The Stubbornest Man in Nevada (by Virginia Slim)

Synopsis:  When it comes to raising his youngest son, it pays to be.

Rating:  G
Word Count:  10,020


 

The Ponderosa Ranch, Nevada   

Pa’s lecture went on and on so Little Joe was sort of listening and sort of watching the spider on the floor next to Pa’s desk. He wondered how long spiders lived. At 12 years old, he found such questions fascinating. This one wasn’t going to live long – it was crawling towards Pa’s boot.

“You’re not even listening to me?!?” Pa was getting mad.

“I am, sir!” Little Joe said indigently. He then shoved his hands deep into his trouser pockets and, looking down, mumbled, “Uh, well, I just smoked one.”

“Joseph, I know you’re lying because, as much as I love you, you are an incompetent liar.  When you lie, you never look me in the eye, you mumble and you keep your hands in your pockets.  Now, how many cigars you have smoked?”

Joe sighed, pulled his hands from his pockets and hitched his thumbs around his blue suspenders.  He looked Pa straight in the eye and said, “Ah, Pa, none.  I just told Mitch I smoked one, you know, to brag.”

“You lied to your best friend.”

“No,” Joe protested firmly. “I was bragging,”

“If it was untrue, it was a lie.  Do I need to teach you what a lie is?”

“Oh, no, sir.  I just forgot for a moment. I know what a lie is, all right.”  The spider disappeared under Pa’s left boot.  Little Joe hoped Pa would stay still.

“Don’t let me catch you lying again, Joseph.” Pa was a big, white haired man who could yell loudly, but rarely had to: people just did what he wanted.  On Sundays, like today, he wore a white, starched shirt with a stiff collar with a black suit with cream colored vest.

“Yes, sir. I mean, no sir,” Little Joe smiled so his dimples showed.

Pa said, “There’s something else.  The Sunday School picnic next Saturday…”

“I ain’t goin’,” said Little Joe flatly, crossing his arms.

“Certainly you’re going. You’re a member of the Sunday School. Anyway, you want to keep up the family tradition of winning the horse shoe throwing contest, don’t you?”

“’Course I’ll win! I’ll be the only boy there over ten, ‘cept Gerald and he won’t win.”

Pa stretched out his long legs and the exposed spider scurried for its life, racing back towards the desk.  “Well, I promised Mr. Shepherd you’d go.”

“Aw, Pa!”

“Now, scat before I change my mind and beat you within an inch of your life for lying and wasting my time!”

Little Joe, who knew when he was well off, dashed away quicker than a Nevada rancher can argue over the prices of thoroughbreds.

He had five days to get out of the stupid picnic.

 

*****

As soon as Joe was out of sight Ben closed his eyes and quietly groaned.  The one thing he despised more than a liar was a hypocrite and that’s what he would have been had he been any harder on Joe for his little lie. Ben was currently grappling with the result of one of his own, rare lies. Eight months ago, just after Chas Larkworthy’s unexpected death, Ben had written to his widow in Ohio – with whom the man had not lived for at least six years – to say what an asset Chas had been to the school board and how he was sadly missed.  The truth was that Chas, having gone to all the trouble of getting himself elected, hardly ever showed up for meetings and, when he did, was usually drunk.

Ben only began to question the wisdom of his well-meaning deceit two weeks ago when Mrs. Larkworthy wrote to announce her impending arrival in Virginia City. She wanted to visit the place where her troubled, alcohol-prone late husband had evidently found peace and respect late in life.  She was now staying at The Belmont, one of Virginia City’s fanciest hotels and had invited Ben to join her for dinner tomorrow night.  Ben was not looking forward to this.  He didn’t want to be judgmental, but he hoped she drank less than Chas and looked a whole lot prettier.

 

*****

“Take that hat off in the house!” Pa barked.

Little Joe laboriously placed the basket of fire wood on the floor in the dinning room and whipped off the cowboy hat, grinning at Pa. He then noisily dragged the basket across the floor to the fireplace while a frowning Pa watched but didn’t speak.  It was just after supper and everyone knew Pa wanted to sit down for a quiet half hour, smoke his pipe and read his Putnam’s Monthly.  Pa put the paper aside. From his pocket he pulled a dime and tossed it to Little Joe who reached out and caught it easily.

“Good catch!” complimented Pa.

“I have a knack for catching things.” Joe smiled, as he pocketed the coin.

“Like the cold you caught at Christmas?” asked Hoss, the middle brother, who, at 18, was already taller than their father and outweighed him by 20 pounds; completely different from Joe who was small and slight.

Pa said, “The dime’s for a hair cut, Little Joe. Tomorrow, after school.”

Little Joe hated haircuts:  he didn’t like Mr. Tonstrina, the barber, who was short tempered with all children and most adults.  He didn’t like the way new haircuts felt, so cold down your neck and he hated barbershops: too many shiny, sharp cutthroat razors lying around and those creepy, industrial-sized razor straps hanging there.

“I can’t,” Little Joe explained. “It’s my turn to straighten out the tack room. You said.”

“Ah,” Pa nodded. “I forgot.  Get the hair cut tomorrow, do the tack room Tuesday.”

“Oh, I was thinking of growing my hair longer,” said the boy whose hair was now over his collar.  This was a discussion they had from time to time.

“And I was thinking you’d get it cut.” Pa raised his eye brows.

Little Joe let out a dramatic sigh. “Do I absolutely have to?”

