By Lana Coombe An ominous stillness and quiet fell on the saloon.

The only sound was the scraping of chairs on the wood floor and the low mumble of nervous men, as they tried to distance themselves from the unfolding event. It was not an unfamiliar sound. Indeed, Hannibal Heyes had heard it many a time and was more often than not at the centre of the disturbance, having been accused of cheating or having suggested to another that there had been unfair play. Although he never felt happy about this happening, he was reassured to know that his partner and best friend would always be there to back him up, with his inconceivably fast draw. This night, however, Heyes had been involved in a peaceable and fair game and had accumulated a fairly substantial pile of winnings on the table, in front of him. He was glad, that for once, it was not him that was having to face a disgruntled, losing player and that he would not have to draw his partner into a dangerous situation. Heyes’ relief was short lived however, when he looked about the room and realised that it was the said same partner, in the midst of the fracas. Kid had been seated at an adjacent table, but now he stood, arms hanging loosely at his sides, in an all too recognisable stance. Across the table, another man stood, glaring menacingly in Kid’s direction. “No one’s luck is that good, mister,” the man was growling at Kid, who remained in the same passive position, with a resigned look on his face. “Well, maybe mine is!” Kid answered the man, calmly. Heyes remained in his seat, watching the proceedings unfold, outwardly calm and disinterested. He’d been here before but he never got used to the feeling of trepidation as his partner faced an opponent more deadly than any man with five, coloured pieces of card in his hand. The man was scowling more intensely at Kid now, who continued to stand motionlessly before him, piercing, blue eyes studying his every move, his expression sorrowful at what he knew was unavoidably going to happen. “I’m going to give you a choice, boy. Either you go out that door, or, you for your gun!” There seemed no way that the man was willing to back down and persisted in trying to intimidate Kid. In a seemingly emotionless and flat tone, Kid responded, “Well, I really don’t want to use the gun.” “Then you’d better leave, boy, while you can still walk. ‘Cos iffen you leave it any longer, the only way out is in a pine box!” This was greeted with a stifled, yet nervous guffaw from the spectators in the bar.

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Heyes found that his palms of his hands were clammy and his throat dry. He had seen that look in Kid’s eye quite a few times before. He seemed oblivious to the rest of the world about him, his attention directed solely at the man who stood confronting him. “I told you, I wasn’t cheating. You’re just having a bad run of luck tonight, my friend. Now, we can either sit back down and be peaceable or … you can get out.” The stillness and quiet in the bar intensified at Kid’s words, the tension palpable, as everyone knew that the inevitable was about to happen. “I ain’t leaving!” the man replied, curtly. “Well, that’s your choice,” Kid replied, calmly. The man next to Heyes leaned towards him and quietly said, “I hope that boy knows what he’s doing! Jake Curtis ain’t one to tangle with at the best of times!” Heyes felt a twist in his gut. He had heard of Curtis and his reputation as a ruthless and indiscriminate killer. It was said that he had killed at least seven men, usually in quick draw confrontations, as he was renowned as being incredibly fast. Heyes knew that Kid was fast too, possibly the fastest, but Curtis had an advantage over him - he had no qualms about taking another man’s life. Heyes found himself faced with a choice. Either, he could try to intervene and draw Curtis’ attention away from his partner. By doing this, he ran the risk of being shot himself of course, or worse, Curtis could take advantage of the distraction, to draw on Kid, while his attention was diverted. Heyes’ other choice was to sit and do nothing and see how things played out, letting Kid take care of the situation by himself. He knew that time was running out and if he was going to take any action, now was the time to do it. Swallowing hard, he gripped the arms of his chair and started to push himself out of his seat. In the same split second, Jake Curtis went for his gun. Heyes froze where he was, mouth gaping in horror at the sharp sound of a bullet being jettisoned down the gun muzzle, on its course to the intended target. His eyes quickly flicked in Kid’s direction, relieved to see that he was still standing, without any obvious injury. A sharp cry took his attention back to Curtis who now stood clasping his right arm, the crimson red of fresh blood seeping through his fingers. Looking back at his partner, an overwhelming sense of pride and relief swept over him, as Kid coolly span his own Colt back into his holster. Heyes returned the steady gaze from his friend as their eyes met briefly. He watched as men moved out of Kid’s way as he moved towards Curtis, who now sat in a chair, demanding whiskey and a doctor. Kid looked down at the injured man. Curtis looked back at him, teeth gritted against the pain in his arm, a look of surprise still on his face. Giving Kid a simple nod of respect, he reached for the whiskey that someone had placed before him. Kid returned the nod, a

