Morgan was out the classroom door as soon as the bell rang the following afternoon. It was Friday and he didn’t have a scrap of homework to do. A sense of unbounded liberty swelled his head and sharpened all his senses as he burst out of the English Hall and into the open air. The entire weekend lay ahead of him—three nights and two whole days to spend with his father’s books. He couldn’t wait to get started.
He ran all the way to the bike racks. As he knelt, all out of breath, and began dialing the combination on his bike lock, he couldn’t help but notice a group of five boys throwing a football around on the other side of the fence. By the time he was yanking his bike free of the rack, the boys had dropped their ball and were sauntering slowly towards him through the gate. The expressions on their faces weren’t encouraging. Morgan didn’t get the impression that this was meant to be a friendly visit. They surrounded him before he had a chance to swing into the saddle and push off.
“Look who it is, guys,” said the one who stood directly in his path—a heavy-set, boy with a ragged crew cut and a face as red as a beet. “Mr. Wizard himself!”
“How are the experiments going, Dr. Frankenstein?” chimed in one of his cohorts, a short kid with big ears.
“Yeah, didja come up with a cure for stupidity yet?” added another. “Oh, wait—you’re still dumb!”
They were Baxter Knowles’s cronies. Morgan recognized them at once, even without their leader. Most of them were new to the gang. Baxter, it seemed, had picked up a fresh set of recruits since his return from exile. For some reason, most of his former disciples had declined the opportunity to sign on again.
Morgan licked his lips nervously as he gazed around the circle. A year ago he would have been trembling uncontrollably. He might have trembled still if he were standing nose to nose with Baxter himself. But he was also keenly aware that things were completely different this year. This year he knew what it was like to face giants and confront enchantresses. This year he possessed a sword that could put an army to flight. Besides, Baxter wasn’t there. I can handle this, he thought.
“Sorry,” he said quietly, slipping his arms through the straps of his backpack and straddling the bike. “I don’t have time for this right now.” And with that, he put his feet to the pedals and pushed straight ahead towards the leader.
“Hey!” cried Beet-Face, dodging to one side, “You can’t do that! Get him, guys!”
In a flash the other four converged on Morgan, toppling the bike and knocking him to the ground. In half a minute they had him down in the grass and were stripping him of his backpack and sweatshirt. Big-Ears took up a strategic position on his chest. Another boy held his legs. Still another grabbed him by the throat and raised a fist to pummel him. But then a voice rang out above the fray:
“What do you idiots think you’re doing? Get off him!”
From where he lay, Morgan could see nothing but the look of wide-eyed stupor and confusion on Big-Ears’s broad freckled face. Slowly, the raised fist was dropped. The clenched hand released his throat. Then, one by one, the boys got to their feet and backed away. When he could breathe again, Morgan sat up, rubbed his neck, and shoved a few strands of yellow hair out of his eyes. Then he looked around to see who had intervened on his behalf.
It was Baxter Knowles.
Baxter was standing directly behind Morgan, his handsome cleft chin thrust forward, his arms folded across his chest, his strawberry-blonde hair fluttering lightly around his high, smooth forehead.
“Don’t waste your time on him,” said Baxter, avoiding Morgan’s eyes and addressing his followers in what sounded like a tone of assumed nonchalance. “He’s not worth it. And next time, don’t try anything like this until I say so. Got it?”
Beet-Face stuck his hands into his pockets and kicked at a clump of grass. “Got it, Baxter,” he said, before slouching off after the rest of the gang.
Morgan got up, retrieved his pack, and picked up his bike. Then he walked up to Baxter and looked him straight in the face. He groped for words, but words failed him. He didn’t know what to think, much less what to say. So he just stood there.
As for Baxter, he went red to the ears and averted his eyes. He rubbed his nose and mumbled something Morgan couldn’t make out. Then, just as it had happened a few days earlier, he turned on his heel and shuffled off.
Morgan stared after him until he disappeared behind the gymnasium wall.
(To be continued …)