CROSSROADS

"Upon A Star"

II=====II=====II=====II=====II * PROLOGUE * II=====II=====II=====II=====II

A brilliant twinkling star sparkles brightly in the clear night sky.

It has been the center of many a story told by man, real or imaginary. Galileo was said to be inspired to invent by one. The pilgrims sailed their ships to the New World by one and yes, it has been said that three wise men followed a similar celestial sight to find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes that would become the most renowned figure in the history of this world. There is an inherent irony in the fact that this parable takes place three days before Christmas as you are asked to ponder the following question:

What does such a heavenly occurrence mean to a child?

To Billy Flynn, an eight year old boy with a fascination of frontier lore and a limitless imagination, it means the rare opportunity to make that most sacred of all wishes any child could fancy.

A wish upon a star.

There are birthday wishes, well wishes for friends and family, even Christmas wishes but none compare to the importance of a child's wishing upon a bright and shining star for something they truly desire. It is just such a wish that is at the literal and figurative heart of little Billy Flynn's story for he has a secret wish. It is the same wish he's wished each night over the last few months as he lay in his bed and cried himself to sleep, his misery courtesy of cruel peers and the hand of fate which has seemingly abandoned him somewhat smaller in size and stature if not in spirit and courage.

Like many children, Billy has been on the receiving end of a bully's wrath. His upbringing prevents him from a resolution to the predicament via a more direct physical solution. He desperately wants to follow his parents' wishes to be a good son and to turn the other cheek, but even a child has a line in the sand that he'll brook no trespass over. For Billy Flynn that breach came today courtesy of a bloodied nose at the end of a tyrant's fist.

As a result he turns to the heavens for a means of liberation from his tormentor during this most magical and spiritual time of the year. But for Billy Flynn it may be a deliverance more spiritual than anyone might believe because his chosen savior is one with a more-than-slightly dented halo in the form of notorious outlaw Reno Rogers, a desperado of the highest order.

Whatever the outcome may be one thing is certain: Billy Flynn's special wish will forever change his life as he knows it... here at Crossroads.

O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O

"Says here and I quote 'he died with a self-satisfied smile'"

The voice belonged to Tom Flynn as he sat at his kitchen table reading the newspaper by a lantern's light in the evening's twilight.

"Well I never did understand all the fuss over that man." said Tom's wife Evelyn. "From what I hear he was an evil man anyways."

"Well you know, some say he wasn't actually a bad fella, just misguided perhaps" replies Mr. Flynn with skepticism in his drift.

"You never answered me about Billy, you know" she said shifting a glance over at her husband.

"Oh honey, look," says Tom looking up from his newspaper, "boys will be boys and I really don't think – "

"I can't believe you! Tom, this is our son we're talking about. I don't care about some old notion, fighting is not the answer!" said Evelyn in a highly agitated fashion.

"From what Billy says it wasn't much of a fight. That Robley boy punched him right in the nose before Billy could do anything. I've got to say though that as much as I agree with you about fighting, the boy should have the right to defend himself, Evelyn" replied Tom. "A little scrap now and then builds character."

Evelyn shoots him a look of consternation. Tom quickly buries his face back in his newspaper.

"I don't want to raise our son to fight and that's that" she says adamantly.

"And I agree with you... but... it's bound to happen. The boy can't keep getting beaten up and picked on without standing up for himself."

"I don't know what to do" she says, the tears welling up in her eyes, the pain evident in her voice.

The sight was very upsetting to little Billy Flynn as he quietly peered out from his bedroom door. He gnashes his teeth in anger and slowly shuts the door. He walks across the moonlit floor and fell forward onto his bed, burying his face in his pillow. After a few moments he rolls over onto his back staring at the ceiling.

"I shoulda hit him then he'd be the one crying" he says driving an angry fist into his bed. He'd had incidents with Ryan Robley many times since the ten yr old bully had taken to making Billy his personal quarry. Billy, while not big in size or stature, never lacked courage and was more than willing to go toe-to-toe with Ryan on any occasion but knowing his parents would be disappointed in such actions he stifled his reaction to such attacks as the one he suffered today.

"If I can't knock him down, who's gonna do it?" he asks himself. "If only someone else would come and tan Ryan's hide, boy, I'd laugh for a year!"

He sighs and grabs something from the smaller dresser next to his bed. It's a dimestore novel entitled "The Legend of Reno Rogers". He studied the illustration of famed outlaw gunfighter Reno Rogers on the cover.

"I bet that old tub of lard wouldn't punch me in the nose if I were you" he says with somber confidence. "Why I'd just pull my pistol and POW!" He accentuates his statement by imitating a fast draw, his index finger acting as the barrel of a sixgun.

"No-sirree, he would run away like a yella dog"

He lies his head back down on his pillow and looks upward out the window at the head of his bed. The moon was full this night and it illuminated his entire room in a calm blue glow. Then something catches his eye. He rolls onto his left side and props himself up on his pillow to get a better look at the object. There it was... the answer to his prayers.