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look of regret showing in his eyes and began to move away, softly saying, “Wrong choice, my friend!”

Choices By Grace R. Williams The air was hot inside the stagecoach, hot and stale, almost stifling. It didn't seem to bother the two men across from him. Both sat, each a mirror image of the other. Feet propped up on the seat, one pair of boots on either side of him, right foot crossed over left, arms crossed similarly over their chests, hats, one brown, one black pulled low over the eyes. Mr. Smith slept, Mr. Jones did not. The partners wouldn't sleep at the same time. One would sleep, the other would watch. How the reverend knew this, he couldn't be sure, but he knew it just the same. They functioned as one, not in unison mind you, but... harmony. Separate notes strummed at the same time, blending to create a perfect chord. There were miles and miles to cover before they'd reach Taos. Reverend Spencer continued to watch Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones as if somehow he could by simply studying them long enough, discover a truth that had eluded him for far too many years. Reverend Spencer had been forced by the events of the last few days, to re-examine the choices he'd made in his life. He had to admit most of his choices had been wrong. His choice to pick up a bottle every morning, his choice to walk away instead of helping the congregation he'd been called to serve. The stagecoach jostled on and Spencer continued to wonder. Smith and Jones. What choices had they made in their lives? Obviously the best choice each had made was in choosing the other for a partner. But no one wore a gun like that, no one used a gun like that unless he'd made a wrong choice or two somewhere along the road. The reverend considered Jones' thoughts. He appeared to be sleeping, though Spencer knew he wouldn't be, couldn't be. He'd be reviewing the scene in his mind, "What if I had killed him?" "What if he'd killed my partner?" playing the scene again and again until he was sure he'd made the only choice he could have. The choice not to bend, not to break, not to back down and the choice not to kill. And what of Smith? Was he dreaming it now? The nightmare of burying his partner. The nightmare of killing a man over something as simple as...a jig. He knew Smith would be having no second thoughts. He was where he needed to be, backing up his partner. The place for him to make his stand was firmly at his partner's side. Jones made his choice and Smith made his. Briggs had made his choices a long time ago.

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"Reverend Spencer, what choice will you make today?" The voice was not audible. It seemed to come from somewhere deep within his soul. He smiled. He had studied the two until he knew the answer. A wise man had told him once, "...take things as they come." Yes, take things as they come and make a choice. Make each choice as best as he could each day then, live with the result. Good or bad, right or wrong. He was wiser now, seems wrong choices do that to a man, make him wiser. If he chooses to learn from them. Reverend Spencer chose to return to his congregation a wiser man. Not a saint, but a sinner just like the rest of them. One who'd made wrong choices and learned from them.

