Synopsis: A lesson in growing up.
Word Count: 3,130
1854 Ponderosa Ranch, Nevada
Fear, that’s what it was: that low, churning feeling seizing Little Joe’s stomach every so often. He was doing all he could to control the situation and things were going far better than expected, but the feeling kept coming back.
He had returned from town yesterday, Saturday afternoon, the first day of Easter vacation and spent hours doing chores. He even considered getting a hair cut and polishing Pa’s boots, but rejected those steps as too obvious. He spent two hours alone chopping wood and dragging sufficient firewood to every wood box in the house, so no one could complain. Only last week he had held an insurrection and just hadn’t done the firewood. When Pa caught up with him, Joe argued passionately that these chores were too mundane for a 12 year old. That earned him a swat across the back of the head and a seemingly endless lecture on maturity and responsibilities. Joe still wasn’t entirely sure what being mature meant but he was in no doubt of his responsibilities. This weekend there would be no complaints about wood or chores or anything else. All evening Joe was quiet and good humored. He ate all his supper although he wasn’t hungry; he laughed at Pa’s and Adam’s “amusing” anecdotes although they weren’t funny. He took a bath before anyone asked and went to bed at the first suggestion.
More challenging for Joe, but equally necessary, was rising early on Sunday and getting washed and properly dressed for church without nagging. This was so unusual that Pa asked if he was feeling okay. During the service he sat next to Pa quietly, listening, not fidgeting.
After church each Sunday Pa liked to walk – not ride – around the ranch checking fencing and cattle. He would stroll several miles in this direction or that just breathing in the air and taking in the view. All three sons thought this pursuit as tedious as it was fruitless and declined weekly invitations to join him. This Sunday, of course, Joe volunteered and walked and listened as his father chatted away about the price of cattle, where to buy the best horses and local politics. In spite of himself, Joe rather enjoyed the walk and being close to his father. He might have enjoyed it more if he wasn’t so scared.
Joe was tired by the time they got back home about a half hour before dinner but he had to keep alert for the critical period coming shortly. They were in the big room: Pa in his favorite red leather chair, Hoss, the middle brother, sitting on the sofa, trying to write a letter to an old friend. The room had that Sunday feel about it: everyone in their nice clothes, relaxed, the smell of roasting meat drifting in from the kitchen.
“Papa, do you want a drink?” Joe’s dimples showed when he smiled. Occasionally Pa had a drink on Sundays before dinner; not every Sunday. Hoss glanced up with an expression that said: what are you up to? Joe looked the other way.
“Oh, thank you, Joseph. Do you mind getting me one?”
“My pleasure.” He first heard this phrase the other week when Adam, his oldest brother, used it to his sweetheart, Martha Kendall. Joe thought it sounded gentlemanly and had been looking for a chance to use it ever since.
He had little experience with whisky, but poured what he thought was a big portion. Apparently it was because Pa laughed when he saw it and said, “Thanks…this is a bit large, Joseph. Next time, probably a third as much will do.”
“Oh, sorry” replied Joe as casually as possible, brushing his curly hair away from his green eyes.
Twenty-five minutes later that feeling deep in Joe’s stomach kicked in again when he heard Adam’s horse outside. Adam was a dozen years older than Little Joe; he was tall and confident and, like their father, filled a room by just walking into it. So he could be frightening as well. Adam had gone to Martha’s church that morning to hear her father, the Methodist minister, preach. Joe liked her: she was kind and practical and smelled of violets; it was her little brother that was the problem. Just as Joe expected, Adam burst into the room like a tornado, and marched purposefully over to Pa.
“Good afternoon, Adam,” said Pa, friendly, smiling looking up at his oldest son, drink in hand.
Adam pointed to Joe, who was sitting sideways in an easy chair, bare feet dangling over the arm, trying to look sweet. “Has that boy told you what he did?”
“Have you done something, Joseph?” said Pa, taking a sip of his drink.