A twinkling star, shining much brighter than all the rest in the sky, seemed to be calling to him.

"A wishing star!" he says with hushed excitement.

He gets up on his knees and presses his nose against the window pane, his eyes wide with wonder. He knew this was his chance to solve his dilemma. He remembered how when his mother was very ill two summers ago with The Fever and how the doctors didn't know if she'd make it. He remembered how sad and upset his dad had been over it. One might think such things are lost on a child of that age and perhaps they are on most, but it wasn't lost on Billy. He could sense the graveness of the situation. He prayed to God for a sign of hope. That very night he saw a brilliant star shining so brightly in the night sky that it put all the other stars to shame. He closed his eyes and made the biggest wish of his life; a wish for his mother to live.

Three days later his desire would come true as she emerged from the illness's severe fever-induced delirium. When she finally opened her eyes, his was the first face she saw and the first name she spoke. He always remembered the miracle of wishing upon that twinkling star. It is that same miracle of hope he is wishing for once again. He closes his eyes tight and with every ounce of his being, he speaks the words softly from his heart. Tonight Billy Flynn makes the second biggest wish of his whole life.

"I wish, I wish 'pon yonder star, to bring me my wish from near or far"

He squeezes his eyelids shut even tighter, giving every last bit of his energy to his heart's desire. Then he opens his eyes and smiles. He holds up the booklet in front of his face once more.

"Tomorrow's going to be a good day, Reno, just you wait and see."

He lays it back down, resting the booklet on his chest and drifts off in peaceful sleep.

O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O

"C'mon sleepy-head, time to get up"

The voice crashed in his ears like a big base drum disturbing his blissful slumber. He forces one eye open. His mom stands over his, her smiling face not convincing him as to the merits of waking up.

"It's Friday and you're going to be late for school" she says as she walks to the doorway. "Miss Harkness will miss you" she taunts him in playful song.

"Oh hush" he says with a little more life in him, slightly embarrassed at his mother's words.

His mother giggles then hands him his bundle of school books. He grabs the end of the bundle's leather strap and slings the bundle over his shoulder.

"Are you going to walk with me to school?" he asked trying to hide his anxiousness.

"No, do I need to?" she replied.

Billy's heart sank at her answer.

"No, I guess not" he said with obvious disappointment in his tone. "I just thought..."

"I've got to get to work over at the store, maybe tomorrow?" she said holding his rosy cheeks in her hands.

"Okay", he responds with sad resignation.

"Now go on, sweetie" she says gently kissing him on the top of his head.

He lowers his head and walks out the door. The school was about five blocks away but it seemed like miles to Billy. The first four were quick to pass but that last block along lower Main St to the schoolhouse was the longest. It is that stretch where his daily nightmare usually awaits him. Every school day is the same. He makes it to Main St and waiting at the end of the avenue, in front of the gate to the schoolyard like some chubby gargoyle, is Ryan Robley.

'Please don't be there today' he whispers over and over to himself, realizing that the last time Ryan wasn't there was several months back in the spring when Ryan's mother passed away. Billy always felt bad for feeling good at Ryan's tragedy. He wasn't glad at all that Ryan's mom had died but was rather relieved for the one day reprieve he had received from torment on the day of her burial. He actually felt very sad for Ryan remembering how much he loved his own mother and how close he'd come to losing her.

The bullying seemed to get worse after that. Ryan's demeanor changed as well. He seemed to become more malicious in his tormenting of Billy, more... physical.

As he approaches the corner of Main St and Fifth St his heart begins beating faster. He turns the corner and steps up onto the boardwalk. He focuses his eyes toward the far end of the street. Trying to see around and between the crowds along the boardwalk was proving very difficult for him. Then finally there was a break in the passing throng and he could see the schoolyard gate in the distance. His eyes grow wide and he swallows hard.

He smiles.

'He's not there' he thinks growing increasingly excited. 'He's not there!'

His heart bursts with happiness as he begins picking up his pace, dodging the remaining patrons along the boardwalk enroute to the school. With each step his smile seems to grow wider and when he reaches the end of the boardwalk it stretches from ear to ear. He pauses there just for a moment as if taking in this most wonderful sight. He begins to step down off the boardwalk when suddenly there is a force striking him in the middle of his back. The blow knocks him forward facefirst into the street.

"Unh!" says Billy, the sound escaping his mouth rather than being spoken voluntarily. He hits the dusty road, his face slamming into the dirt. He gets his wits back about him quickly, rolls over and sees the bane of his existence standing over him and laughing.

"Watch that first step, Billy-boy" says Ryan Robley with an evil grin, "it's a lulu!"

The chubby assailant lets loose another evil belly laugh as Billy gets to his feet. He dusts himself off and looks around for his books and lunchbag. He quickly spots them and reaches for them only to see a heavy foot kick away the books. Billy watches the books slide to rest in the dirt about ten feet away then snaps his head back towards his lunchbag. It was gone.

