Again, just an alternate-universe view of the past, with some time flow changes occasioned by TB5's activities in 'There Goes the Neighborhood'.

Wildcats

1

They stood for awhile after the tail lights faded, when engine growl and gravel crunch had vanished into big, dark, ear-stretching quiet. But the blue car didn't come back.

They'd been dropped off like this before, left to rough it with instructions to lie low ("Don't wander far, now. Hear?") until she ditched her latest loser, got herself a job and some money, and came back for them. Always the same. They were used to it, by then.

They watched each other's backs, survived as best they could, and whenever she came back, they all three moved on together. Next town, next man, next disaster. That was life.

Not that they didn't wonder.

The younger would look in at lighted windows, sometimes, watching the warm, clean people at their mysterious doings, and ask,

"Think they're happy?"

A meaningless question to the older, who'd shrug,

"They got food, don't they?"

This time, it was an unpaved, private ranch road. They were kind of fuzzy on where, though. They'd fallen asleep in the back of the car, amid their boxed and bagged possessions, and had lost track of the route. But a ranch would have a house and barn, somewhere, and that meant a water hose, sweet feed, and warm hay to curl up in, if nothing else. Plus, they still had the bag of Cheetos and 2-liter soda she'd provided, to tide them over. Could've been worse.

"C' mon," the older grumped, hopping from foot to foot. "Won't get no closer to shelter just standing here."

But they waited over an hour just the same, thinking, what if, maybe, just this once... she changed her mind?

The moon was setting, cold and thin and heartless, by the time they gave up, and started walking.

Wyoming; the Tracy spread-

It didn't take Virgil Tracy long to figure out that he really didn't much care for football. Trouble was, most everyone else did. When he mentioned, just to make small talk, that he might try out for the team, you'd have thought he'd struck gold, invented the wheel, and painted the Sistine Chapel, all rolled into one (scratch that last one; nobody cared about an old painting).

Forks paused, hovering between plates and faces, like dragon flies on the river. Conversation ended, and chewing ceased.

Grandma, Scott, even John (normally sunk so deep in the book on his lap or the thoughts in his head that he barely noticed the family) looked over. And Grandad?

The old man sat up a little straighter in his chair, set down his untouched fork-load, and smiled.

"Gonna play for the Wildcats, huh?"

Back in Spirit, Kansas, Grant Tracy had played on the local high school team, the Mustangs. Been good at it, too, and still loved the game.

"Offense, or defense?"

"Uh..., running back," something made him say. His grandfather's old position. The big rancher nodded, and the look in his blue eyes... Well, there was no way that Virgil could back down, now. And no way he could let himself fail, either.

Grandma's lips were pursed so tight, they seemed about to disappear, and her big, dark eyes were snapping. So..., okay; maybe he wasn't ideal athletic material. Yet. But, that's what a guy had brothers for, right?

As Grandma cleared the supper dishes and served up warm apple cobbler (John got one of his few mixed-flavor indulgences, a frosted cinnamon roll), Virgil looked at Scott. His oldest brother nodded in the direction of the cottonwood circle and mouthed:

'Conference'.

Not immediately, of course. There were chores to do, and animals to be fed and settled for the night.

Scott's particular business was the perimeter. With a rifle and all-terrain vehicle, he'd check the gates and fences that enclosed the near paddocks, house and outbuildings. Sometimes, he went with Grandad, but usually by himself. At sixteen years old, Scott was almost a man, now, able to shoulder alone a man's work.

John saw to the family horses; pitching hay, scooping feed, filling water pails, curry combing, and the like. The hired men were responsible for their own mounts, but John kept an eye on those, as well.

It was funny; from the blank, bored look on his narrow face (Virgil had captured the expression exactly, in the sketchbook Grandma bought him) you'd have thought John hated the job. The horses knew better, though.

They'd whicker softly, snuff and lip at his blond hair, and butt him playfully with their big, hard heads. Their long tails switched lazily about, ears swiveling to follow the sound of his voice as John explained something pointlessly weird, like neutron stars, or negative pressure. Their heads would come up, dripping cracked corn and blowing hay breath, if he varied their routine any, or a dog got in. (Virgil had drawn that scene, too; Posy and John turning their heads at the exact same instant to stare at one of Grandad's eager hounds. It was a funny picture, no matter what John said.)