By Calico “…He sit in ze third School Pew at kurche…He haf blond curl…Usually - a blue shirt…” My hands try to indicate ‘checked’ for the shirt, though I cannot bring the English word to mind. “…Und - light braun hat…” Recognition dawns in the Superintendent’s face. “Oh yes, Mister Bauer. You mean Jedediah Curry.” A slight frown creases his brow. “You zink… I haf make wrong choize?” I say. Mister Hardwick hesitates. The War filled his establishment to bursting point. Orphans, with nowhere else to go, now far outnumber ‘waywards’. As I sit, offering to relieve him of even one mouth to feed, to free up even one bed, he is naturally reluctant to say anything that might give me pause. Unlike his predecessor, Hardwick is, I believe, an honest man. The townsfolk can tell. Since this man arrived two years ago, the money meant for food is spent on bread, milk, oatmeal, beans, salt pork. The money meant for clothes goes on bolts of unbleached calico, rough serge, thick socks, boot repairs. The dull diet may not satisfy bottomless boyish appetites and the drab clothes may not keep out the keenest Kansas winds…but… there are no more hollow cheeks, nor shivering waifs to be seen. Not so many scared eyes either. And, far fewer bruised faces – just the occasional fat lip and black eye. What anyone might expect from young boys jostling together. He clearly tries to stick to the truth. “No, no – in many ways Jedediah is an excellent choice. He comes from a farming family – and – he’s a fine, strong, healthy boy – you are right in seeing there is plenty of work in him.”

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I let this pass. It is not the boy’s strong young limbs and potential for hard graft that made me single him out. It is not ME who singled him out at all. It is my dear wife, Anna. His eyes remind her of… I do not SAY any of this. I do not want this grimly stern man to think I am – my cheeks glow warm – a sentimental old fool. Even if I am. The Superintendent is still speaking. “I HAVE seen Jedediah work hard…” under his breath he adds, “…when he chooses.” I believe his conscience makes him go on. “He does have a - a tendency to dumb insolence and – and playing truant from work details. And - a temper. There are other boys who might suit you…” He sees I did not like the sound of ‘a temper’. He interrupts himself to explain. Now, I think he is struggling to be fair to Jedediah. “I only mean he gets into fights. NOT a bully! Never! Nothing like that. I don’t say he STARTS fights. Just – he’s too stiff necked to walk away.” A pause. “I haf a few fights at his age…und shirked chores when I haf chance,” I say. The grim face almost smiles. Hardwick strides to the door, issues a terse command. “Tell Jedediah Curry to report here immediately. Closing the door, he meets my eyes. “I believe there’s a lot of good in the boy,” he says. We wait. Hardwick makes polite enquiries about last year’s harvest. I am not so good at the small talk. Even after all these years, I struggle not to sound – stilted. Since being alone, Anna and I lapsed into the bad habit of never using English at home. A knock. “Enter,” says Hardwick. The blond youth comes in, scowling hard. I daresay being sent for to the Superintendent’s office rarely means anything other than ‘bad news’. The bright eyes look surprised to see a stranger there. “This is Mister Bauer, Jedediah.” Hardwick frowns, sternly, “Take that scowl off your face and say ‘How do you do?’” For a second, an even fiercer, defiant look is shot at the Superintendent. Shyness makes me tongue-tied, but, I hold out my hand. “How do you do, Jedediah?” I manage.

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A quick glance at me. I almost SEE the boy remember the manners taught by his parents. He DOES wipe off most of the scowl. “How do you do, Sir?” he responds. “Mister Bauer owns a farm about six miles East of here…” starts Mister Hardwick. The glower returns, as the boy listens. “…indentured for five years… Mister Bauer agrees you attend school until at least your sixteenth birthday…I am sure you will work very hard to show how grateful…” “No!” he interrupts. “I AIN’T goin’!” “Be quiet, Jedediah!” barks the Superintendent. I admit being surprised. Working for board and keep on a farm is no picnic. But, surely it beats working for board and keep here? “The vork vill be hard, Jedediah,” I say awkwardly. I am STILL trying not to sound too – too soft – in front of Mister Hardwick. Maybe trying too hard – I sound nearly as stern as him! “…But, you vill not find me an unfair man…” “I WON’T leave Han! You can’t MAKE me!” “You’ll do as you’re told, young man!” The tone, so used to command obedience, has its effect. The boy shuts up, although the blue eyes continue to blaze. I clear my throat. “Is sad to leaf friends you make here…” I say, tentatively, “…but – you vill soon make new friends at school...You vill see...” “I WON’T!” “Silence,” snaps Hardwick. “The matter is not open for discussion. You leave tomorrow. Be packed by ten. That will be all. Dismissed.” As the boy walks out, a resentful glower is shot over one shoulder. I take it this is what Mister Hardwick calls ‘dumb insolence’. “It – shows a gut heart, no?” I venture, trying to reduce the trouble I suspect Jedediah Curry is now in. “To haf made a gut friend – und not to vant lose him?” From the window, I see the blond youth explode from the building and sprint over to a dark-haired boy, who has found a quiet corner to bury his nose in a tattered book. “Zat is…” I point. “…er…Hans?” Hardwick joins me. We watch the animated conversation going on below. A dark and fair head look up. A glance is exchanged. The boys take to their heels and melt into the grounds.