"Looking for this, Billy-boy?" the rotund goon sneered as he held up the paper bag.

Billy was on his feet in a flash. He ran up to the grinning adolescent thug, reaching for his lunch which was being held over his head by the taller Ryan Robley.

"Gimme that!" snaps Billy jumping up at the lunchbag.

A meaty hand against his chest shoves Billy hard to the ground again. Undeterred by the pain of his predicament, Billy again stands nose-to-chest with Ryan Robley.

"You better gimme back my lunch or so help me I'll – "

"You'll what, Billy-boy?" Ryan says with more bass in his voice and his manner suddenly angrier. "C'mon! Try an' take it!"

Billy stands there, his legs and arms shaking from the adrenaline and anger. He looks up at the bag and then at Robley's scowling pudgy, freckled face. His hands slowly tighten into fists. He knows his parents frown on him fighting but maybe just this time they'll understand.

"Well Billy-boy? Whatcha gonna do?" taunts Robley.

Billy clenched his teeth so hard they hurt. Then his mother's voice seemed to whisper in his ear.

'Fighting is not the answer.'

And with those five words he let his anger go. His fists unclenched and he drew in a heavy sigh. His eyes however never looked away from Robley's.

"Hah! Just what I thought, you coward!" says Robley dropping the lunchbag into the dirt and walking off.

The school bell rings and Billy Flynn stands motionless as the other children rush to the schoolhouse. A few moments pass and he slowly picks up his lunch and books when he hears a gruff voice behind him.

"Why didn't you let him have it?" the voice asks.

Billy spun around and there leaning against the side of the building was a man dressed in dirty jeans, a black shirt and a black hat with a silver conch band which was lowered so as to cover the stranger's face from Billy's view. Puffs of gray smoke snuck out from under the hat.

"Excuse me?" Billy asks with confusion in his tenor.

"I said" the figure says as he tips his hat back on his head as he removed the cigarillo from his lips, "why didn't ya let'im have it? You wanted to. So why didn't ya?"

Billy's eyes grew wide with excitement. It was the last person he ever thought he'd see.

"Reno Rogers?" he squeals in amazement.

The figure smiles with a slight nod.

"How? Why?" Billy stammers with rapid exhilaration.

"Well now the how ain't as important as the why and the why? Well, that's simple. I'm here to help you, Billy Flynn."

Billy's face lit up when Reno spoke his name.

"Help me?" he says with mild confusion.

"Well you asked for my help, didn't ya?", Reno queries.

Billy thinks back upon his wish from the night before. The surprise of this realization washes across the little boy's face in a flash.

"It worked again," he whispered. "It really worked again!"

Reno Rogers smiled. It was an event that seemed uncommon to him.

"BILLY!"

Billy turned to see the origin of the voice. It belonged to Miss Harkness, the school teacher. "Hurry up, Billy, you're late again!"

"I'll be right there!" he hollered back. He turned back to Reno Rogers.

"Go on, kid. I'll see you after school. I'll help you then." He says with a crooked grin.

Billy smiles and runs up to the schoolhouse. When he gets to the door, he turns back to see Reno. Instead he sees an empty street now. He quickly surveys the scene looking for Rogers but resigns himself to the fact that maybe his mind was playing tricks on him.

Disappointed, he slowly closes the school door behind him.

O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O

Billy was the first child through the schoolhouse doors. He always liked Fridays because it meant no school for two whole days. He bounded down the front steps glad to be free from the daily confines of learning. He also had another daily ritual; that of looking over his shoulder for Ryan Robley. He makes his way thru the schoolyard gate and quickly scampers onto the boardwalk. As he turns the corner onto Main St a voice calls to him from an alleyway.

"Hey kid" the voice said.

Billy halted his rapid pace and glanced over to the alley.

"Reno!" he says with excitement. "I wasn't seeing things! It really is you!"

"Yeah, yeah it's me, kid. Listen, let's keep it our little secret.. you know.. 'bout me bein' here an' all. Okay?"

"Are you on the lamb?" asks Billy anxiously.

"In a matter of speakin'" the outlaw says with a smirk. "Whaddaya say... our little secret?"

"Can't I tell my mom and dad?" he posed with slight disenchantment.

"Especially not them, Billy"

The hurt was visible on Billy's face.

"Look, here" he said pulling out a pocketknife from his shirt. He opens it, holding it up for Billy to see. "This here is my lucky knife. See that?"

Billy stares at the name "Reno Rogers" engraved into the shining blade and nods.

"And do you see that nick in the handle?"

Again Ryan nods in wide-eyed wonderment.

"Well that's where it stopped a bullet from killing me. I had my name carved into the blade after that."

"Gol-ly!" Billy spoke softly marveling at the object.