All eyes on Little Joe now and that feeling again down deep in his stomach. He swung his legs over, sat up straight and smiled, “Ah, Pa, I expect what Adam is talking about is just a little thing that happened yesterday. Not worth mentioning, really. You know the Kendall’s have a pig named Precious?”
He paused as though his father might wish to reply, but when none was forthcoming, he continued, “Well, me and Wesley Kendall…we decided to take Precious on a walk yesterday, so we walked up Elm Street and then down Main and then…”
“Get to the point!” snapped Adam.
“I am! Well, then we wanted to go into Kruger’s and you can’t take a pig into a candy store, can you? So we were going to tie him up outside the Methodist Church but it was raining so we put him in the vestibule, you know. Well, then when we got back…and…well, it just sort of happened that Precious got into the church…some how…”
“No!” shouted Adam, “the pig was intentionally let into the church!”
“It’s your fault!” the boy jumped up and spat the words at Adam. “You told me to spend time with Wesley…”
“I didn’t tell you to put a pig in a church. Now Martha’s angry because Wesley’s in trouble…”
“Joseph, sit down!” Pa barked. Joe sat and tried to look sad and innocent. Pa, drink in hand, leaned forward towards him, and slowly asked “Did you let a pig loose in the Methodist church?”
“No, sir.” Joe stared right back at his father.
“Pa, he’s lying!” Adam barked.
“I ain’t!” Joe managed to remain seated.
Pa turned to Adam, “He isn’t lying. You can tell when Joseph’s lying because he won’t look you in the eye, he keeps his hands in his pocket and he coughs.”
“That’s true!” agreed Joe. Then he realized his mistake: Why can’t I learn to keep my mouth shut?
Pa continued the inquisition: “Were you there when the pig got into the church?”
“Well, yes, sir, but that…”
“Did the pig do any damage?”
“Did you clear up afterwards?”
“Yes, Pa, but there wasn’t much.”
“Pa, he put a pig in a church!” Adam was insistent.
Joe was about the object when, Hop Sing, the Chinese cook, came in and announced “Dinner leady!”
“No!” said Adam, “not until we have this thing straight.” Hop Sing shook his head with disapproval and disappeared back into the kitchen.
Pa took another swallow of the whisky and said, “Adam, it’s Sunday, I’m hungry and I have had a hard week. No harm has been done…”
“That’s not what Reverend Kendall thinks. He’s outraged…”
“Adam, I have a lot of time for John Kendall, but he really doesn’t have much of a sense of humor…”
“Why should he have a sense of humor about a thing like this? He gave Wesley a damn…a darn good trashing …”
Good, thought Joe. I hope it hurt. A lot.
“…that’s just what Joe …”
Pa shook his head. “Adam, you know I have always thought John Kendall a little too strict…”
This caught the attention of all three of them. There must have been stricter fathers than Pa somewhere on earth but none of them had ever heard of one. In fact Martha and Wesley had refused to visit the ranch for years after Pa had yelled at all the kids particularly loudly when Joe was about five years old.
“It’s not over strict to expect a twelve-year-old to respect church property!” Adam argued. He shook his head in disbelieve, “Pa, can’t you see Joe’s got you wrapped around his little finger? Why do you think he did all his chores last night? Why do you think the wood is stacked so neatly?” He pointed at the overflowing wood box.
“Ah, Adam,” butted in Joe, “Pa explained to me all about responsibility last week, so I thought I should make sure there was enough wood this weekend.”
Pa said, “I think your little brother is becoming more mature…”
Adam snorted, “I’ll bet he even went out walking with you this morning, didn’t he, Pa?”
“Well, yes, but…” Pa now seemed to be wavering.
“I just felt like having a walk with my Pa. I haven’t seen him all week,” Joe said. He pulled his hands from his pockets as soon as he noticed and suppressed the cough by clearing his throat.
Hop Sing appeared again saying “Dinner leady! Now you come?”