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“Hannibal,” the Superintendent corrects me. “They grew up together – neighbouring farms – practically raised as brothers. They lost their families at the same time.” Oh! I was wrong, then, to assume they met here! No wonder Jedediah resented my halting clichés about soon making new friends! “You still plan to collect him tomorrow?” checks Hardwick, seeing my gathering frown. I nod – though distractedly. As I climb into my wagon – I am thinking hard. ---oooOOOooo--“Did you speak to him? Was I right? Did he seem a nice boy? What’s his name?” Anna has some of her old sparkle back, as she eagerly questions me. “Jedediah,” I say, answering the easiest question first. “Jedediah,” she repeats. “I like that! Go on…” she prompts. “I think - he will be a handful,” I offer. “BUT – I believe his heart’s in the right place.” Anna beams. I do not return her smile. She scans my face. “What is it?” she asks. “What’s wrong?” “He – doesn’t want to come,” I say. The face I have loved for over twenty-five years – and which, in my eyes, is as pretty as the day I carried her over the threshold - falls. “Why? Johann…” she frowns at me, “…you didn’t go on and on about how hard he’ll have to work? Like you did when Mister Zimmerman asked why you were taking an…” “He WILL have to work hard,” I protest. “I know! And – boys enjoy their free time more, knowing they have earned their keep! BUT, you made it sound like a Roman galley-ship – not a farm!” “I don’t want people to think I’m…” I hesitate. “As soft as butter? A pushover?” she supplies. A crooked smile glows up at me. “Don’t worry – your secret is safe with me.” “It wasn’t that, anyhow,” I demur. I tell her how Jedediah’s only thought was ‘I won’t leave Han’. How they grew up together. Gently taking her hand – I explain they lost their families to the War.

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Her gaze goes to the mantelpiece. “So…” her voice is low, “…they’re all each other has left.” Our eyes meet. “Johann,” hesitating, “…are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I give a rueful shrug. “You ARE,” she accuses. Her eyes are warm. “I know you are! After all, you’re a pushover!” “There isn’t really enough work for two…” I demur. Anna gives me ‘a look’. “But…” I carry on, “…I’m not getting any younger – so I will, eventually, need more help. If anyone accused me of being foolish for taking on two orphans – I COULD explain I was thinking ahead! AND…” I glance around at the evidence of Anna’s busyness this afternoon. “…you’ve baked enough pie, cake and cookies for a dozen boys, so another mouth to eat it will avoid wasting good food!” “AND…” Anna switches languages. “It vill be much gut for our English.” “Ja. I mean, Yes,” I say. “Ve are too much not making ourselves speak …Amer’can.” Anna nods earnestly. “Only English – before tomorrow…” she agrees. Her fingers tighten around mine, “Oh, Johann. How gut to haf boys laugh in ze house again. To haf someone to …to…” her voice shakes, “…muzzer.” I switch back to our own language. “Anna,” I caution, my voice very gentle. Part of me does not want to say this. But – it needs saying. “…you know, they cannot take Jacob’s place.” We look up at the mantelpiece together. The polished silver frame catches the late afternoon sun, slanting through the window. The bright metal sends pinpoints of light, dancing, onto the walls. Freshly picked forget-me-nots bloom in the vase beside it. The fair-haired soldier in the photograph looks far too young for the uniform he so proudly wears. He WAS too young. Too young to go to war. Too young to… “I know,” says Anna. “No one can take his place.” “And…” The lump in my throat makes the tone gruffer than I mean it to be. “…WE can never take the place of the folks THEY lost. You…” My thumb strokes the back of her hand, over and over as I say this. . “…you can never replace their mothers.” “I know.” Her eyes are very bright, as they meet mine. “BUT...I can make their favourite suppers, let down their trousers and sleeves when they shoot up like bean-poles, bathe scrapes and bruises, nag them to change their wet shoes, tut and cluck when they whine about putting on a stiff collar for church socials…” She manages a cheerful smile. “Sure,

