Synopsis: Doing the right thing is never easy, and it’s even harder when Little Joe’s brain comes up with a plan.
Word Count: 3,680
After school one sweltering September Thursday, Ethel Armstrong beat up Little Joe Cartwright.
It was the hottest summer for years and Little Joe was standing outside the one-room school house, talking to some boys, about ready to head for home. Ethel, six months younger and two inches taller than ten-year-old Joe, came up from behind, grabbed him by the shoulder, turned him around and slugged him in the jaw. She kicked and smacked and cuffed while Joe only ducked and sheltered behind his arms.
“Hit her, Joe!”
Ethel pushed him down and sat astraddle him getting in some easy punches before Ruth Cranborne, who was 15 and the youngest Sunday school teacher in town, dragged her away. “Ethel, you stop that! You don’t want to have anything to do with those silly boys.”
Little Joe sat up slowly and spat grit from his mouth. He felt terrible: his new school clothes dirty and spoiled, his lip bleeding just a bit. And his head hurt. Oh, did it hurt. His drew his knees up to his chest and put his head in his hands. All the boys were staring.
“Why didn’t you hit her?”
“You didn’t even try!”
“Too yella to fight,” said Grady Campbell.
“I ain’t!” protested Little Joe.
Grady let out a sneer and the other boys smirked. Even Mitch Devlin, Joe’s good friend, looked doubtful.
“Little Joe’s yella.”
“Little Joe’s ascared!”
He tried to explain. “Gentlemen never hit girls.”
No one listened.
Little Joe had been sitting on the porch waiting for his Papa, for how long, he didn’t know. He was still wearing those grimy clothes and his head still hurt. When Pa and Adam finally rode up, he stood, arms stiff and hands clasped before him.
“What happened to you?” Pa asked as he dismounted.
“Well… I …” Little Joe took a deep breathe. “Well, Ethel Armstrong, she… starting hittin’ me and knocked me…”
Adam’s laughter was abrupt. “You got beat up by a girl!”
Little Joe stared before slowly walking over and positioning himself in front of his 22-year-old brother. Little Joe surprised Adam: looking him straight in the eyes, he lifted his left foot back and kicked Adam’s shin with all his strength.
“Ahhhhhhhhh!” Adam’s scream wasn’t loud. Considering.
“JOSEPH!” Pa marched over and spun Little Joe around. “What on earth…”
He felt tears in his eyes and wiped his face with a filthy sleeve. “Oh, Papa, I …feel so bad…”
Pa knelt down and held Joe while he sobbed. A couple of minutes later, as Pa lead him into the house, Joe glanced back to see Adam hopping around the yard on one foot, holding his shin.
That’ll show him.
“I’m proud of you, son, not hitting a girl,” Pa said.
Little Joe had washed and put on a shirt so fresh it smelt of sunshine. He and Pa were now in the dinning room, Little Joe eating sugar cookies and drinking Chinese tea, prepared especially “for boy’s head” by Hop Sing, their cook: it was sweet and hot and made you feel good.
Little Joe sighed. “I didn’t hit her on accounta you said girls are the weaker sex. If they’re so weak, why does it hurt just as much when they hit?”
“Well, girls don’t usually hit. Ethel’s … different.” They were quiet for a moment, then Pa asked, “Why do you think she hit you?”
“Don’t know… Well, may be ‘causa them spit balls. There were … lots.”
“Where was Miss Tomlinson while this was happening?”
Joe tried to think. “Don’t know.”
Pa raised his eye brows, but said, “I don’t understand. Ethel used to be your friend.”
That was true – Little Joe and Ethel used to play pirates but now he was almost 11 and didn’t play with girls. “Grady dared me.”
“I thought you were going to stay away from Grady after what he did to the Gunter twins.”
Joe kept his eyes down and wished he were somewhere else.
“Can’t you see why Ethel was angry with you?”
“It was just teasin’. All the kids tease Ethel.”
“Joseph, what you’re doing isn’t friendly teasing. It’s bullying and you stop it. Only cowards bully people.”