Hoss’s head shot up, staring at Little Joe.

Pa gave Joe a glare that would have stopped a bounty hunter in his tracks. “You do, if you know what’s good for you.”

Just another little problem for Joe to work out.

*****

Later, Adam, the oldest brother, sat down with Little Joe at the dinning table to help him with his algebra, an enterprise that stretched Adam’s patience at least as much as Little Joe’s intellect. Adam was twice Joe’s age and smart as a steel trap. Mitch, who had a way with words, said Adam was a tasty dresser.

After 20 minutes struggle, Little Joe managed to get four out of the six problems correct. Adam said, “That’s really good, Joe.”

Little Joe shook his head. “You’re lying. It’s not good.”

Adam raised his eyebrows.  “I might be naively encouraging. I might be patronizing. I could be exaggerating. I am NOT lying.”

“Sorry, Adam.” That reminded Joe. “Is bragging, lying?”

Adam shrugged. “If what you say is untrue, it’s lying.”

“Well, are all lies a bad thing?”

Adam thought for a minute. “At college, I read this stuff by this German philosopher, Kant.  He said lying was always wrong and could never be justified but I don’t think he was right.”

“When’s it okay to lie?” This was far more useful than algebra.

“I think you can lie to people who have bad intentions. If a wild man waving an axe showed up here asking for Hoss, I think it’s justified to lie and say Hoss is in Sacramento, even if he’s upstairs in bed.”

“Oh, yeah!”

Adam added, “If you’re dealing with ordinary, innocent people who mean no harm, it’s not fair or right to lie or mislead them. It’s wrong.”

“Like you misleadin’ me over my algebra?”

“Boy, you are wasted on this ranch,” said Adam. “You should do a course in ethics.”

Little Joe had never heard of ethics so he said, “Is it easier than algebra?”

He didn’t know why it was funny, but he was glad it made Adam laugh.

*****

Monday

At lunchtime Little Joe ignored the 46 children running wild on the dirt school yard and complained to Mitch, “I gotta go to the Sunday School picnic with Gerald and all them awful little kids.”

“Oh, you should be a Presbyterian. We don’t have picnics.” Mitch was six months older and about three inches taller than Joe.  He had straight, sandy-colored hair and owned the biggest collection of marbles Joe had ever seen.

“How did you become a Presbyterian?” Joe asked.

“I was born that way.”

“Oh, I was born left-handed,” said Little Joe.  He held a cowboy hat in his hands, thinking of his woes.

“That’s a dashing hat,” said Mitch.

Dashing!  That was the word Little Joe had been searching for. It was tan with a wide black leather band and he loved it. Joe put it on and let it fall over his eyes; it was far too large for him.  “Adam lent it to me. I gotta give it back on Saturday.”

Joe was quiet for a moment and then said, “Do you know when it is okay to lie?”

“When no one can find out?” Mitch guessed.

“No, ‘parently it’s when someone wants to kill your brother with an axe.”

“Is that what they say at your Sunday School?”

“No.  It’s what they say at college.”

*****

“Do you think Pa would let me become a Presbyterian?” Joe asked his brothers at supper that night.  It was just the three brothers; Pa had gone into town to meet some lady he’d never heard of.

Adam laughed, but Hoss said, “You don’t wanna go to that picnic, do you?”

“It’s all them little kids, ‘cept Gerald and he’ll just wanna talk about his wild flower collection,” Joe summed up everything you needed to know about Gerald Snowball.

“You’ll get to win the horse shoe throwing contest,” Hoss pointed out.

“I don’t wanna win. I don’t wanna go.”

Hoss said, “You better get used to the idea. Pa never changes his mind about Sunday School.”

Adam agreed, “Pa can be so stubborn.”

Was Pa stubborn?  Little Joe didn’t think so. Usually Pa listened when you explained things and sometimes changed his mind. Of course he could be disagreeable about bad report cards, forgotten chores and such like. Some times Pa’d punish Joe, occasionally even hitting him with a belt. But mainly Joe saw Pa’s other side – Pa who’d taught him how to ride, went fishing with him in the summer, took care of Joe when he was sick or hurt.  He wanted to defend Pa. “Pa ain’t stubborn!”

Adam shook his head. “He is about Sunday School and table manners. He’s the stubbornest man in Nevada on those two subjects.”

He said, “Hey, Adam, I bet ya I can get out of the picnic.”

Adam said, “Firstly, you aren’t allowed to bet. Secondly, you’ve got nothing to gamble.”

Little Joe considered this for a moment. “I’ll bet your cowboy hat against me cleaning out Dusty’s stall for two weeks.”

Adam laughed. “You know how much I hate cleaning my own horse’s stall, don’t you? Not that it matters, but two weeks isn’t enough.  It’s an expensive hat.  Three months is more like it.”

Three months! A long, long time. Little Joe thought before he spoke. “Oh, well, okay then. Three months. If I lose, I mean.”

Adam shook his head. “No, Joe. Betting isn’t a good idea. Anyway you won’t win because Pa won’t change his mind.”

“Sure, it’s a good idea. You could help me.”

“No,” Adam said firmly, going back to his chicken.

Little Joe sighed dramatically and tried to look forlorn. “Didn’t you want a cowboy hat when you were twelve and had no money like me?”

Adam studied Joe before saying, “I don’t know, Little Joe.”