Adam was still standing over Pa, now pulling at his hair in an angry, detached manner. Pa took another sip of his drink and Joe noticed that his eyes had a strange, glazed look. “Joseph, will you promise me you’ll never take another walk with a pig.”
“I promise, Father. Never.” Joe used his most angelic smile.
“See!” said Adam practically jumping. “He only calls you “father” when he wants to butter you up.”
“No!” the other three shouted back in unison. For the first time Adam looked unsure of himself.
Hoss said, “Little Joe says ‘papa’ to butter up Pa.”
“That’s right,” said Pa firmly, “’Papa’.”
“Yeah!” added Joe. Shucks! Another time when I should have kept my mouth shut.
Adam stared at them for nearly a minute, then stomped across the floor and slammed the great door as he left. Little Joe’s shoulders dropped with relief.
“I wonder if Adam’s going to eat with us?” Pa mused, sipping more whiskey.
“Search me,” said Joe, standing. “I don’t think he acts very mature sometimes.” It was great to try out a new word.
About 8.30 that night Joe heard Adam’s horse outside again and decided it was time for bed. When he said good night, Pa raised his eyebrows but said nothing. Unusually Pa had spent the afternoon asleep, snoring on the sofa and, when he did get up, the first thing he did was to shout at Hoss and Joe for making too much noise: they were out on the porch playing checkers and not noisy at all, thought Joe. Then Hop Sing gave Pa some special Chinese tea and later Pa felt better and apologized.
Twenty minutes after Joe went up to his room, Pa knocked on his door and came in. He made himself at home, sitting in the straight-backed chair next to the window, smoking his pipe and saying nothing for a couple minutes.
Joe sat crossed-legged on the bed, barefoot, in a faded green nightshirt, hoping this visit had nothing to do with pigs or Methodist churches. He loved his small, cozy room and, despite what he might have said out loud, liked Pa visiting him there. It reminded him of how it was when he was a little boy before Mama died: safe and protected and the world under control.
“Joseph,” Pa finally spoke, taking the pipe out of his mouth. “This pig thing and what Adam said. You weren’t just trying to sweet talk your old man, were you?”
“Oh, no, Pa,” smiled Joe, pushing his floppy curls away from his eyes.
“Because looking at it one way, playing any part of a prank which leads to a pig getting into a church is shameful. Looking at it another way, it’s just youthful exuberance.”
“Oh, it was youthful ‘zuber… what you said.”
“Exuberance. It means liveliness. I chose to believe that was your part in the prank, but now I am wondering have I been out smarted by a 12-year-old boy?”
“Oh, no, sir,” Joe said flatly.
“So you weren’t trying to deceive me?”
“’Course not, Pa.”
“Well, what I am thinking now is that if you have really reformed and become more mature, it will be obvious in a week or two.”
“Oh, yes. For instance, the wood box. If it stays full to overflowing for, say, the next four weeks, then obviously you have become more mature. And, if, for instance, you are pleased to go walking with me for, say, the next four Sundays – I mean in a good humored way, of course – then, I will take that as a sign of maturity. You follow?”
Joe responded slowly, “I think so.”
“Also, I believe if you are really more mature you will be pleased to polish my boots Saturday nights, ready for Sunday morning…”
“Every week?” Joe asked in disbelieve.
“Well, for the next four weeks anyway. Of course, if you haven’t really matured, if you were just pulling the wool over my eyes, I think have every right to be angry and disappointed.”
“I think a son of mine who behaved deceptively to divert attention from a disreputable escapade and is guilty of letting a pig loose in a church faces a month of being restricted to the house and yard, and a good dose of menial chores during that period.”
“Oh,” said Joe, deflated.
“Plus the thrashing.”
Joe swallowed hard and looked away; all he’d done to avoid this.
Pa took a long puff, slow on his pipe and said slowly, “I’m also thinking now that if you have matured, you’ll be pleased to enter a gentleman’s agreement to spend the next week voluntarily confined to the house and yard. Do you follow?”
