Me’n’Reggie were leaning on the railing watchin’ old man Macky try and stay on the bronco when the new kid came up. We’d seen him around town a couple o’ times – hard t’ miss his bright red hair – but hadn’t talked to him yet, and he weren’t around when school was in, so we didn’t know him. He looked the same age as us, or thereabouts, but was obviously a town kid – skinny and sorta pale, wearin’ trousers and a shirt, instead of overalls’n’skin like me and most farm boys did.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” Reggie said back. I didn’t say nothin’, ‘cuz I don’t, mostly.
He watched Macky fall off the bronco and we all hooted and clapped. While the handlers wrangled the next buck into the starting pen, he said something that sounded like this – “Tay’re storting up a dahnce in a copla minutes.”
Reggie and I both gave him a look when we heard his accent, but all Reggie said was, “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” he said.
Cal Tanner was next up, standin’ next to the starting pen and shakin’ himself loose. Last Fourth, he didn’t even last a minute.
I noticed the new kid making sideways glances at Reggie and me. I knowed what was comin’, and worked to keep the grin off my face.
“So, d’ye want’ta dance?” he finally asked Reggie.
Reggie looked at me and rolled her eyes. I looked back at her, the grin showing itself.
Now mind, I think Reggie looks just fine, but she ain’t what most people call pretty. She’s shorter’n me – everyone is, I’m big – but she’s tough and strong, and shows it. She’s got more muscles’n I do, bein’ the farrier’s kid and helpin’ her pa out and all – I don’t never arm-wrestle her no more.
Her hair’s bowl-cut, done herself – she don’t want pigtails or ponytails like her ma wants for her – but long ’nuff so it’ll cover her eyes in front. In winter, it’s sorta brown, but middle o’ summer like now, it looks like dirty straw. She never wears a dress, neither, goin’ about in overalls just like the boys, which causes her ma no end o’ consternation. She even wears a shirt under her overalls, and her ma still ain’t happy about it.
Anyways, she looked back to the new kid and said, “You wanna dance? Fine, come with me and we’ll dance.” She marched past him and headed towards the barn.
He gave me a bit of a look, then turned to follow her. “Where’re we gohn?” he asked. “The dance is back daht way.”
I followed, quickenin’ my steps to get right behind him as I muttered, “Diff’rent dance.” I wanted to make sure he didn’t lose his way. Reggie led us around behind the barn, which is when the kid started figurin’ out that somethin’ weren’t right, but with my hands on his shoulders pushin’ him on, he didn’t have much choice but to keep followin’.
“Okay kid,” she said when she turned to face him. “I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, so it’s time to learn ya. I don’t dance. Everyone knows I don’t dance. So either ya know I don’t dance and you asked anyway, which means you deserve a whallopin’, or you don’t know I don’t dance, and I need t’ whallop you to learn ya. Either way, you’re due a whallopin’.”
I pressed up right behind him, keepin’ my hands tight on his shoulders so he wouldn’t jigger out. He let out a squawk, but I’ll give him this, he didn’t try to run neither.
“Yer’ raight,” he said, startin’ t’ talk real fast. Made it harder t’ follow his accent, but it sure was pretty t’ listen to. Not that I’d ever tell him, or anyone else, that. Anyways, he kept goin’, “Ai dohn’t know you and ye dohn’t know me, but Ai’m quick, smart-like, and Ai learn fast. Ai dohn’t need-um, a ‘wholloping’, t’ learn t’ not ask y’ t’ dahnce!”
I kept holding his shoulders while he was talking. For some reason, I took special notice that his head didn’t even make it to my chin. Like I said, I’m big.
“See, now I know you’re new, even if ya didn’t talk like a forr’ner. That just ain’t the way it works ’round here. Leastwise, not with me.” She gave him a grin, almost friendly-like if it weren’t for th’ downright glee she were showin’ at the prospect of whallopin’ the kid. “And don’t even think about runnin’ or everyone’ll know you did, and you really don’t wanna be tagged a yella coward, ‘specially not if you’re already a forr’ner, now do ya?” she said, then nodded to me. I let go and stepped back away quickly. I didn’t wanna catch any of what Reggie was about to give. And besides, standin’ that close to the kid… let’s just say any longer and I’d’ve had a problem. I think Reggie saw that too, from the wink she gave me.