Hoss put down his fork and looked the oldest brother. “Don’t do it, Adam.”

Adam tried to explain, “Look Hoss, I never had a big brother to help me and I’d just like to make things more fun for Joe.”

“Yes!” said Joe lifting his left arm in triumph.

“Are you absolutely sure you want to?” Adam said in a serious tone. “I’ll hold you to it.”

Joe thought for a moment. He was certain Pa was not stubborn. “Sure.”

“Okay, it’s your choice.”

“Oh, Adam! You’re great!” Little Joe grinned.

Hoss shook his head and said. “Pa don’t allow Little Joe to bet,”

“Don’t tell Pa,” replied the other two in unison.

“Shake on it?” Joe said. He reached his hand across the table towards Adam and, in the process, dipped his sleeve into mash potato and gravy.

Little Joe’s shirt wasn’t the only mess that bet lead to, either.

*****

Later that evening Adam was reading by the fireplace in the great room.  Joe asked, “Tell me the name of that guy who thought you should never lie?”

“Kant,” said Adam, without moving his eyes from his book.

“Why can’t you?”

“Why can’t I what?”

“Tell me what the guy’s name was,” said Little Joe.

“That was his name,” Adam now looked up.

“What?”  Joe was getting confused and he hadn’t even asked his hard question yet.

“The man was Kant.”

“What couldn’t he do?” asked Little Joe.

Hoss opened the big door, letting in the cool evening breeze. He took off his jacket and hung it up.

“Joe!  His name was Kant, K-A-N-T.  I don’t recall his first name, but I believe it started with “I”, maybe Isaac.

“I. Kant?”

“What can’t you do, Little Joe?” Hoss asked, now standing by the fire, warming his hands.

Adam groaned.

“No,” explained Joe, “It’s about this guy called I. Kant.”

“Well, does he know anything about horses?  We only want experienced hands,” Hoss said and Joe started laughing.

Adam calmly explained, “The man died about 50 years ago.  I don’t think he wants a job on the Ponderosa.”

Joe asked his question: “See, about lying, Gerald asked me if he had a chance of winning the horseshoe-throwing contest.  It wouldn’t have been nice to say ‘no’, so I said ‘I didn’t know’. Why’s that wrong?”

“Well, you did what most people do,” Adam explained. “But sometimes people want the truth. When you lie to someone, you take away their right to make choices based on the truth.  You rob them of that.”

“It’s robbery as well as lying?”

“Yep,” said Adam flatly, going back to his book.

Joe never knew a simple word be so tricky.

*****

Tuesday

The spring sunshine sparkled through Ben’s bedroom window as he stood shaving at 7 am.  The house smelled of fresh coffee and hot rolls and he could hear his sons – well, Adam and Hoss, anyway – getting up.  But these things weren’t on his mind. Mrs. Larkworthy was on his mind.  She wasn’t like Chas, she was – amazing.

Against all his defenses and in a few short moments, he had been swept away by Sarah, as she asked him to call her. She wasn’t a stunning beauty, but she had class, dressed stylishly in purple and green, and possessed a girlish-energy.  Her assured handshake when they first met attracted him, as did her walk, practically leading him through the dinning room to their table and, finally, her ability to ridicule the Belmont restaurant’s notoriously slow service.

“That waiter’s going to be late to his own funeral,” she said.

Just thinking about her made Ben smile. Few ladies expressed their opinions so openly.  He didn’t agree with all her ideas – that crazy idea of women voting.  The next thing you know, they’d be demanding the same pay as men. But it was refreshing to have a serious discussion with an intelligent lady.

Guilt flashed into his consciousness.  Just as their meal arrived, she blurted out how proud she was that Chas had overcome his drink problem.  Of course, Ben was about to explain the truth. Of course. But the waiter was there.  In his heart he new knew it been his fault the topic hadn’t come up again.

Could you still make a fool of yourself when you were 45?  Surely you learned some things with age?  

It would work out one way or another.  She’d invited him for tea on Friday.  He hated tea and teacups and everything to do with tea.  He was a rancher, not some kind of dandy.  But he was prepared to drink tea and do lots of other things, for a few more hours with Sarah Larkworthy.

Also, he would explain about Chas.  He had to.

Abruptly Ben placed the open razor down and swiftly walked down the hall to Little Joe’s room, where he banged on the door before entering. “Joseph! This is the third time I’ve called you.  Get up NOW!”

“I’m up, Pa,” a sleepy Little Joe responded.  He was at the washstand throwing water over his face.

Ben was half way back to his room before it dawned on him.  Three quick strides and he was back at Little Joe’s door and this time he didn’t knock.  The boy, apparently anticipating Ben’s return, had strategically positioned himself, back to the wall, jammed between the washstand and the chest of drawers.

“You didn’t get a hair cut?” Ben said.

“Oh, I was going to mention that, Pa.  Well, after school yesterday I started playing marbles and the time just sort of melted away, like ice.”

Pa raised his eyebrows. “Get it cut this afternoon.”

“Yes, sir.  I’ll leave the tack room ‘til tomorrow.”

“I’m serious about the hair, Joseph.” Ben placed his hands on his hips for effect.

“Oh, I know. I’ll get it cut, okay.”  The boy nodded agreeably.

Walking back to his room, Ben thought, how could a twelve year old think time melted away?  He should be 45.

*****

“Are you going to become a Presbyterian?” Mitch asked.  It had been raining all morning, so the children were cooped up in the schoolroom for their lunch hour.