Joe put his hand out for the comforting teacup, but it was empty and cold. “’kay, Papa.”
“And tomorrow you tell her you’re sorry about the spit balls.”
“Ah, Pa! What’ll the others kids think, me sayin’ sorry to Eth …”
Pa pulled back and gave Joseph that look he used before yelling, “You could tell them you’re saying ‘sorry’ because it is the right thing to do and you don’t care what they think.”
Little Joe studied the white tablecloth.
“Perhaps you’d prefer me to think you are too cowardly to say ‘sorry’ when you’re wrong?”
“I’m not ascared!”
“Good. When I ask you tomorrow night if you apologized to Ethel, you’ll say ‘yes’.”
Little Joe was thinking this through when Pa reached over and pulled him close. “One more thing, son. You need to go find Adam and tell him you’re sorry you kicked him.”
“Why can’t he say he’s sorry to me? He started it.”
“He probably will, but you’ll capture the moral high ground if you say ‘sorry’ first.”
“Capture!” Little Joe pictured himself, like Robin Hood, leading an attack on some high ground and capturing a castle with a moat and flags and probably some knights with armor and swords and stuff.
Pa smiled. “The moral high ground is a place in your mind. Everyone’s mind. It means you’ll look the better person – the bigger person – for saying sorry first.”
How could Pa be so dumb? Little Joe would never look as big as Adam.
Adam was limping. A lot. This was when Little Joe found him down by the corral. “Sorry I kicked ya’,” Little Joe muttered, eyes down, digging his left toe into the dry earth.
“I’m sorry I laughed, little buddy. Big brothers should be kinder. You couldn’t hit a girl, could you?”
“You did the right thing, although taking a beating from a girl isn’t easy.”
“Grady and them kids said I was yella. If it’d been a boy, I’d have clobbered him.” Little Joe put up two fists as evidence.
“So you’re not a coward. You’ve nothing to be ashamed of.”
Little Joe explained his problem: “Pa says I gotta ‘pologise to Ethel ‘cause I shot her with ‘bout a million spit balls.”
“Well, you’re brave enough to fight. The question is, are you brave enough to say ‘sorry’?”
He was lying on his sheet, the summer quilt thrown to the floor. It was 6 am and already too hot to think straight. Problems swam his head around fish to bait. How could he say ‘sorry’ to Ethel? What if someone heard? Maybe he was yellow, like the kids said? He felt ill.
“Papa, my tummy hurts. Lots.” This was later, in the dinning room, Little Joe, trying to look pale and sickly.
Pa smiled. “You’ll feel better once you’re at school.”
“No, I won’t, Papa. I just know I won’t.”
“Joseph, you’re going to school.”
“Ever had to say ‘sorry’ when ya didn’t want to?” Little Joe asked Mitch after he’d explained what Pa had told him to do. It was right before school and they were leaning against the school fence, Mitch eating a large red apple.
“Sure, to my sister ‘bout every week. I don’t care. Costs nothing. Anyway, I like it when people say ‘sorry’ to me.” They were best friends: Mitch, a tall, slightly built boy with dark, curly hair, needing a hair cut and Joe, a short, slightly built boy, with dark, curly hair needing a hair cut. One big difference: Mitch never got into fights; he just laughed when people called him names.
Joe sighed. Until yesterday he considered this saying ‘sorry’ first stuff baloney, but Pa was right. Saying sorry first made you look generous, like when you shared your candy. Cowards couldn’t do it because they might look small. That moral high ground stuff was about being brave, but not with fists.
Little Joe knew he wasn’t a coward. He planned to be a mountain lion tamer some day and you had to be brave to do that, didn’t you? He’d say ‘sorry’ to Ethel. Later. Maybe at recess. Or lunchtime. School hadn’t even started yet. Plenty of time.
He changed the subject. “Pa said today would be the hottest day of the year.”
Mitch changed it back again. “Don’t let Grady hear you say ‘sorry’.”