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we can never be parents again – but maybe, if we’re VERY lucky – one day, we might be kind old Uncle Johann and dear old Aunt Anna.” A deep breathe. “Even if they NEVER become fond of us – at least we will have kept two other mother’s sons fed, warm and safe until this country gets back to normal!” I lean forward, kiss her. “No one – but NO ONE,” I say, “…could NOT grow to love you.” I decide to stop squashing the hopeful excitement bubbling inside both of us. I pull Anna to her feet and lead her upstairs. Together, we look at the room already prepared to be occupied – again. “I could easily add a bunk to that bed.” I check my pocket watch. “Should be enough time. I can TRY and be done before morning anyhow.” “I’ve a spare mattress, pillows and quilt set aside,” contributes Anna. “The quilt won’t match but that’s not the kind of thing boys care about.” “Not much space for more furniture,” I say. “They’ll just have to manage with two drawers each. Or, maybe, I can make something to fit UNDER the bed?” “I sewed a couple of shirts ready for – for Jedediah,” Anna looks at me anxiously, “…Is Hans…” “Hannibal. Like - with the elephants,” I correct, smilingly. “…Is he nearly the same size?” I screw up my face as I try to remember. “Perhaps an inch or so taller. I think he may be a little older. And …he’s skinnier.” “Oh, well,” she shrugs, philosophically. “I was only guessing the size anyhow. If they need altering – it won’t take long.” Back downstairs; before I fetch in wood and tools, I look at my bookcase. I remember the dark-haired lad had found himself a quiet spot with his tattered pages. “It’s a shame all these are German,” I say. “Hannibal may be a reader.” A thought strikes Anna. She disappears upstairs. Sounds of cupboards opening. Light steps running back down. She places something on the table. “Would he like these, do you think?” Oh! My hand trembles, as I reach out.

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“His prize books,” I say. Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. In English. I open the front covers, stare at the presentation plates pasted there. His name – in fancy copperplate. I was so, so proud when... No! NO! NOT past tense. I AM so, so proud that our son – the only child we were blessed with - came top of his class two years running. “Are you sure?” I look up at Anna. “They – they might get spoilt.” “Certain sure,” she says, firmly. “Books are meant to be read. NOT to sit in a foolish old woman’s drawer all wrapped up!” A qualm strikes her. “Unless…unless YOU mind, Johann?” My finger lingers on a crease. Jacob – despite my frequent tutting – dog-eared corners to mark his place. You can see where he stopped night by night. His hands touched – here. And here. And here. And… “No,” my tone is resolute. “I don’t mind. I think you’re right. It’s time someone else enjoyed these.” ---oooOOOooo--THE NEXT DAY Anna cannot bear to just stay home and wait. Sitting beside me in the wagon, I am reproved – half teasingly, half anxiously - for not going back to reassure Jedediah at once, that his friend could come too! “I had to clear it first!” I protest. “I know my place!” She knows that is not the real reason. I was far too bashful to turn around yesterday and ask to see the Superintendent again. I needed to practise what to say first, with her. “Besides,” I offer, “…think how happy the boys’ll be when they DO hear they don’t have to part.” She nods, then checks inside the covered basket she clutches. It holds two cosy mufflers – because the wind is sharp today. One made days ago, the second knitted through the night, while I sawed and hammered. And fruit. And cookies. “Do you worry,” I teased, ”…they’ll starve on the drive back?” We arrive, exchange a nervous glance.