“’Parently you gotta have real good reasons to change churches,” replied Joe.

They were in the corner of the schoolroom, leaning against the wall.  Little Joe had Adam’s cowboy hat in his hands, almost petting it. He desperately wanted to try it on, tilt it forward over his eyes and look dashing.   But gentlemen never wore their hats indoors and Miss Jones held strong views on how young men should conduct themselves in her schoolroom.

Mitch asked, “You sure it’s only axe men who want to kill your brother you can lie to?”

“May be sisters, too, if you got them,” Little Joe said, trying to think it through.  “And may be people waving a Bowie knife.  Or a machete.”

Mitch didn’t reply, so Little Joe said, “Did you know that lying was robbery?”

“Is it?”

“Adam learned so at college.”

“No wonder Mama gets so addled when I lie to her.”

*****

It was nearly candle lighting time when Little Joe, cowboy hat perched high on the back of his head, pulled off his boots and quietly placed them by the large front door.  He wasn’t sure where Pa was, but he thought it was probably safe to cross the big room. In his socks he took silent, giant steps over to the staircase.

“Joseph?”

Joe froze. He turned slowly and saw Pa sitting over at his desk in the corner, pipe in hand. Joe pulled off the hat and tried to look sweet. “Sir?”

Pa slowly reached out and knocked his pipe against the ashtray on his desk, never taking his eyes off Joe. “Tell me, son, do you have any intention of obeying me?”

“Sir?”

Pa didn’t answer, so Little Joe said, “You mean ‘cause I didn’t get my hair cut?”

“You catch subtleties as well as dimes.”

“Sir?”

Pa didn’t move.

Little Joe swallowed hard and said, “Well, Pa – well, it wasn’t my fault, see? Miss Jones kept me after school but I didn’t do nothin’. Well, I put on my hat on in the schoolroom is all and – .”

Pa shut him up with a cold stare. “Can’t you behave for just one day?”

Little Joe shrugged and tried to look remorseful. “Sorry, Pa.”

Disapproval was plastered across Pa’s face. “Get your hair cut tomorrow.”

“I’ll do the tack room Thursday.” Little Joe offered pleasantly.

Pa grunted. “Yes, do the tack room Thursday. Right now, get yourself out to the woodshed and chop wood until supper.”

Little Joe was turning to go when Pa said, “Joseph!”

He turned back again. “Sir?”

“Any more trouble with that hat and it goes back to Adam forever.”

 

*****

Out in the woodshed Little Joe soon found the cowboy hat fell over his eyes with every swing of the axe. The same thing happened when he tried a hatchet.  He was tuckered out anyway, so he sat down to think. He needed some fresh ideas on how to get Pa to change his mind.

A half hour later that’s where Hoss found him, still sitting, still thinking. “Supper’s ready, Short Shanks.”

Standing, Joe asked, “You really reckon Pa is stubborn?”

“He is about some things,” said Hoss. “I’ll tell you somethin’ else. He’s real strict about betting. I found that out when I was about your age and gambled away my whole marble collection in one game.”

Little Joe asked cautiously, “What did Pa say?”

“I don’t wanna talk about,” Hoss said as he turned and walked away.

 

*****

Little Joe had rehearsed exactly what he was going to do when Pa came in to say goodnight.  He was sitting on the blue and red patchwork quilt on his bed and wearing the new white nightshirt Pa had brought him back from San Francisco, the one he hated because of the fussy collar. He used his most charming smile and said, “Papa, you know why I like Sunday School lots? ‘Cause Mr. Shepherd explains things real well and gives me hard things to think about.”

“Good,” said Pa, taking his pipe from his mouth. “I’m glad you enjoy it.”

“And ya know I won that prize last year for attendance -.”

“Joseph, does this conversation have anything to do with your not wanting to go to the picnic on Saturday?”

“Aw, Pa!”

Pa smiled. “If I was a gambling man, I’d bet my hat on your going to that picnic.”

Betting? Hats? Little Joe panicked. “You mean Adam’s hat?”

Pa looked puzzled. “Why would I bet Adam’s hat?”

Little Joe gawked at his father, his mouth too dry to speak even if he had anything to say.

“Little Joe, you look decidedly guilty. Have you been gambling?”

Joe felt his face go red but still couldn’t talk. This was bad. Pa would yell at him, restrict him to the ranch for weeks, make him do a year’s worth of loathsome chores, stop his allowance forever, give him a licking -.

“Where are your marbles?” Pa asked sternly. Joe still couldn’t speak but Pa followed Joe’s eyes as they darted to the top of the dresser where the leather marble pouch sat next to a hairbrush.

Pa stepped forward and looked as though he was about to pick it up, but didn’t.  “I’m sorry, Little Joe, I misjudged you,” Pa said. “I don’t need to check them, do I? I can trust you, can’t I?”

The words dangled in the air for a long, long time.

*****

Little Joe now had no ideas, fresh or otherwise, on dealing with Pa’s stubbornness. He had trouble getting to sleep.  He was one of nature’s optimists but Pa was proving un-bendable on the subject of Sunday School picnics. Joe had so much to lose: the hat, three months looking after Dusty. Not to mention four hours of a perfectly fine Saturday afternoon to be spent with the most boring boy on the American continent and a bunch of little kids.

And what about a mad man waving at axe and asking for Hoss?

