He had studied the night before, and although the questions were difficult, he was prepared.
Then Billy felt something else on the back of his neck—Silas Marsh’s eyes.
Silas sent a note saying, “Write the answers on this paper and slip it back to me. Or else!”
Sweat trickled off Billy’s forehead and salted his eyes. He blinked back the sting and stared numbly at the slip of paper, then glanced at Mr. Beecher. The schoolmaster was seated at his desk, busy with paperwork. Billy’s heart pounded, and his lips were dry.
The memory of Stanley Johnson getting a beating skittered across Billy’s mind. Still, Billy thought, if I cheat, I’ll have to live with my conscience a lot longer than with two closed eyes and a swollen lip. Then he remembered what Ma had told him about trials and tribulatons. Finally he wrote on the back of the note, folded it, and slipped it back to Silas.
Silas, grinning from ear to ear with cocky assuredness, opened the paper. His grin disappeared as quickly as Billy wished he could after school. On the paper Billy had written, “I won’t give you any answers. It’s just not right. I’ll meet you out back after school. I know what you are going to do to me. I can’t stop you. But I won’t let you do it without fighting back. Billy.”
An hour later the class began to file out of the sweltering one-room building. As Billy reached for his cap hanging on a wooden peg by the door, a hand rested firmly on his shoulder. Billy’s muscles tensed and he turned around, expecting to see Silas’s fist. Instead, it was Mr. Beecher grasping him. “William Fisher,” he intoned.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Beecher,” Billy responded with an unmanageable lump in his throat.
The schoolmaster displayed a piece of crumpled paper. “I procured this from the trash bucket. Silas Marsh passed this note to you.”
“You saw him pass it?” Billy blurted out with surprise. “But you were—”
“Mr. Fisher,” the schoolmaster clipped, “there are two things that rarely elude me: One is mischief, and the other is good judgment—though in relation to the latter, I must admit I have badly misjudged you.” He gestured toward the paper, and a smile trickled across his face. “I also read your response to Mr. Marsh’s demands. You did well, William. Very well indeed.” He started to turn away, then hesitated, looked back at Billy, and added, “May God be with you. Judging from the tone of that note, you’ll be needing Him.”
“Yes, sir,” Billy replied. He put on his cap, girded himself up, and walked out.
Mr. Beecher sat back down at his desk and stared at the door that closed behind Billy. That boy has more gumption than I thought he did, he mused. Then he smiled and went back to his work.
Silas was waiting for Billy when he came walking around the corner of the schoolhouse. Billy stopped a few feet from his adversary, doubled up his fists, and looked the big, brawly youth right in the eye. “Well,” Billy got out in an as-bold-as-he-could-muster voice, “let’s get it over with. I have chores waiting for me at home.”
Silas just stared at him. Then he twisted his face up like a tree knot and stared some more. “Just what is it with you Mormons?” he finally said, looking as perplexed as anyone could be. “Don’t you remember what I said I was going to do to you?”
“Well, aren’t you afraid?”
Billy nodded again. “My ma says that the time comes when a body has to face up to his fears. So here I am.”
Silas shook his head. “You’re really something, you know that?” He threw up his arms and started to walk away.
“You mean you’re not going to beat me up?”
Silas looked back, scratched his head, and said, “Maybe tomorrow.” Then he fidgeted a little and looked questioningly at Billy.
“What is it?” Billy asked.
“Nothing,” Silas returned, “except … well, you and me, we take the same road home. I was wondering if we could walk together.”
Billy tried to swallow his surprise. “Sure, I don’t mind. I don’t mind at all.”