The dogs were Virgil's job. He kept them fed and watered, put them in their kennel at night, settled arguments, punished evil-doers, and rounded up escapees. Sometimes doled out medication, too, which wasn't much fun. Pixie tended to bite, and so did Max.

Then, there were the fat, black-and-white pigs to deal with. These were every bit as demanding as the dogs, but a good deal larger and smarter. Virgil was firmly convinced that they plotted nightly break outs.

Like Scott and John, he usually carried a weapon. He didn't think there 'd be a bear this close to the house, but you couldn't be too careful. Grizzlies sometimes developed a taste for livestock, and Tracys.

Huge, near-sighted and hungry, not troubled by much besides llamas and pepper spray, a grizzly bear was something you never left out of your figuring. Not if you wanted to live.

...Which got him to thinking about football, again, and wondering whether pepper spray worked on defensive linemen. When the chores were done, the boys gathered away from the house, at the circle of cottonwood trees that had been their meeting place for years.

It was a chilly evening in mid-August. The air smelled damp and leaden with possible snow. Bulging low above mountain, sage and ranch house, the rippled sky appeared pregnant.

Virgil turned up his jacket collar, stuck his hands in the deep, woolen pockets, and hurried. The music in his head, at the moment, was 'Ride of the Valkyrie' (it was that kind of weather)

The ring of trees enclosed a spring which never quite froze over. It got cold enough out there to split rock, but a chuckle of sharp, clear water always seeped through, somehow. There were marks scratched onto the stones surrounding the spring, some made by the boys, others scribed long before, with Bowie knife or flint blade.

The spring itself wasn't noisy, precisely, but it never stopped talking; bubbling forth with a confidential whisper, then snaking away past rocks and deep-piled yellow leaves. Following it (if he had nothing better to do, which wasn't often), Virgil would end up at the south cow pond, three and seven-eighths miles away.

The circle consisted of seven trees, with gnarled grey bark and quivering pale leaves. Yellow in the daytime, they looked almost silver, now. They were old trees, and big, casting a broad, spreading canopy as golden as Lorien's.

Scott was already there, looking impatient and wind-chapped. Also inside the ring of trees... well, boys have forts, and decorate them like bower birds. If any of the three found something interesting, it generally wound up at the fort. A war-surplus fighter canopy, chewed-up pronghorn skull, a rock shaped like Grandma's head... Plus, there was the latest 'swimsuit issue', some clock parts, and a set of old hubcaps that John seemed to think he could do something with. A cooler, too, filled with whatever was on sale at the Wal-mart in Burlington. Dr. Pepper, this time.

Virgil fetched himself a can, then one apiece for Scott and John. Sheer bribery. Dr. Pepper wasn't anyone's favorite flavor, but sugar, caffeine and carbonation were always welcome.

Scott shifted restlessly about, but didn't say much till John drifted in, smelling of horses and motor oil. He was carrying something, which he flipped at Virgil's chest before folding himself up on a fallen trunk, like one of those long, jointed measuring sticks.

"Thanks, John," Virgil said, examining the old 'Mustangs' play book he'd just been given. Grandad's, apparently. In return, Virgil tossed his brother a soda, or tried to. Missed by a good 3.24 feet, actually, striking Scott on the right shoulder, but without much force.

Muttering something about,

"Serious work to do...," John fished another drink out of the cooler and went back to sitting the way he usually did; hunched over with his arms wrapped close, like he had a stomachache, or something.

Virgil dropped toward his own accustomed seat on a nailed-up board, so busy leafing through the play book that he missed both the chair, and Scott's expression. Virgil's oldest brother shook his dark head, taking yet a third seat. There was a place left open between them, of course; just in case one of those "how 'bout ifs..." ever came true.

Both of his brothers had violet-blue eyes, but they weren't at all soft; more like the grim state flower of some flat, no-nonsense region like Iowa, where color was barely tolerated. Now, for some reason, the music Virgil heard in his head was 'Sloop John B.'.