"Well I'll give this to you if you promise to keep our secret under your hat until we're done, comprende, amigo?" says the outlaw tucking the knife back into his pocket.

"You bet!" says Billy in anticipation.

"You swear?" he asks with feigned sincerity.

"I swear" Billy replies.

Reno nods.

"When we're done with the bully you'll get the knife, that's the deal"

Billy nods in agreement.

"Okay, now tell me about this Ryan whatever-his-name-is"

"Well he's nuthin' but a big ol' bully, that's all" he says angrily.

"What's his beef with you?" asks Rogers.

"I'm small, that's it, I guess", he says with a touch of shame in his voice. "So he's been picking one me for over a year. I'm sick of it too"

"Well just cuz a fella's a might small ain't reason to ruffle him up" retorts Rogers.

"Yeah well, one of these days POW right in his big fat nose!" says Billy accentuating his point with a fist in the air.

"That's a pretty good right cross you got there, Billy, my boy. Why not put it to use?"

Billy's brow furrows as if trying to understand Rogers' inquisition.

"You mean... punch him?"

"Sure why not? It'd teach that big blowhard not to mess with you again."

"I-I don't know...my mom, she says fighting isn't the right thing to do"

Reno pauses in thought.

"Well, she's right!"

"She is?"

"Absolutely. It's best to talk your way out of a scrap if ya can. Nobody gets hurt that way. But sometimes words don't seem to get thru people's heads. Sometimes when the bully won't listen to reason...well... it comes down to a matter of you or him. Sometimes a fight ain't avoidable is all I'm saying."

Billy mulls the idea over in his head quickly.

"You're right, I guess."

"Sure I am! Now look, that bully is aimin' to jump you down the street apiece. All you gotta do is walk right up to him, look him in the eye and call his bluff. Got it?"

There's a pause from Billy before his answer.

"Got it." he says with resolve, slamming his right fist into his left hand.

"Now before you head on over there I wanna show you a couple things that just might help ya out if he tries to bushwhack ya. Now listen, if he tries to come at you..."

Rogers motions Billy into the alley way as he talks. Minutes later they return to the edge of the alleyway. Billy's sporting a shiny new smile borne of confidence.

"Alright then, look for him down by the barber's shop" says Rogers. "Remember, he'll be in the alley waiting for you."

"Thanks, Mr. Rogers" he says with a smile.

The outlaw tips his hat back abit, smiles and replies "Call me Reno."

And with that Billy Flynn went on his way. There was a purpose to his walk now, a certain sense of self-assurance in his stride. He walked down Main St until he could see the barber shop. As he approached the front of the Rollie's Haircuts & Shaves he kept a wary eye on the alleyway. Moments later Ryan Robley jumps out in an effort to catch Billy by surprise. Billy was steady and never even flinched at the bully's actions.

"I told you I'd see you after school, Billy-boy" says Ryan in his typical condescending tone. He wasn't alone either. He had his usual gang of miscreants tagging along like little lapdogs. There was Dennis Jakes, Phillip Bodwin, Fenton Wilkes and Jimmy Peebles. They were his entourage of "yes men" as it were, all perfectly willing to watch Ryan get his hands dirty but never really willing to do any of it themselves. They all formed a semi-circle in front of Billy with Ryan forward in the center.

"Look Ryan... I don't want to fight so why don't you just leave me alone" says Billy in a strong voice.

Billy's tone catches Ryan offguard a little but he quickly regains his composure.

"Oh yeah? Well maybe I do wanna fight! Now what ya gonna do?" snarls Ryan as he rubs his freckled fist in his other hand.

Billy looks at him with a steady stare. This was new and quickly noticed by Ryan who furrowed his brow in confusion. He looked at his troop and they provided the usual boost of confidence for their leader.

"He looks scared Ryan" says the bespectacled and frail Peebles.

"Let 'im have it, Ryan!" the pudgy Wilkes chimes in.

"Plow him one!" says the weasel-like Bodwin with a crooked sneer.

"Yeah, plow him one!" repeats the crew's diminutive copycat Jakes.

"Yeah maybe that's just what I'll do" says the bully in an overly cocky manner.

Billy looked at all their faces. He knew with the support of his squad, Ryan's just liable to try and punch him.

"Now c'mon Ryan!" Billy says in a louder voice. "You don't wanna fight me, somebody might get hurt"

"Yeah you!" Ryan says as he takes a step towards Billy.

"Or you!" says Billy suddenly taking a stance and holding his ground. This gesture gives Ryan pause and the bully straightens up abit in his own stance. "That's right, Ryan, I might get the worst of it but you might get socked in the eye and be blind for life or somethin'!"

Ryan Robley now stands on uneasy ground. He's not sure why Billy's acting so different this afternoon. He begins to rethink his idea on fighting when his followers begin again in earnest.

"Give it to him, Ryan!"

"Right in the mouth!"

"Yeah, right in the mouth!"

Their urging seems to snap Ryan from his sudden lack of aggression.

