Speak of the Tiger
by Martha Deeringer
Justin MacArthur hopes to impress his ninth grade classmates with his outdoor skills on a long-anticipated school field trip to the famous YO Ranch in south Texas. Reserved and self-conscious at school, Justin’s expert horsemanship and knowledge of the outdoors—skills he learned from his father, a Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden—provide an opportunity to improve his status as a fringe member of the cool group. But a secretive Korean boy with a chip on his shoulder and a terrifying thunderstorm during a trail ride undermine Justin’s well-laid plans and change his life in ways he never imagined.
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|Middle Grade / Teens|
Justin glanced out the window of the bus and saw black smoke rolling along the side. He leaned over for a better look, and he could see that the smoke streamed out from beneath the front wheels. At about the same moment, the grinding noise the engine made as it climbed the hill got louder. He glanced at the driver, Coach Cox, who had his foot pressed to the floor and was leaning forward in his seat as if urging an undersized horse to climb a steep hill.
“We’re smokin’,” Justin yelled to Coach Cox.
The bus continued to climb, and the black smoke thickened. The surly boy in the seat next to Justin looked out the window, mumbled “Jeez,” and turned away in disgust.
“Mrs. Farr,” Justin said, leaning over the seat and touching his teacher on the shoulder. “The bus is smokin’.” He pointed at the black smoke blowing past the window.
“Oh, my gosh,” Mrs. Farr said.
Grabbing the handrail on the end of the seat, she stood up and leaned over Coach Cox’s shoulder. “What’s wrong with the bus, Jimmy?” she asked.
By now the smoke was boiling up from under the hood. Coach Cox was looking anxiously at the gauges and steering for the shoulder of the road. Cars passing in the fast lane honked their horns as he guided the bus onto the grass. Justin looked ahead at the other two buses from his school. As he watched, they disappeared around a distant curve, oblivious to the fact that his bus was now stranded on the side of the road.
“What a bunch of idiots,” the boy in the next seat muttered under his breath.
Justin sighed with irritation. If the guy sitting next to him hadn’t cheated on the bus sign-ups, Justin would be sitting with his friends. So far, it had been a miserable trip, and things were looking worse all the time.
“Sign up for any bus you want,” Mrs. Farr had told her classes. “But you may only sign your own name. If you want to sit with your friends, get them to come with you to sign up. No erasing names so you can get a seat on the same bus as your friends. If I find that someone hasn’t followed these simple rules, I’ll assign the seats.”
The trip had gone perfectly until the kid sitting next to Justin erased the name at the top of the list on Bus Three and wrote in his own. A moron could tell he had done it. Now they all had assigned seats. And Justin had been unlucky enough to get assigned to sit next to the creep. Even though the boy was in his history class, Justin didn’t know his name.
Outdoor adventures like this ninth-grade field trip to the YO Ranch were Justin’s thing. When he wasn’t doing homework or chores, he was outside hiking, riding one of the horses, or fishing in the creek behind his house. Justin hoped that on the trip some of the other kids in his class would notice he was a cool and competent outdoorsman. When he looked into the mirror during private moments, he was proud of the fact that, like his dad, he had the tall, lanky body of a sportsman. But in spite of that, he had never quite broken in to the “cool” group, a circumstance he blamed on living in the country where he wasn’t always available to hang out at the mall or go to the movies.
Coach Cox killed the engine and opened the door.
“Stay in your seats,” he ordered as he hopped down and raised the hood. Clouds of acrid, black smoke billowed out, and the reek of burning oil and rubber filtered down the aisle of the bus. Coach Cox bounded up the steps in seconds and wrenched the fire extinguisher loose from its moorings. Smoke swirled in through the open door.
A hush settled over the kids as they waited to see what would happen. Coach Cox sprayed the fire extinguisher under the hood, and the smoke turned from black to white.
“Fire!” someone yelled halfheartedly.
Eighteen-wheelers roared by inches from the side of the bus, and soon some of the kids were sticking their arms out the windows and pumping wildly in hopes of getting the truck drivers to blow their air horns. Mrs. Farr got out and peered under the hood, keeping one eye on the speeding traffic as it zoomed by. She did not look optimistic.
“Get your appendages inside the bus!” Coach Cox yelled. He and Mrs. Farr climbed back up the steps, and the kids pulled their arms in and watched them expectantly.
“A little oil fire is all,” Coach Cox said. “Hose ruptured. Nothing to worry about. We’re still about an hour from the YO Ranch. With any luck, the other buses will notice we’re not behind them soon and come back to check on us. Then, I guess we’ll have to squeeze everybody on the other buses. This one sure won’t be going anywhere for a while.”
“So far, all the luck around here has been bad luck,” Justin muttered to himself.
“What if they don’t come back?” Charlotte asked anxiously. “It’s going to get dark soon.” The whiney tone of her voice grated on Justin’s ears. Charlotte was just as ditsy as that long-dead writer she kept telling everybody she was named after.
“Then I guess we’ll get to practice our camping skills in the ditch beside the Interstate,” Coach Cox said. “Now, listen up. You can stay right here in your seat, or get off the bus and stand way over there by the fence on the other side of the ditch. Mrs. Farr and I are going to try to contact the other buses on the radio. Anyone who misbehaves is going to run the rest of the way to the YO Ranch.”
“I need to go to the bathroom,” Charlotte said, but her plea was drowned out by the scramble for the bus door. After five hours of riding, everyone was sick of sitting still, and the smell of smoke was pretty strong in spite of the open windows.
Justin stood up and waited for a break in the stampede.
“You coming?” he asked the boy in the seat next to him.
“No,” the kid snapped, moving his knees slightly so Justin could squeeze past him. He kept his eyes fixed on the front window of the bus.
Half an hour passed before the other buses returned, passing them on the opposite side of the Interstate. They disappeared in the other direction before they found an exit ramp that led them under the highway so they could turn back. Coach Cox got his guitar from the compartment under the bus and sat on the steps strumming songs that no one knew well enough to sing. The setting sun painted pink and orange streaks across the horizon by the time they loaded their backpacks and bedrolls onto the other buses. Most of the kids from Justin’s bus had to sit on the floor in the aisle. The last person to get on was the boy who sat next to Justin. He threw his backpack on the floor as far from the other kids as possible and sat on it. L. Boyd was lettered in black marker on the backpack.
“What’s the L for?” Justin asked.
“Loser,” the boy said, turning away to put an end to further conversation.