"You," Scott began, incredulously, "want to play football."

His tone of voice suggested that John had a better chance of making the team, and that was saying something. Setting down the soda, John shook the long hair from his face.

"There's always the swim team," he hinted carefully, apparently thinking that strength and coordination were less important, in the water. But Virgil was pleased to be stubborn. He could do it. Really.

"Nope. Football." And he took a giant swig of Dr. Pepper as punctuation.

"Well...," Scott sighed, already making plans, as he ran a hand through his short, dark hair. "We'll need to work on strength training, then."

"Coordination, too." John muttered. Though he never exerted himself if he could help it (or unless someone was paying him), Virgil's second brother was actually rather dexterous. There, John differed from the younger Tracy, who, while falling, would have had to stop and ask directions.

"How long till tryouts?" Scott enquired. "A month?"

"Three weeks," Virgil admitted, trying to sound strong and coordinated.

Popping the top on his third can of soda (he'd drunk the one Virgil hit him with), Scott mused,

"That doesn't give us much time. We'll have to work quick. Next time, Virge, please... Talk this kind of stuff over with us, first. I'm supposed to start studying for my SATs, and John...,"

He trailed off, gazing at their pale, quiet brother, who was looking toward the stables. There was a small, golden leaf on John's bowed shoulder.

"John...?"

The blond shrugged, and the leaf spun silently away. Between thought and speech came the dark, arm in arm with cold.

"The horses," he reported quietly, "are acting funny, tonight. Almost like...," John didn't complete the thought. Aloud, at least. If he had, they might have figured things out a little sooner. "...I don't know."

After all, the dogs were quiet.

Scott waited a bit, then resumed talking, deciding that John would explain when he was good and ready, or not at all, but wouldn't be pushed, regardless.

"Okay, then. We start tomorrow. I'll see about setting up a chinning bar. John, you get five or six tires to practice footwork with, and we'll both throw. Everyone in agreement?"

Scott's blue eyes swept his brother's faces, and the empty seat. John and Virgil nodded, for themselves, and for Gordon.

"Right. So, that's settled. Let's get back inside, then, before..."

Too late. Grandma's sharp yell split the night like violet lightning.

"Boys! Scott...! Teddy...! John...!"

Time to go home.

Shortly thereafter:

John somehow arranged for Virgil to use the varsity weight room. Through Kenneth Flowers, probably. A defensive end himself, and son of the school guidance counselor, Ken was just about the only real friend his brother had, outside the family. Nice guy, and all, but throw him in a pond, and you could skim 'ugly' for weeks.

The big, windowless weight room was about the nicest thing in the school; clean and modern, with the Wildcats' snarling mascot painted on one wall, aggressive slogans on all the others, and a giant red paw print on the floor.

That first morning, before class, Virgil stood at the double doors and looked around, awed. There were white, red-cushioned machines everywhere (17, to be exact), the sort that turned pain into muscle.

Stepping in a little further, he noticed that it smelled funny in there; sweaty and desperate, like too many hard-luck seasons. The few guys using the machines at that hour looked Virgil over, gave him a brief nod or two, and kept right on lifting to the rhythm of their head phones, and the clash and thunder of metal.

At random, Virgil selected a bench, loaded too many weights on the bar, and got started. And that, more or less, was his entrance to the world of Ace bandages, liniment, shoulder pads and cortisone shots. For years to come, Friday evenings would glow with bright lights and cheering crowds..., or throb with pain and long, silent bus rides.

Believing that he really wanted this, Scott and John did their level best, and got their little brother on the team. Scott worked him relentlessly; push-ups, chin-ups and crunches, hour after hour, until he was almost too sore and shaky to lift a fork, but he could stand an opponent up and knock him over, every time.

John threw things at him (while he ran the rings, usually) until Virgil learned to catch on the fly, without thinking, or slowing down.

So much for the physical part. The mental portion... what Coach Fredericks and Grandad called 'intangibles' ... came harder. To put it plainly, neither his heart nor his head were in the game. Not really. He faked it well, though, fooling a great many people for a very long time, until it no longer mattered.