*****

Wednesday

Adam watched Joe spooning more and more molasses onto his oatmeal. It was just the two of them at breakfast; Pa and Hoss had left at dawn to check some cattle up north.

“Have you ever told Pa a stretcher?” Little Joe asked once he’d nearly emptied the molasses jar.

“Joe, you don’t want to lie.  It’s not right and Pa will skin you.”

“We’re talking about you, not me,” said Little Joe, now licking syrup off the back of his spoon. He was taking full advantage of Pa not being around to enforce strict table manners.

“I don’t lie.”

“Not even one tiny, little fib, ever?”

Adam suddenly grinned. “Okay, but if I tell you, you can’t tell anyone else, especially Pa, right?”

“Sure,” agreed Joe.

“I lied to Pa over what my favorite book is.”

The boy nearly dropped the sticky spoon. “Why?!?”

“My favorite novel is Tom Jones by Fielding.  Pa doesn’t approve of it; it’s a bit salacious for him, so I told him my favorite book was Pilgrim’s Progress.”

“What’s s’lacious?”

Adam tried to think of a way of down playing it. “Oh, it’s just got bits in it Pa doesn’t like – much.  You see, sometimes it’s easier to lie to people over an trivial subject than have a pointless row about something you’ll never agree on.”

Little Joe nodded, trying to look adult.

After a silent moment Adam was gripped by guilt. “What I did was wrong.  And I shouldn’t have told you about it. Also, JOSEPH, you be careful.  If Pa finds you lying, you will be in BIG trouble.”

“Don’t worry,” said Little Joe, who, having finished his oatmeal, was now sucking his fingers clean from the molasses. “I ain’t ever gonna lie about anything as dumb as a book.”

And Adam thought:  I hope I haven’t encouraged the kid to lie. 

And Little Joe thought:  I wonder if there’s a copy of Tom Jones in Adam’s bedroom?

*****

“Your Pa’ll have a conniption fit when he finds out about that bet,” Mitch concluded.

Once again rain had forced the children inside during their lunch hour. Joe was turned sideways on his seat, talking to Mitch at the desk behind him.

“He won’t find out.”

“Your Pa won’t notice you cleaning out Adam’s horse’s stall for ‘bout a year? It’s not like you’re famous for doing other people’s chores.”

“Oh.” Little Joe hadn’t thought of this. He asked, “You ever made any bets?”

“Sure! My Pa bet me a dollar I couldn’t keep quiet all one Saturday.”

“A dollar! Did you win?” Joe’s eyes enlarged, just imaging it.

“Naw. I lost it ‘bout 8am.  Pa said it would have been worth every cent if I had won.”

*****

As Little Joe slowly descended the stairs, he saw the rest of his family already around the table, talking.  The room smelled of pork chops and Joe was hungry.   He walked within 12 inches of Pa, sat down and tried to fade into the background.  They were discussing the re-sinking a mine or something and it took a full minute before Pa turned to Joe.

“Hello, son. Had a good…” Little Joe ducked, but Pa’s quick, heavy hand reached out and smacked the top of his head.

“OW!” Little Joe tried to look hurt.

“I told you to get a haircut.”

“The barber’s was shut!” Little Joe rubbed the back of his head.

“Are you absolutely sure, young man?”

Hoss interrupted, “Oh, Pa, Tonstrina’s father died. Didn’t you know? The funeral was today.”

Pa groaned and kept both hands on the table, like he might pounce at any moment. “If you couldn’t get your hair cut, Joseph, did you straighten the tack room?”

Little Joe leaned away from Pa and spoke softly. “Well, see, I bumped into Mr. Shepherd and you know how he talks about Sunday School -.”

“He can talk the hind legs offa donkey,” Hoss said helpfully.

“Yes!” Joe continued. “Anyway I didn’t get back until it was too late ‘cause ya need daylight to do the tack room…”

Pa glared at him, but Adam interrupted, “May be Joe could do the tack room tomorrow?  I wasted ten minutes this morning trying to find…”

“All right!” Pa held up his hands as thought surrendering to Adam. “Little Joe, do the tack room tomorrow.  Hair cut Friday.  Understand?”

“Yes, Pa,” Joe nodded firmly.  Then he sighed theatrically and batted his eyes at Pa. “Papa, I don’t mind that you smacked my head ever so hard.”

Pa stared at him for a moment and then said, “I apologize for not letting you explain first.  I trust you’re not gravely injured, young man?”

“No, Papa.  I’m just fine now.  Thank you.” Out of the corner of his eye, Joe saw that Adam held his face in his hands, hiding a grin.  He knew if he looked at Hoss, he’d laugh, so he avoided that.

“Could you please say grace, Joseph?” Pa asked.

Four heads bowed.

*****

Little Joe was on his way to bed, but stopped off to see Adam who reading in his own room. “Hey, Adam, guess what?  Mr. Shepherd says it’s not just mad axe men who you can lie to.”

Adam looked up. “What?”

“Mr. Shepherd said about them slaves in Georgia and places – the ones who get tired of being slaves and run away.  If you had them hid in your house and the sheriff came to take them back, then it would be all right to lie.”

“Oh, Joe, that’s a really good example of when a lie is justified!  The slave owners or sheriff have an immoral intention. It’s better than the axe man example.”

“Yeah, I was worried, you know, about Hoss being axed to death.”

Adam looked confused. “Were you?  It was just an example.”