The school bell rang and they joined the lines. Boys on one side, girls on the others; little kids first; big kids last. Little Joe looked over and there was Ethel, not three feet away. He glanced around and couldn’t see Grady, so took a step closer. When he tried to speak his mouth went dry. He swallowed hard, prepared again to speak…
That’s when he was shoved hard from behind. “Outa the way, Cartwright!” It was Grady.
Where’d he come from?
Grady reached out a dirty hand and yanked one of Ethel’s long braids. “Ugly Ethel!” he taunted.
“Ow!” cried Ethel, jerking away.
Little Joe reckoned he couldn’t stand another day of Grady and would like to beat him up good. Two problems. One, Pa didn’t like him fighting. More importantly, Grady was 13 and the size and density of a five foot mahogany coffin.
Future mountain lion tamer or not, Little Joe couldn’t defeat Grady by himself.
Miss Tomlinson was on the warpath. This happened a couple of times a year and was terrifying. She walked up and down the rows slowly, arms folded, speaking in a sweet Georgia accent:
“Boys were witnessed smoking during recess yesterday.
“A school window was deliberately smashed with a rock last night.
“Children were seen fighting in the schoolyard yesterday.
“What will good citizens think of me as a school teacher if boys continued to behave like that?”
Little Joe knew nothing about the broken window or the smoking and far too much about the fighting. He undid the top button of his shirt, hoping to get cooler.
“Those boys will be punished. Severely.” Miss Tomlinson’s hair was so pulled back so tight, Joe wondered if she was in pain. She was skinny, like a string bean, and Mitch said she was old, maybe, 27. A strained smile was commonly plastered across her face, except when she was angry, like now. On these occasions she resembled a starving bird of prey.
“Either I know who the boys are by 3pm or the whole class will stay after school. And the whole class will stay after school on Monday if I don’t know by then. And Tuesday.”
Ethel raised her hand. “How do you know it was boys?”
This jolted Little Joe. No one else in the class would ask that question. Only Ethel was brave enough. The boys and one or two girls called her ugly, but she wasn’t really. She had yellow braids and bright blue eyes and freckles across her nose. Her pinafore was often dirty because she played boys’ games and she always said what was on her mind. Some people didn’t like her being that way and were mean to her.
“It is unnatural for females to be involved in serious criminal activity,” explained Miss Tomlinson.
Little Joe was wondering if that made any sense when a 12 year old confessed to breaking the window and Miss Tomlinson cheered up noticeably. He considered telling Miss Tomlinson about yesterday’s fight, but she’d want to know who was involved and he wouldn’t tattle on Ethel. He’d have to think what to do.
He’d watched Ethel for most of the lunch hour. He and Mitch on one side of the school yard, sitting on a log, and her over there, near the well, with the girls. Today the little kids splashed water from buckets at each other and shrieked with joy, but the older children just sat around – too hot for skipping rope or playing ball games or tag.
Little Joe still hadn’t apologized to Ethel. Maybe it was the heat or maybe he was scared? He couldn’t tell Pa he was a coward; he’d have to do it. Now. He’d just stand up and …
That’s when he saw Ethel walking towards them. “Mitch, Ethel’s comin’.”
“Good. You can say sorry to her, no one’s ‘round. ”
The closer she came, the more Little Joe shrank back.
“Hey,” announced Ethel, arms folded across her chest, looking down at them.
“Joe’s got somethin’ to tell you.” Mitch gently shoved Joe forward.
“Hey, Ethel,” Joe began, trying to smile. “…Ethel… I been meaning to tell you…um…”
Ethel interrupted, looking at Mitch, “Does he have something to say?”
“Oh, Ethel,” Little Joe tried again. “It’s just …um, well… Ethel, your dress is right pretty.” Adam said ladies liked being complimented on their clothes.
Mitch smacked his open palm across his forehead.
Ethel spoke to Mitch. “Doesn’t Little Joe know they call me ugly?”
Pa was right, Ethel was different.
She asked, “Is Little Joe going to tell Miss Tomlinson he was fighting?”
Why doesn’t she talk to me? “I didn’t fight,” Little Joe pointed out.
Ethel, still looking at Mitch, said, “But Miss Tomlinson’s after Little Joe. She doesn’t want a girl.”