Now don’t get me wrong, Reggie’n’me aren’t bullies or the like. Well, not much. This is sorta like one of those rites o’ passage. Every kid in and around town who’s our age has either been whallopped by Reggie or has run away from her and been tagged a coward. Ain’t never been anyone who did it the other way ’round. Except me, but I whalloped her when we was 6, so it don’t count no more. ‘Sides, she started it by trying ta climb me. I guess I always been big.
Anyway, soon’s I let go, Reggie lept forward with one o’ her big wide swingin’ punches. The kid let out another squawk and scrambled to the side out o’ the way of the punch, but then he straightened up and put his hands up in front of him. They weren’t really in fists, they were just sorta there, so I could tell he ain’t rumbled much.
Reggie came at him again, and this time he tried to hit her hand away. Her hand weren’t there no more – she’d dropped it down and it rammed into his side with a sound I could hear from over here. But at the same time, the fist he’d suddenly made for real with his other hand hit her cheek. I winced – that was going to leave a mark, and her ma’d be plenty mad. But I was impressed too. It’s the first time in years someone’d managed to land a punch on her face.
She jumped back, eyes goin’ wide for a second, then narrowing again at him. He was leanin’ over a bit, gasping, the one arm sorta trying to protect his side which had to hurt like nothin’ else – I’d felt one o’ her punches, and believe me, a steam train don’t hit as hard as she does.
She marched towards him again, and I could see him wince, but he didn’t back up or nothin’. She stopped a couple o’ steps in front of him, then stood up straight and held out her hand to him.
He looked surprised, but reached right out to take it, arm already liftin’ to shake hands with her. The surprised look got even bigger when he found himself flyin’ past her. He landed with a grunt, and she was right there on top of him, kneelin’ down with a knee on his back. She leaned down right behind his ear and said, “Here’s a tip, kid. Don’t put your fists down until you’re given truce.”
With a grin, she stood up and offered her hand down to him again. “Truce.”
He twisted his head to look up at her, then rolled to his not-hurtin’ side and reached up to accept her pick-up. “Truce,” he agreed. “Craikey, ya lamped me gohd. Ai bet ye hit harrder’n any o’ th’ lads ’round here.”
Reggie stopped, then laughed and shook her head. “Hey Fitz,” she called over to me. “I think the kid here just said he needs you to whallop him too.”
The kid turned to face me, eyes and mouth both going wide. Then he swallowed, stood up straight, and got his arms up in front of him again, or tried at least – the one side where he’d taken Reggie’s fist didn’t seem to want to lift up very much.
I strode up in front of him all casual-like, like I wasn’t worried about anything. Really, I wasn’t, but I also wasn’t gonna get into no fight myself. I didn’t want t’ give my ma no excuse to tan me. But he didn’t have to know that.
Reggie backed away as I slowly walked a circle ’round the kid. He kept turning to face me, lookin’ troubled as I kept my hands tucked inta my overalls.
I finally stopped, took my hands out and made fists of ’em. I stepped up to the kid as he raised his own fists up again. Slowly, I reached out to him – and bumped knuckles against his. “Truce,” I said, lettin’ out the grin I’d been holdin’ back.
The grin almost turned into an outright laugh at the look of relief on his face as he sputtered out his own “Truce!” just about as fast as he could.
“What’s your name, kid?” Reggie asked from behind him.
He half-turned and stepped back so he could see both of us, then sort of half-bowed to Reggie. “Alroy O’Brien,” he answered her, “pleasure t’ make yer acquaentance.”
“Well Al,” she said, “I’m Reggie Callaway and this here’s Fitz Sawyer. Now c’mon, the egg races are gonna start and I want a good seat.”
She started back without waitin’ for us to say nothin’. Alroy and I looked at each other, I shrugged and rolled my eyes, he grinned, and we both turned to follow her. As she turned the corner, I reached out, grabbed him by the shoulders, and pulled him back against me again.
“Al, ya did good,” I said quietly down into his ear. “Welcome ta town.” Then I let him go again and followed him through the gap in the crowds that Reggie left behind her.
He had done good. I saw how scared he was when he thought I was gonna hit him, but he stood his ground.
“And besides,” a little part of me whispered, “you liked having him against you like that.”