"You're the only one who's gonna get hurt!" he shouts at Billy.

"So I can't talk you outta fighting me?" says Billy calmly.

Ryan cocks his head like a confused dog at the query.

"No, you can't!" he barks.

"Okay then" says Billy matter-of-factly. He begins rolling up the sleeves of his shirt. Ryan watches him in puzzlement. Once done with his sleeves, Billy spits in both his hands and rubs them together. He then claps them three times. Now he thumbs his nose with both hands and then puts up his fists in front of his face. He begins shadow-boxing, throwing a few punches out into the dry hot air. After a moment he stops and stands in a ready position. He holds that stance and stares at Ryan who is dumbfounded by Billy's antics.

"What in tarnation are you doing?" he asks quizzically.

"Warming up for the fight. I don't wanna hurt my hands or arms by just starting out cold so I'm warming them up."

"A-huh" says Ryan with a bit of a snort, his jaw still slacked.

"Well?" says Billy.

"What?" asks Ryan, emerging from his captivation of Billy's actions.

"Are you ready to fight?" says Billy with a touch of surprise himself at Ryan's uncharacteristic lack of focus.

"Uh, yeah, well..."

"Get him, Ryan!" Let him have it good!"

"Yeah, let him have it good!"

Ryan looks back at his gang with a mean eye.

"Shaddup!" he shouts angrily. The group cowers at the harshness of the tone. He turns back to Billy and begins walking towards him menacingly. Billy steadies himself for the coming fight.

"Look Billy-boy, you don't – "

"Ryan!" a gruff voice bellows. Ryan immediately stops his advancement and adopts a demeanor of stifled anger. The voice belonged to Ryan's father, Mr. Zebidiah Robley and he didn't look happy.

"I've been waitin' on you, boy! Now you get yer britches back home! You know them cows ain't gonna feed theyselves! Quit yer lollygaggin' and get on home now, go on!"

"You're a lucky daisy, Billy-boy" says Ryan in a hushed manner. "I ain't fightin' you today. But Monday, after school you be out behind the schoolhouse and I'll whoop you good then. Got it? Monday. And if you try to run it'll be worse when I catch ya!"

The bully kicks some dirt at Billy who has remained in his fighting stance the whole time. He watches Ryan and his gang as they make their way down the street and around the corner of Main St. and B St.

Once the group was out of sight Billy breathed a long sigh of relief. He grabbed his books and began heading down Main St. then turns right on First St. As he passed by the alleyway between Doc Bensen's and The Whiskey Dollar Bar a familiar voice spoke out to him.

"Good job kid" said the voice. Billy glanced over to see Reno Rogers standing there against Doc Bensen's office building.

"Reno!" shouts Billy and he runs to him. "Did you see that? Did you see?"

"I did for a fact" says Rogers with a big smile. "You got the bulge on him pretty good there, Billy m'boy"

Then Billy's demeanor quickly turned from happiness to sadness.

"What's wrong?"

"Well he didn't fight me today but he says he'll whoop me on Monday after school"

"On Monday? The day before Christmas? Well then, that gives us just two days to get ready for him, doesn't it?"

Billy looked at Reno's smile and beamed.

"Meet me over at the livery stable tomorrow about a half hour before school, alright?"

"Okay" says Billy barely able to contain his excitement. "You know, Reno, today was a good day after all"

Rogers rubbed his hand over Billy's head in a playful fashion.

"Now get on home cuz we don't want your mom to worry, go on now" says the outlaw.

Billy runs off waving back at Reno until out of sight. Reno Rogers lifts his eyes to the cloudless sky with a smile.

"I hope you know what you're doing" he says with a hearty chuckle.

Yes, today had been a very good day.

O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O

The weekend came and went quickly, perhaps too quickly for Billy's liking. Today was Monday, the day that Ryan Robley had threatened to beat him up. But Billy wasn't his usual nervous self anticipating the inevitable assault with fear and trepidation. No, this time Billy had a plan. It was a plan devised by his new friend Reno Rogers. The pair had secretly met and worked together on both Saturday and Sunday to come up with a plan on how to handle Ryan Robley. Billy felt confident the plan would work and if it didn't... well... Reno had prepared him for that eventuality as well. Billy grabbed his books and lunchbag. He then secreted away a small box wrapped in brown paper with twine tied around it. He smiled as he tucked the box into his lunchbag. He then gave his mother a kiss on the cheek and headed out the door.

The morning walk to school proved uneventful as Ryan Robley's daily harassment at the school gate was not to be. Instead, Billy took a new direction and went down South St. He came around the back side of the school unseen by Ryan.

"Ryan!" called Miss Harkness. "C'mon we're about to start!"

Ryan turned and looked at her. His jaw dropped. There behind Miss Harkness stood Billy with a wide grin on his face. Ryan kicked at the dirt in frustration and headed up the walkway into the school.