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“Johann!” Anna hisses, as I help her down. “Stop looking so serious! Did you frown at young Jedediah like that yesterday? Poor boy! He must worry he’s going to live with a grumpy old bear of a man! Smile!” “I AM smiling! It just doesn’t show under the beard!” “Smile harder then! In case they’re watching!” ---oooOOOooo--We sit before the Superintendent’s desk. Alone, now. The teacher sent to fetch the boys, called Mister Hardwick out. We half heard a rapid, annoyed conversation. Then…the two men hurrying away. Then …nothing. No, not quite nothing. Distant striding footsteps. Snapped orders. Doors slamming. The tick of the clock in this austere office becomes oppressive. I twist to look at it. We have sat here for nearly forty minutes. I glance over at Anna. The basket is still on her knee. She clutches the handle so tight her knuckles must shine white under the cotton gloves. Her eyes stare at a neat darn on the forefinger. I reach over; cover both her small hands with one of mine. She does not look up – but she gulps. The eyes close for a long moment. Then, her head drops. This is all MY fault! If only…If only I had chosen to… Why am I so STUPID? Because I was too bashful – too afraid of looking sentimental – too intimidated by officialdom in the form of black-suited Mister Hardwick with his long words and longer sentences – too STUPID - to simply turn back yesterday, knock on the Superintendent’s door, tell him we could make room to stop two friends being parted; because of that… A faded cotton glove quickly brushes – something – from my wife’s thin cheek. Another gulp. I shift my chair closer, so I can put my arm round her drooping shoulders. I do not say anything. There is no need. Anna knows – as do I – there will be no tentative ‘getting to know you’ conversation on the ride home. No one to wear the carefully folded mufflers in the basket she grips so hard. No one to eat the cookies. We both know – the boys aren’t coming ---oooOOOooo--MEANWHILE – ABOUT A DOZEN MILES WEST OF VALPARAISO

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Two cold, damp, hungry and very footsore boys plodded through Kansas scrubland. Suddenly, the dark-haired youth stopped, pointed. “There it is, Jed.” He summoned up a smile. “The railway track. I TOLD you this was the way! All we hafta do now – is follow it. Sooner or later we come to a station… hop a train … get well away from here. Find a town. Find work. We’re BOUND to find somethin’! Find somewhere to stay. Everything’ll be just fine. You’ll see! I reckon we’ll…” “Han?” interrupted a voice; much less sure of itself than usual after a long, long night on the run, expecting every moment to hear the sound of pursuit, “You do think we did the right thing – don’t ya?” ‘Would-be-confident’ deep brown eyes met anxiously searching blue ones. Jed, shivering slightly, collar turned up against the wind, was trying not to show he was scared. He looked – very young. Feeling the full responsibility of being the elder by more than a year, Hannibal squared his shoulders. “Course we did!” he reassured, squashing any doubts of his own. “…We promised to stick together, huh? No matter what!” A second pair of shoulders squared. A boyish jaw set firmly. They HAD promised to stick together! And, here they were – together. A curly blond head nodded. They had made the right choice. ---oooOOOooo--THE END

By moonshadow Feet braced slightly apart, eyes staring straight ahead, arms hanging by his sides and all of his concentration focused in front of him, he let the cacaphony of noises that surrounded him fade away, until all that remained was a distant hum. He wasn't sure what to do; he'd already made one wrong choice. He'd have to be careful. "Two wrongs don't make a right;" the words kept ringing in his head as he inhaled a deep breath and released it slowly. I think Grampa Curry's the one who told us that. If I'm wrong again, it'll be the second time and...but what if I make what I think is the right choice- and it still ends up bein' the wrong one? Did that mean the right choice was really the wrong one? There didn't seem to be any right answer; he heaved another deep sigh as he strove to make it all make sense.