“Oh,” said Little Joe, “I didn’t mean I was worried.  I just – you know – wanted to be prepared.”

Adam asked, “How you getting on avoiding the picnic?”

“Oh, I got a plan,” said Joe with a self-assured nod.

Adam was impressed. “Have you?”

“I mean, I got a plan to get a plan.”

Adam laughed. “Actually, I do believe fate is on your side. Pa’s been in a great mood all week.  It’s almost as though he’s in love.”

 

*****

Thursday

At 6:15 am Ben was alone in the dinning room with his coffee where his busy mind kept slipping back to Sarah Larkworthy and he didn’t care at all.

“Good morning, Pa.” Adam was walking over from the staircase, carrying his boots in one hand.  He sat down and poured himself some coffee.

Ben nodded.

“I know this is short notice, Pa,” Adam began. “but I need to take off a few hours today.  I saw Martha Kendall yesterday and there’s a special concert rehearsal this afternoon and she’s invited me to supper afterwards.”

“What about clearing the trail to the Allerton mine?  It needs to be ready for Monday.”

Adam nodded. “Don’t worry. Little Joe has agreed to help me Saturday morning.”

Ben shrugged. “Well, there’s not a lot of spare time if things go wrong. You know, the rest of us are over at Western Gate most of Saturday.”

“Nothing will go wrong,” said Adam.  “I’m even paying Joe ten cents an hour to get him out of bed at six am.”

“Ten cents! How is Joe going to learn the value of money if you pay him ten cents an hour when he’s twelve years old?”

“Pa, you can teach him the value of money,” replied Adam, finishing his coffee and standing.  “I’m teaching him how to get up early on Saturdays.”

 

*****

Meanwhile Little Joe lay awake upstairs thinking that he only had two days to get out of the dratted picnic.  Why’d Pa want to go all pigheaded on him just now? Joe pulled the covers over his head and tried to get back to sleep.

*****

 

“You can’t do that!” Mitch was horrified.  “You can’t ask Adam to let you out of a bet. That handshake bonded you as a gentleman.”

This didn’t seem right to Little Joe, who pointed out, “But he’s my brother!”  Joe held the hat by its brim, turning it round and round.  They were out in the sunshine today, sitting on a log on the corner of the school yard, Mitch eating bread and cheese.  Little Joe wasn’t hungry so he wasn’t eating the rolls Hop Sing had packed for him.

“Don’t matter one jot,” said Mitch with a knowing air.  “My cousin said. Break your handshake and no one will trust you for seven years. You’ll be seen as a rat in the eyes of the law.”

What was Little Joe to do?

*****

That boy sailed on a raft of trouble, thought Hoss as he sat on a large wooden box in the tack room, his head resting on his hands. It was nearly 4pm and Little Joe wasn’t back from school.  He might have been kept behind or he might be playing marbles. Either way, Little Joe was in trouble if the tack room wasn’t straight by candle lighting time.  Pa might be in a good mood, but you couldn’t just ignore him. The last time Pa had shouted at Joe, Hoss couldn’t sleep all night. Adam told Hoss he was too soft, but he couldn’t help wanting to look after his little brother.

If he wasn’t back by 4:15…

*****

The grandfather clock chimed five o’clock as Little Joe climbed up the stairs to the landing intending to go to his bedroom and clean up. He looked a mess – clothes, stained by mud and ash and wet as well. But he was thinking the same thing he’d been thinking all day: all because Pa was stubborn, he was likely to lose the bet and have to go to that rotten picnic.

He heard a noise from Pa’s bedroom and thought he’d get it over with.  He walked down the hall and stood in the open doorway to his father’s room. Pa, way over near the window, turned towards Joe.

“Pa, there was a fire at the McArdle place and -.”

“A fire? Was anyone hurt?”

“No, everyone’s okay.  I had to stand in a line with the other kids and people and pass buckets of water to Mr. McArdle and the Sheriff.  I ain’t done the tack room and you said -.”

“You did the right thing, Joe. I’m proud of you, son.”

“You are?” He straightened up and grinned. “Oh, it was nothing really. I reckon I got a knack for fighting fires.”

“Good boy!”

Pa smiled in a way Joe hadn’t seen in while. Perhaps this was the good mood Adam talked about?  Joe thought he’d risk it. “Papa, you know that picnic? I don’t wanna…”

Pa nodded. “You’ll enjoy it, Little Joe-.”

How could Pa say that after everything Joe had told him? Joe was incensed. “No, I won’t!”

Pa smile faded, but he spoke calmly. “For a start you’ll get to win the horse shoe throwing contest -.”

“I hate horseshoe throwin’!” snapped Joe. “Why don’t you listen? I don’t wanna be with those little kids!”

Pa walked over and tried to touch Joe’s arm gently. “I have listened; I just don’t agree, so…”

Joe pulled away and closed his eyes. “THAT AIN’T NO REASON!”

“Joseph, don’t you raise your –.”

“ADAM’S RIGHT, YOU ARE THE STUBBORNEST MAN IN NEVADA!”  Joe turned and stomped down the hall to his bedroom, slamming the door so hard it bounced back open.  He instantly realized his mistake and, taking refuge behind the door, peeked out to see Pa, face full of fury, heading his way like a steaming locomotive.

“I’M SORRY, PAPA!” Little Joe cried in a pleading voice. He grabbed the brass door handle, closed his eyes tightly and braced himself for the assault.