The day seemed to drag on forever. Each time Billy looked back over his shoulder at Ryan the bully was glaring at him. Billy could almost feel Ryan's eyes burning with anger at his back. He looked down at his lunchbag beside his desk on the floor and smiled.

CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!

The school bell finally rang releasing the school day's mundane hold on Billy. Ryan watched Billy go out the front door and was about to follow him when Miss Harkness called to him.

"Ryan! I want your homework assignment from Friday turned in no later than Wednesday, okay?" she said over her horn-rimmed glasses.

"Yeah" Ryan grunted as he grabbed his books and headed out the door. Standing on the top step he quickly surveyed the schoolyard for his prey but Billy was nowhere in sight.

"I knew he would chicken out!" he said as his usual troop gathered around him. "Probably ran all the way home like a chicken!"

"Who's that?" asks Wilkes.

"Billy Flynn, that's who" snarls Ryan with a satisfied grin.

"He's not out here" says Wilkes, "he's out back!"

"What?" Ryan says quizzically. "Let me see!"

The group quickly makes their way to the backyard of the school. There stands Billy, his hands behind his back.

"I didn't think you had the guts to show up, Billy-boy" says Ryan making fists with both his hands demonstratively. "Now I'm gonna whoop you good!"

The bully starts towards Billy who doesn't budge.

"Well if you beat me up then you'll never get your present" says Billy.

The words halt Ryan like a door slamming in his face.

"My... what?" he demands.

"Your present. Tomorrow's Christmas you know, and part of Christmas is the giving of gifts. I've got a gift for you but you won't get it if you fight me."

"Why not?" says Ryan with a snicker. "I could just beat you up and take the present"

"No you won't because you might break it during the fight. So no more fighting. If you want your present, then you have to promise to stop trying to fight me. That's the deal."

Ryan scratches his head in confusion.

"You're tellin' me that if I promise to stop fighting you you'll give me... a present?"

"Yup" says Billy, his face not showing any emotion.

Ryan ponders the situation. He stares at Billy intently while pacing back and forth.

"Well?" asks Billy.

"I'm thinkin'!" snaps Ryan.

A few more moments pass and finally Ryan stops pacing.

"Alright" he says dropping the angry expression from his face.

"Alright what?" asks Billy coyly.

"Alright let's see the present"

"Uh-uh, not until you promise" says Billy sternly.

"Alright I promise to stop beating you up" says the bully with an exaggerated sigh of resignation.

"Good. Here's your present." says Billy walking to meet Ryan his hands now holding the paper -wrapped box. Ryan grabs the box and begins tearing into it. He finally gets the lid off it and his eyes widen.

"Holy jeez" he says in a whisper.

"What is it Ryan?" asks Peebles.

"Yeah what's in there?" Wilkes also inquires.

"Let us see Ryan!" says Bodwin.

"Yeah let us see Ryan!" Jakes reiterates.

Ryan reaches into the box and pulls out a gold pocketwatch, holding it up by a long gold chain. The gang all marvel at the shiny timepiece.

Billy beams with broad smile.

"Hey there's some writing on the back!" points out Wilkes.

"What's it say?" asks Bodwin.

"Yeah what's it say?" chimes Jakes.

"It says 'To My Best Friend R.R.'" Ryan says slowly as if letting each engraved word settle in his mind. Ryan glances up at Billy in amazement. Then slowly a smile creeps across his face.

"Well?" says Billy with a pleasant smile. "What do you think?"

"I-I ain't never had a gold watch or a best friend before" he says examining the watch from every angle.

"Well now you do" says Billy taking a step towards Ryan and putting out his hand. "Put'er there...best friend"

Ryan looks up from the watch to Billy's face, his own face still beaming with happiness. He notices Billy's outstretched hand. He smiles a boyish grin and firmly shakes Billy's hand.

The six of them stand around fascinated by the golden pocketwatch as the afternoon passes by without notice. Finally one by one they all leave for home until just Billy and Ryan are left.

"Well I gotta get home" says Ryan. "Pa will be mighty sore if I don't tend to them cows."

"Okay" Billy says gathering up his books.

"Hey Billy" yells Ryan from about thirty feet away.

"Yeah?" Billy shouts back.

"You wanna come over sometime and do something?"

Billy smile returns.

"Yeah, that'd be fun" he says.

Ryan smiles, looks at the watch then back at Billy.

"Merry Christmas" he says before running off.

Billy's smile widens.

"Merry Christmas," he replies watching as Ryan disappears around the corner "my friend."

Billy begins walking home when he is surprised by a familiar voice.

"Ya did good, pard" the voice says from around a corner.

Billy smiles and shouts "Reno!"

The outlaw slowly swings out from the alleyway.

"It worked just like you said it would!" says Billy full of excitement.

"Looks like you lost a bully but gained a new friend in the process "says Reno with a sly grin.

"Yeah, ain't that funny?" replies Billy.