Little Joe agreed. “Thinkin’ a girl can’t fight – that’s plum foolish.”
“That’s Miss Tomlinson!” said Mitch and Ethel said in unison.
Still ignoring Joe, Ethel said, “She’s not likely to believe me even if I tell her, but if she does, it’ll be like that time when she finally worked out Eliza stole that quarter…”
Mitch shook his head slowly. “What she done to poor Eliza.”
That quieted all of them.
Ethel joined them on the log and they sat there silently. Ethel and Mitch thinking of what to do next; Little Joe thinking why couldn’t he apologize to Ethel. He wanted to be her friend again; he wanted Pa to know he was brave. Now he knew about it, he wanted the moral high ground as well. All he had to say was ‘sorry’, but it was hard.
Finally Ethel spoke. “I got a plan.”
Wow! A plan! Ethel’s ideas were so exciting.
“Involves Grady. To get back at him for hitting kids and stealing marbles and calling people names. Thing is, it isn’t exactly fair.”
“Neither’s Grady,” Mitch said. “What’s the plan?”
Not long afterwards Little Joe was sitting at his desk copying out the names of major rivers in New England, but he couldn’t get his mind off of Ethel’s plan. It seemed pretty good. If it worked Grady Campbell wouldn’t mess with Ethel or Joe or Mitch or their friends again. But if it didn’t … well yesterday’s beating from Ethel would seem like a Methodist tea party.
He sighed and looked again at the list of rivers. “Charles” was a dumb name for a river. If they wanted to name it a boy’s name, why didn’t they name it after a hero? Why not Little Joe’s number one favorite, James Bowie, who invented the knife and died at the Alamo? Yeah, that should be the name of the river that flows through Boston: The Jim.
“Silence! It is four minutes to 3 o’clock.” Miss Tomlinson was prancing around. A half hour earlier three 14 year olds admitted smoking and Little Joe thought Miss Tomlinson might die with delight, she looked so happy. They’d be keeping her company after school for a month.
“Class, who was fighting?”
Ruth Cranborne gave Little Joe a dirty look; he looked away.
The room was stuffy and still. The large windows were open wide, but there was no breeze. Little Joe combed a hand through his sweaty hair. He looked over at Ethel, her hands bunched into fists so tightly they looked like they were going to crack. He crossed his fingers, hoping Ethel’s plan would work, that Grady wouldn’t make mash potatoes of him, that he’d get the courage to say sorry, to make Pa proud and win Ethel back as a friend.
“I am asking for a final time. Do you all want to stay after school?”
The Gunter twins, dressed identically in blue plaid shirts and red suspenders, turned together and stared at him.
A first grader sniffled loudly.
To his far left he saw a hand go up and realized it was Grady’s. This wasn’t the plan.
“Ma’am,” Grady began. “I saw a fight yesterday…”
Ethel interrupted, standing, “Miss Tomlinson, I was fighting…”
Should he let Ethel confess to crazy Miss Tomlinson? Would someone brave enough to tame mountain lions allow that? Little Joe leaped up. “NO! It was my fault! I shot her with a ‘normous load of spit balls…” Joe turned to Ethel, clasped his hands close to his chest and blurted, “I’m real sorry about them spit balls. That wasn’t nice. I ‘pologise. I do.”
Ethel ignored him. “Miss Tomlinson, I beat up Little Joe yesterday because the doddlehead annoyed me to distraction.”
Miss Tomlinson looked baffled. “Ethel, how could you beat up a boy?”
“You sock them in the jaw,” Ethel said. “What do you think?”
“You couldn’t have!” Miss Tomlinson said.
Little Joe tried to explain. “Ma’am, Ethel didn’t wanna beat me up. I made her, causa bein’ a gentleman…”
Ethel turned on Joe: “Gentleman?!? You think saying ‘sorry’ is some big deal, that it’ll win you …”
“…The moral high ground?” Joe supplied with a helpful smile.
“STOP THIS!” Miss Tomlinson shouted. “There will be no more wasting of time talking about morals in my class room.”
Mitch slapped his forehead again.