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If he made a choice and it was the right one, then he'd win. But what if he made his choice and it was the wrong one? He'd lose! It was as simple as that, yet it was also as complex as that. What was he to do? "C'mon- just pick one!" an urgent voice hissed near his left shoulder, "The odds are fiftyfifty; either you're right or you're wrong!" Filled with its owner's impatience, the voice fell silent as it waited for a decision to be made. "It was MY nickel!" he hissed back, "So I can take as long as I want to!" Irritated at the interruption, he returned his attention back to the task at hand and sighed; he was back to square one. Which of the remaining cups was the pea hidden under? He reached out his right hand towards the two cups; it wasn't certain which cup he was going to choose until he got closer, then right before he lowered his hand he heard the voice again. This time it whispered, "NO- not that one; its the other one- trust me!" Pulling his hand back, Jed dropped his head with a groan. He hated it when Han said that- it usually meant there was trouble ahead. It wasn't that he didn't trust the older boy's judgement, it was, well, it was just that things never quite went they way they oughta when he said those words. Now, the situation was even more complicated. If he didn't choose the one that Han thought was right and he ended up being wrong, his cousin would be crowing about it for days- he'd rub it in that he'd been right and he'd never let Jed live it down! But worse than that, beneath all the ribbing, Jed knew that he'd hurt the other boy's feelings because he hadn't trusted him. But, what if he chose the one that Han thought was right, and that choice ended up being wrong? He'd lose both his hard-earned nickel and the prize! And another thing- Han would be feelin' pretty miserable; when Han was miserable, he wasn't much fun, and they were there to have fun, so... Was there a right choice? The sandy-haired boy slowly stretched out his right hand once more, until it hovered above the table. Lowering his hand, he carefull wrapped his fingers around his choice and closed his eyes. Then, he slowly lifted the cup. There was a collective gasp from the crowd of curious onlookers that had gathered around to watch the outcome of the game. This was followed by lots of mutterings, mumblings and head shaking. "Better luck next time, Kid," Han's voice coming from behind sounded a bit smug, but Jed reckoned he'd allow that. He opened his eyes as a hand patted him on his shoulder. At least this way he was the one that had made the 'wrong' choice. Things would be

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better in the long run; Han wouldn't feel responsible for steering him in the wrong direction and they could finish the day in good spirits. He turned to face his friend with a grin, "C'mon, I'll race ya to the candy apples- loser has to buy!" As he took off running, dodging effortlessly around the other fairgoers, Jed knew his cousin wouldn't be too far behind. He also knew there wasn't anything wrong with this choice; he could already taste the victory...and the candied apple!

By Shenango The neighbors from the two farms shared more than just familial ties. They shared crops, food, and holidays. They shared responsibilities for each other's children and the joys of everyday life that seemed too few and far between. The war had been taking away those small pieces of joy in ever increasing moments. The fighting had been bitter on both sides but up to now had been distant to the town and its residents. That had all changed almost overnight. Raiders were rumored to be within miles of the town and most of it's citizens were on the alert. A town meeting was held to discuss what could be done to protect the town, and it was decided to make things as normal as possible for as long as possible, to keep panic from taking hold. All the parents were diligent in watching over the safety of all the town's children. The two boys walked out of the school building with everyone else. School was over for the week; now was the time for the weekend to start. Two whole days off of fishing and climbing trees and making mischief, but only after the chores were done. They'd help each other finish; they'd learned to work together and the benefits of teamwork to get things accomplished. They made it about halfway back to the farms before the call of the fishing hole got the better of them and, with little convincing needed, the detour was made. They knew that once they arrived home with fish for supper, their parents wouldn't be too upset at them for not coming straight home. They were good boys, typical and not bad, but what their Grandpa called "spirited". A few hours had passed and the two strings of fish had more than enough to feed both families, so, with hunger nudging them on, they decided to head for home. Right before the bend in the road that led to their homes, they were met by Doc Murphy and Sheriff Lawson. Not that this was unusual, the Sheriff often went with the doc if there was an accident. The boys knew there were farms other than their own on the road they were taking, so there was no reason for alarm.