"Well Billy sometimes all bad folks need is a good friend to show them the way" the outlaw says in a somber tenor.

"I think you're right" Billy agrees. "Ain't you gonna miss your watch though?"

"Nah, if I need to know the time I'll just look at the sun, now get on home. You still got your chores to do and Ol' Saint Nick is coming tonight so you better be good, comprende?" Reno says messing up Billy's hair.

"Okay, I will" says Billy as he begins to walk up Main St again. After a few steps he turns back to Reno.

"Where are you going?" asks Billy.

Reno smiles a slight grin.

"Oh you know me... always on the lam" he says wryly.

Billy turns and takes a step then turns around towards the outlaw once more.

"Reno?" he asks.

"Yeah kid?"

"Will I see you again?" Billy asks with sadness in his eyes.

Reno chuckles and looks to the heavens before smiling back at Billy.

"Ya never know what the Good Lord has up his sleeve. You take care now, ya hear?"

"I will" Billy says with a sad realization in his voice."You too"

Reno tugs on the brim of his hat in acknowledgement and watches Billy run off down the street.

"You just never know, kid"

O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O

Christmas morning at the Flynn's home finds Billy, his mom and his dad gathered in front of the hearth. There is a fire burning to warm the morning chill, as they open their gifts amidst a conversation about the previous day's events.

"But I still don't understand where you got a watch like that" says Tom Flynn in confusion.

"I told you dad, Reno-" begins Billy.

"Reno Rogers gave it you, I know, I know" he interjects in exasperation "But – "

"Billy, now you know we don't like lying" says Billy's mom in a soothing but stern tone.

"But I'm not lying! I did get it from Reno!" asserts Billy with conviction. "He said the same thing you and Dad always say about how fighting isn't the answer and people should try to get along."

"Well I certainly agree with those sentiments but Billy you need to tell your Dad and me where you really got the watch. You didn't steal it, did you?"

"Mom!" says Billy with a look of ridiculous disbelief at his mom.

"Evelyn" cautions Tom.

"Well" she retorts with both sarcasm and concern in her pitch "first it's fighting, can thievery be far behind?"

"Billy, listen" says Tom in his typical fatherly advice-giving manner "we're just trying to understand where you got the watch from, that's all m'boy. So just stop the foolishness and tell us the truth."

Exasperated, Billy ponders how to convey the truth that his parents don't seem to grasp. His eyes widen as an idea comes to him.

"Why don't you believe that Reno gave me the watch? Do you know him?"

"No, we most certainly do not!" insists mom.

Tom gives her a look of impatience before focusing back on Billy's questions.

"No, Billy, we don't know Mr. Rogers beyond what has been printed about him in the newspapers and what has been printed about him makes it impossible for him to have even been here in town let alone give you that watch."

Confusion now adorns Billy's face.

"I don't understand –", he asks with reservation.

"Billy, bad men...outlaws... they get put in jail. Well Mr. Rogers was in jail up in El Paso. I read about it in the newspaper the other day. I'm... I'm sorry, son, there's no way Reno Rogers was here."

Confusion twists into sorrow as Billy opens his last gift. It is a handcarved wooden toy train consisting of the engine, a boxcar and a caboose. It had been a coveted treasure Billy had openly fancied for Christmas to any who would listen. His father found it up in Houston while visiting there on business. He bought it and had it handpainted with Billy's name painted on the side of the boxcar and sent it home via overland mail stagecoach. It was to be the best present and saved for last.

Billy's eyebrow lifted slightly upon seeing the toy. He gave a halfhearted smile as he placed it back into its box. Tom and Evelyn exchanged heartbreaking glances. The silence of the moment filled the room with a weightiness that all could feel.

"Thank you for all my gifts, Mom, Dad" he said with sadness in his appreciation. His parents watched as he gathered up his toys and trinkets and heading to his room with a sluggish cheerless pace. The door closed behind him as Tom and Evelyn again looked at each other with melancholy in their eyes.

"Tom..." she says, her voice conveying the same sorrowful sentiments.

"He'll be fine, Eve" he says trying more to convince himself than her "Just give him some time"

"Who do you think gave him that watch?" she asks picking up the stray wrappings and twine from the floor.

"It could've been anyone" says Tom "whoever it was they sure have Billy convinced that they were Reno Rogers. Hey Eve...what's that?"

"What?" she says looking up from sweeping.

"Over there... by the edge of the hearth... see that box?" he says intently focusing on a small package just sitting on the floor next to the stone hearth. "I don't want it to catch fire from an ember"

Evelyn retrieves the box from its quiet position and looks at it curiously.

"Did you buy something else for Billy and didn't tell me?" she asks with a wary eye.

"No" says Tom with complete innocence in his voice. "Why?"

"Hmm" she says handing it to him. "It says it's for Billy"

"So it does, well let's give it to the boy shall we?" he says as he walks to Billy's bedroom door.