“No… I mean…sorry…what, Pa?”
“Well, this isn’t a punishment, you understand. You say you didn’t put the pig in a church and you haven’t deceived me. So there is nothing to punish. But as a favor to me, out of respect, as a sign of your maturity, I thought you’d probably like to stay confined to the house and yard. Got it?”
Joe thought for a moment and then guessed, “I don’t really have a choice, do I?”
Pa smiled slightly and shook his head, “No.”
“Okay, then,” said Joe with a sigh. “I mean yes, sir,”
“And next Monday you get a hair cut, young man.”
“Haircut!” Joe hated haircuts; he wasn’t planning one for months.
“Well, may be you have deceived me after all?”
“Oh, no. No, sir, I haven’t. Definitely not. I’ll stay around the house and the yard and do chores and get haircuts and things.” That all seemed fair enough to Joe – after all, it had been his dumb idea to take the pig on a walk in the first place. All he wanted was to avoid the licking that this time he really didn’t deserve.
“Good boy,” said Pa and puffed slowly on his pipe.
After a moment Joe asked what he had to ask: “Pa, I’m confused. What I am I not being punished for – is it not because of Precious and not the church? Or is it not because of not deceiving you?”
Pa smiled and took the pipe from his mouth, and spoke slowly, “Good question. Firstly, I think a certain person went out of his way to ensure people saw him in a good light because he thought he’d be blamed unduly or unjustly for something. That was just common sense, not deception. However some older people didn’t act very maturely …”
“You mean Adam?”
“Hmm…” Pa said vaguely and then went on, “As for the pig – it’s a disgrace. I have no doubt that that devil Wesley put it in the church, not you. Still you were there and you might want to spend some time in the coming week thinking about how you got into such a mess. Is that clear?”
Joe nodded, eyes down, “Yes, sir. It’s clear.”
Pa was still again, smoking, and not saying a thing. Joe thought this must be the most discussed about pig in Western Nevada. Then Pa said quietly, “Martha has broken off courting with Adam. He’s a bit disappointed, sad. You be extra kind to him this week.”
“Oh!” Joe replied. “He was really sweet on her. He asked me to play with Wesley so she’d like him more…”
“I know. She’s a lovely girl, but she’s got a blind spot about Wesley, I think, ever since their mother died. She wanted Adam to agree the fiasco was all your fault. When Adam thought about it, he knew you were telling the truth. He stuck by you.”
Pa paused for a moment, sucking at his pipe. Then he added, “Oddly enough, Adam just told me I was right not to punish you.”
This was a surprise. Adam seemed to be forever complaining he was spoiled and out of control. He asked, “Adam doesn’t know about our gentleman’s agreement?”
“No. It’s just between you and me.”
“So my being mature is a secret?” Little Joe concluded.
He didn’t think it was a funny thing to say; Pa’s laughter surprised him. When Pa composed himself, he added, “I suspect your maturity will remain a secret from everyone, especially Adam, for some years, Joseph.” He laughed again.
Then he rose and walked towards Little Joe, who tried to duck, thinking he was about to get a swat. It was far worst: Pa gently pulled his head forward and kissed the top of his curls and whispered, “Don’t ever change.” Little Joe groaned.
As Pa opened the door to leave, Joe took a deep breath, put on a roguish smile, and, looking at the ceiling said, “Papa, does being mature mean I should get you a drink before lunch every Sunday?”
Pa returned the boy’s smile with a twinkle in his eyes, “No, Joseph. Being mature means I don’t ask a 12 year old to pour me whisky ever again. Good night, son.”
Later, as he drifted off to sleep, Little Joe thought how much he had to be grateful for. In particular, he was grateful he had seven days to scheme a way out of the haircut.
Author’s note: I got the idea for the story from my uncle who told me he put a mule in a Methodist church in York, Nebraska in the 1920s. I wonder now if he just made it up; he was, after all, the son of a preacher.