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Until the two men stopped the boys. Doc Murphy had put a hand on the Sheriff's arm, whispering quietly, "Let me talk to them." Climbing down from his buggy, he greeted them. "Hannibal, Jed, you boys just now getting home from school?" "Yes, Doc," Hannibal answered. "Fishing was awful good today," and he held up his string and looked to Jed. Jed did likewise. The Doc paused, then put a hand on each shoulder. "That's good, boys, real good." "Yes, sir," Jed said. "We thought we'd give them to our Mom's for supper," he smiled. Sheriff Lawson got down from his horse and knelt in front of them. Taking a breath to brace himself, he looked at the Doc before speaking. "Boy's I'm afraid there's been trouble; we're going to have to take you into town with us." The two lowered their arms and the strings of fish and passed a scared look from one to the other. "But, we didn't do nothing wrong, Mr. Lawson. We just went fishing." "No, son, you didn't do anything wrong. In fact, what you did was just right." Confused, they stood there until Hannibal opened his mouth. Jed was watching him, he knew Han would be able to figure all this out if anyone could. Han was the smartest friend he had. "We should probably get on home then," Hannibal tried to pass. He was stopped, as was Jed. "We're really glad you two went fishing," the Sheriff said. They looked at him, puzzled and a little scared. Doc Lawson, more used to breaking bad news to relatives, took a turn trying to tell them. "Boys, you can't go home tonight." "Why not," Jed asked, "Is somebody sick? Don't they need us to help them get better?" The news was harder than either man had anticipated, but it had to be said. "Boys, there was trouble. I know you're both old enough to know about the war," the Doc started to explain. "While you were fishing, the raiders came and attacked several of the farms out this way. They got the Pierce's and then came in and got your place, Jed, and then yours, Hannibal." Shock set in, and in a pained voice, the two adults heard, "Han?" Looking, they noticed silent tears of fear starting to stream down the face of the dark haired boy.

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"Boys, for tonight, we're going to take you to town. You're going to stay with the Doc and his family." "Sheriff," Hannibal said, the question and the fear obvious in his voice. "What happened to our families?" "Boys," he started, then, with respect to the two small, brave souls in front of him, "The raiders hit your farms. We're real glad to see you, because we didn't find you there." At this they started to try and break away to go home, both boys found themselves being held by an adult. After a brief struggle, both stopped, looking at each other, completely lost. Suddenly, with a maturity that surprised both of the men, Hannibal realized what they were saying. "Jed," he put his hand out and touched his cousin's arm. "Jed, we have to go with the Doc and the Sheriff." Jed still was unaware of what was happening. "But, Han, we gotta go home. Our Pa's will need us to help clean up stuff. We'll have extra chores to do now." "Jed," Hannibal took a deep breath and tried to hold the tears just a little bit longer. "There's nothing left to go home to." He looked at the two men for confirmation. Doc nodded and the Sheriff, unable to meet the eyes which aged ten years in just five minutes, looked back from the direction they'd just come. Jed's tears were coming faster now, but he'd not made much noise, until finally, "Han, we shoulda gone straight home. You know we were supposed to. We did the wrong thing and..." "No, Jed," he answered. "We didn't make the wrong choice. We made the right one." Looking up, he was encouraged by the strength of the doctor. "If we'd've gone home, we'd be dead like our families." Then turning to them, he had to ask. "They're all gone? Even Grandpa Curry?" The beloved older man had always spent as much time as possible with the boys, both to keep them out of trouble while their parents worked on the farm and spend time with them; teaching them his own special brand of mischief. The look in the Doc's eyes said it all for him. "C'mon Jed. We're all we got now." Feeling very much younger than he had in a long time, Jed took Hannibal's hand and walked to the Doc's buggy. Handing over the fish, he climbed into the back seat. Hannibal handed him up all the fish, then climbed in behind him. Looking at the two men's sad faces, he spoke softly, "We better go. It's getting dark and our Ma's don't like us out when it's dark."

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