“Ethel, you are the best speller in the class and I don’t believe for a moment you were fighting.”
Ethel sighed. “Well, Little Joe got beat up yesterday.”
Little Joe relaxed a bit – this was the plan.
Miss Tomlinson’s hawk face targeted Little Joe. “Joseph, were you beaten up? Who did you fight, or, rather, who didn’t you fight?”
Little Joe said the words slowly, the way Ethel told him, “I did not fight Grady.”
“GRADY CAMPBELL!” Miss Tomlinson’s strong southern drawl rang across the room.
“They’re lying!” Grady said.
Suddenly Mitch stood and repeated his lines as a ham actor in a melodrama: “I saw it with my own eyes. T’was gruesome. Little Joe got all beat up and never lifted a hand to Grady. Honest. Yesterday, ‘bout twelve minutes past three.”
“NO!” shouted a frantic Grady, his eyes darted around the room searching for allies.
“Ask Ruth. She’ll tell you! Ask her, ma’am!”
Everyone looked at Ruth, the Sunday school teacher, whose starched, pastel dresses were always spotless and who never lied.
Oh, no! This is terrible. Ruth’ll tell the truth and I’ll end up with about six broken arms. Little Joe put his head in his hands.
Ruth said nothing for the longest time and then spoke quietly, “Well, Miss Tomlinson, Grady is sometimes … difficult to like. I want to like him, but it’s real hard…”
Why did I listen to Ethel and her big ideas?
“Ruth, did Little Joe fight Grady?” Miss Tomlinson said impatiently.
Maybe if I ran out now Grady wouldn’t catch me and I could stay in my bedroom until I’m all grown up?
Ruth spoke slowly, “…the only way I can explain it and…be fair, is to say…”
Little Joe was about to throw up.
Ruth closed her eyes before saying, “…Well, I never saw Little Joe hit Grady.”
“NO!” Grady said. “That’s not…”
“Silence!” said Miss Tomlinson, rubbing her hands with satisfaction. “Grady will remain with the other … degenerates. Class dismissed.”
A while later, Little Joe was out in the sun, a large grin of his face. It was cooler now, like a glorious late summer’s afternoon. He felt ten feet tall – he could tell Pa he’d apologized to Ethel in front of the whole school. Together they’d got Grady and Ethel would be his friend again. He wasn’t a coward.
“Hey, Ethel!” said Little Joe as she walked up. “Your plan turned out just noble…”
Too late, he noticed her right fist traveling with the speed of a mustang towards his eye. She possessed a more experienced aim and delivery than the day before and a single punch knocked Little Joe flat.
Little Joe looked up from the ground. “Aw, Ethel, can’t we be friends?”
Ethel stood above him, rubbing her reddened knuckles.
“Please, Ethel. I said I was sorry. We could play pirates.”
She was quiet for a moment and then said, “Well, can I be chief pirate? I’m tired of being the girl who gets kidnapped.”
“Sure! I’ll be second chief pirate and Mitch can be the girl who gets kidnapped.”
“Okay.” Ethel reached down and helped him to his feet. “Sorry I beat you up, Little Joe. I thought you were real brave, getting beat up, then saying sorry.”
“Oh, that? It was nothing. I gotta be brave. I’m gonna a rancher some day.”
“I thought you were going to be a mountain lion tamer.”
“Aw, Ethel, that was back when I was a little kid.”
Once home Little Joe went up to Pa’s bedroom and peered into the large mirror hanging over the old oak dressing table. His eye was puffed out now and sporting startling shades of blues, purples, yellows and blacks. It ached something awful, but he didn’t care. He’d been smiling since three o’clock.
But Pa was confused when he saw Little Joe. He brushed Joe’s unruly hair away from the swollen eye and, shaking his head, asked slowly, “Didn’t Ethel accept your apology?”
“’course she did. ‘ventually. Pa, you know that moral high ground? Tricky place to get to, ain’t it?”
This story is dedicated to anyone who has ever had to put up with a Grady, a Campbell or a Tomlinson. Also, to anyone traveling through life with the name of Ethel.