Nothing happened. Not for a long, long time. Finally, Little Joe squinted open his left eye to see Pa standing there, not three feet away, fists clinched tightly and eyes drilling into Joe’s soul.

Joe gulped.

Pa lifted his right hand and pointed at him. “Young man, be thankful I am in a good mood. Now stay in your room until I say you can leave.”  Pa turned and walked away.

Oh, gee, thought Joe as he closed the door. Why’d I have to get so mad? Now he’ll make me go to Sunday school picnics until I’m about 28.

His anger made him so angry.

*****

Shortly afterwards Ben was heading down the stairs for the front door, about to walk over to the corral and talk to a couple of the hands about the weekend.  After that, he’d go back and see Little Joe; they’d both be calmer. Little Joe was impudent and ill-mannered, not to mention wrong. Of course Ben had listened.

Hadn’t he?

Just then Hoss strolled in from the kitchen his face lit up with a grin.  “Hi, Pa! Little Joe’s done a great job with the tack room!”

Ben halted and stared at Hoss for a moment before smiling. “Eric, Joseph tells me he’s been fighting fires all afternoon.  Is there a chance, young man, that you have just lied to me?”

A panicked look crossed Hoss’s face. “Oh.”

Ben shook his head disapprovingly. “Right now I have other things to attend to, so why don’t you think up another story about the tack room and tell it to me later?”

Ben made sure he closed the heavy door quietly.

*****

Later, as Ben walked back from the corral, Hoss caught up with him.

“I lied,” confessed the son.

“I know.”

“Little Joe had nothing to do with it.”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry and I’ll never lie again.”

“I know.” Then, after a second, Ben smiled and added kindly, “Please don’t lie again or I’ll lose faith in you, son.  You know, Little Joe doesn’t need all the help you want to give him.  And he really does need to learn from his mistakes.”

“I know.”

*****

The truth was that Ben forgot about Joe. He’d become engrossed with the work schedules and Little Joe’s absence didn’t strike him until Hop Sing was placing steaming dishes on the blue table cloth.  Ben hurriedly climbed the stairs, knocked on Little Joe’s door and entered.

The boy was sitting on his bed, his arms wrapped around his legs, still looking filthy and unkempt from the fire. His expression – what was it?  Serious? Sad? 

“Joseph?”

“Pa, I done – did something bad.” Little Joe didn’t look at Ben.

Perhaps anxious?  Ben nodded. “You yelled and slammed a door.”

“No, somethin’ real bad.” Joe let out a gasp as though almost crying.

Suddenly Ben smiled to himself. “You’ll feel better once you’ve told me.”

“You’re gonna kill me.”

Ben had yet to kill a boy, though it could happen soon. “Tell me what you’ve done, Joseph.”

“Promise won’t get mad.” Little Joe tried to bargain.

“I can’t promise that, son. I promise I’ll stick by you no matter what.”

“No matter what?” Little Joe whispered pitifully.

“If you end up in reform school, I promise I’ll write every week – .”

Little Joe lifted his head to study Ben.

“- and I’ll be sure your pony gets a good home. Why, Mitch can have it!”

“NO!” Joe leaped to his feet, suddenly animated. “You wouldn’t give -” Then he realized he’d been trapped. “Aw, Pa, you’re so m-ean!”

Ben tilted his head and gave Joe a fierce look. “I’ll get a lot meaner if you don’t tell me right now what you’ve done.”

“Oh,” Little Joe sighed and sat back down on his bed. He wiped a dirty sleeve across his face. “See, Papa, it’s like this.”  He took a deep breath and began:  “Well, I made a bet with Adam and you said never to make bets ‘til I was grown or you’d have my hide and now I gotta take care of Dusty’s stall for the rest of my life near ‘nough and… ”

Ben kept a stern expression while the boy poured out his confession. That is, until Joe got to the part about being a rat in the eyes of the law. That did make Ben smile.

*****

Friday

Gerald Snowball was nearly 14 and had pale, wishy-washy blue eyes.  He got 100% of every spelling test and spent each recess practicing his adding up.  Every day he wore a white shirt that was as spotless at 4pm as it had been at 8 am.  He had no friends.  Little Joe felt sorry for him, but not sorry enough to play with him.

At lunchtime Gerald walked up to Little Joe, who was leaning his back against the well in the playground. Joe tipped the cowboy hat over his face and tried to pretend Gerald wasn’t there.

“I’m really looking forward to Saturday’s picnic, Little Joe. Aren’t you?”

“Might not be able to go,” Joe said from beneath the hat.

“If you don’t come, who’ll win the horseshoe contest?”

“Don’t know.”

“I don’t mind you winning it, ‘cause you’re strong and your brothers used to win every year. I just don’t want those little kids winning.”

*****

At this same time Ben was sitting at his desk trying to finish some paperwork before leaving to meet Sarah Larkworthy at the tea shop in Virginia City.  He wasn’t getting a lot done.  When Sarah wasn’t occupying his consciousness, his mind kept slipping back to yesterday’s talk with Little Joe.  The second talk, that is, the one at Joe’s bedtime.

Ben reckoned his brain must be going spongy, allowing a 12 year old to argue with him like that. Adam or Hoss would never have dared.  After ten minutes of listening to Little Joe rattle on about this blessed picnic, Ben had snapped and pronounced, “Joseph, you are twelve years old and you will do as I tell you.”