He opens it and asks Billy to come back out to the fireplace. Billy complies and upon arriving is handed the box.

"This says it's for you" his father says with a smile.

"Thanks Dad but you didn't have to get me any more presents"

"I didn't" he says with an eyebrow raised in curiosity. "And neither did your mother"

Billy gives a puzzled look at both his parents as he begins opening the box. As the lid is removed Billy peers inside. His eyes light up with joy and he squeals with delight.

"He didn't forget!" he shouts with happiness "Mom and Dad, he didn't forget!"

His parent's spirits seem to raise, a byproduct of Billy's infectious elation.

"Who, Billy?" asks his dad with a chuckle. "Who didn't forget you?"

"Reno Rogers!" exclaims Billy with unbridled happiness.

Simultaneously, Mom and Dad's jubilation exits and is replaced by disenchantment.

"It's the pocketknife he promised me! Look!" he says as he removes the blade from the box.

"Let me see that" says dad with a skeptic's eye. Billy hands him the pocketknife and Tom inspects it.

"I knew he wouldn't forget I just knew it!" shouts Billy.

"Well it's just an average looking pocketknife" he says looking up into Evelyn's concerned gaze.

"Look at the blade Dad!" instructs Billy happily.

His father gladly obliges and opens the blade from its handle.

"Read what it says" adds Billy.

Tom Flynn reads the inscription silently to himself then looks up at Evelyn's waiting eyes, his mouth agape in disbelief.

"What does it say?" she asks impatiently. "Tom... what does it say?"

Tom blinks as if trying to digest what he is about to relay.

"It has a name engraved on the blade" he says in disbelief.

"A name?" she asks with edginess. "Who's name?"

There is a pause in Tom's reply. His voice trembles as if he doesn't believe the words even as they leave his lips.

"Reno Rogers"

"But... how?" asks Evelyn.

"I don't know, Eve" he replies almost hypnotically. "I just read about him in the newspaper"

"Really?" says Billy with a big grin. He quickly runs to the kitchen table and retrieves the newspaper.

"What's it say about him?" asks Billy.

"Nothing, Billy", his father says never seeing the newspaper in Billy's hand. "Go ahead to your room now"

His dad hands him the pocketknife and Billy retreats to his bedroom. Tom and Evelyn share startled glances.

"There's no way it could be him, Evelyn" says Tom "He was hung last a month ago!"

The words hang in the air leaving both to ponder the mystery.

O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O

That night in his room Billy looks over his Christmas gifts displayed on his floor before falling onto his bed with the pocketknife. He pulls up a folded newspaper. He'd read it over and over again throughout the afternoon and now begins reading it again, this time aloud;

"At the moment of his execution Rogers professed his apologies to those whose lives had been tragically ruined by his actions. His last wish was equally strange. He wished that what he couldn't do right in this life, he'd do right in the next if given the chance. He waived away the hangman's black hood, preferring to take the noose with his face to be in full view of those in attendance. Moments later he swung out into eternity and it should be duly noted here that he died with a self-satisfied smile."

Billy puts the paper down and stares at the engraved name on the blade of the pocketknife. He doesn't fully understand the events that have transpired over the last few days. He is, afterall, a mere child of eight and such ponderings are beyond his grasp at this tender age. What he does know is that his idol had come to town to help him. That idol was a man named Reno Rogers and with his help Billy not only got rid of a bully but he gained a friend with whom he would share many future adventures with. That, he reckons, is the best gift he could have ever gotten this Christmas.

"Thanks Reno" he whispers to the evening sky.

Billy sits on the edge of his bed and looks out his window to the heavens. The stars all dance and twinkle in the bright moonlight. He looks for a wishing star but finds none. Then he begins to chuckle. He knows that somewhere out there Reno Rogers is thundering across the plains on a wild horse, laughing and shooting his sixgun into the air with a grin on his face as wide as Texas itself.

And Billy smiles.

O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~[ EPILOGUE ]~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O

Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are...

Those seemingly innocuous lines from a children's nursery rhyme have far more celestial questions than answers. Yet during this special time of the year it seems mankind is amazingly more receptive to the existence of divine intervention than perhaps any other dates on the calendar. Whatever greater power one might believe in at this holiest of seasons, they are all of one accord in their primary message:

"Peace on earth, good will to man."

It is a message we would all do well to heed whether that lecture is delivered by man of the faith or a man of the gun, its ideology remains true: treat others as you would be treated yourself.

For young Billy Flynn, that message came at a most opportune time. It is one that he will no doubt pass onto his children and grandchildren with a reverence and a respect if not a total understanding for the circumstance.

Perhaps there are some moral imperatives that even the veil of death dares not impede.

It's quite possible that we mortals are not meant to understand the full nature of the relationship between the heavens and the earth yet. Maybe one day those twinkling little stars will no longer cling to mystery as their province.

For now, life will go on with a tender hope and a fervent wish for a Merry Christmas to all... from Crossroads.

O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O