And quick as a flash, Little Joe agreed: “Yes, Pa, I’ll do as you tell me, but you’re only ordering me to go ‘cause you ain’t got no good reason for making me.”

 

*****

Little Joe was late.  His boots clomped loudly as he tramped down the boardwalks on Main Street toward Tonstrina’s barbershop. He should never have stopped for that third game of marbles.  After yesterday and Pa finding out about the bet and all – well, Little Joe didn’t want to think what would happen if he didn’t get his hair cut today.

Adam’s cowboy hat fell over his eyes.  If he took it off he wouldn’t look dashing and he wanted to look dashing on Main Street in Virginia City more than any other place on earth.  Every ten paces or so he pushed the hat up and peered out.

He quickly took the steps of the boardwalk in front of the Belmont Hotel and, seeing that the way ahead was clear, let the hat fall over his eyes and marched forward.

He crashed into something.  Something that shouted “Heaven’s above!” in a high pitched voice.  He fell on top of that something.  Joe scrambled to his feet, saying, “I’m sorry, ma’am! I didn’t see you there.”

Little Joe offered his hand to the lady who was apparently in too much shock to say anything but “Heaven’s above!” several more times.  She was tall and fancy and smelt of sweet lavender.

“Oh, ma’am, I’m just so sorry.  I hope you’re okay.”

“Oh, I am just fine, young sir.  Just fine.” Once back on her feet, she brushed out her dress with her hands and returned her large brimmed, deep purple hat to a stylish angle.

That’s when Pa came rushing up. Joe shrank back, presuming he had seen the whole thing and would swat Joe for his inattention.  “Sarah, you left the tearooms so quickly!” Pa’s eyes fell on Joe. “Why are you here?”

Before Little Joe could answer, the lady asked, “Do you know this boy?”

“Sarah, may I introduce my youngest and most disobedient son, Joseph.”

The lady smiled broadly, “How delightful to meet you, young man.”

“Joseph, this is Mrs. Larkworthy.”

Little Joe smiled his sweetest smile and guessed that this elegant lady was worthy of the bow Mitch had showed him; the kind Sir Walter Raleigh would have used to delight Queen Elizabeth.  Joe stepped back and raised the hat high and, with a wild flourish, whipped it in a wide circle while dramatically bending forward. If the hat had been a sword Mrs. Larkworthy would have missed decapitation by two inches. In an unnaturally high voice Little Joe said, “Madam, I am most charmed.”

Pa stared at him but the lady smiled. “Ben, where’d he learned such delightful manners in Nevada?”

Pa changed the subject. “I presume he is his way to the barber?”

Joe nodded.

“Oh, no. No. No. No.  That’s terrible!”  She stepped forward and touched Little Joe’s dark hair curling around his green shirt collar.  “Young boys should have long hair. You don’t want to cut these lovely curls, not for weeks yet.”

Little Joe tilted his head and sighed at Pa, who responded with something sterner.  Little Joe looked down.

“Sarah, I need to have a word…”

“Do you, Ben? Will it be something I can believe?  Or just something to patronize me?” Mrs. Larkworthy grabbed Joe’s left hand and held it between her cold palms.  “Joseph, wouldn’t you prefer a piece of chocolate cake to a haircut?”

Even Gerald preferred chocolate cake to 15 minutes with the sadist Tonstrina.  Little Joe looked from the lady to Pa, then back to the lady, not knowing how to answer. Pa didn’t look happy.

“Well, of course you would!  Just come with me.”

“Oh, no, Sarah,” Pa protested moving towards her.

“Ben, I have no children of my own and I would like to spoil yours this once.” With that, she placed her hands on Joe’s shoulders, turned him and marched him through the open doors to the Belmont Hotel. Pa followed three paces behind.

*****

At this time of the afternoon the hotel dinning room was nearly empty. Mrs. Larkworthy choose a large round table next to the door, but they didn’t sit close together. Little Joe sat on one side, then there were two empty chairs, then Mrs. Larkworthy, then another empty chair, then Pa, then two more empty chairs before the table rounded on Little Joe again. The place was quiet, Joe thought, like a graveyard, but less friendly.

An elderly waiter appeared and Pa recited their order: tea for Mrs. Larkworthy, black coffee for himself and chocolate cake for Little Joe.

Mrs. Larkworthy interrupted with further instructions, “Make it a large piece of cake, please. And some lemonade.  You like lemonade, don’t you, Joseph?”

“He’ll have milk,” Pa replied, glaring at Joe.

Joe, who hated milk, gave Pa a pained smile. The waiter bowed and crept away.

“Well, Ben, what is it you wanted to say to me?” Mrs. Larkworthy said.

In a voice Joe could hardly hear, Pa said, “Sarah, I’m not sure we can have the conversation we need -.”

As they talked, Joe assessed the room:  thick, colorful rugs, oak paneled walls and a cut-glass chandelier which must have weighted 100 pounds.  The tables were set with gleaming sterling silver and sparking goblets on clothes of stiff, white linen.  His eyes drifted over to the open door and fell upon Adam and Hoss apparently saying goodbye to another man.

“Hey, Hoss!” said Little Joe, smiling, glad to see a friendly face.

Mrs. Larkworthy looked up and, following Joe’s gaze, saw two young men with puzzled faces staring at her.  Then Little Joe glanced over saw something he had never seen before: Pa with his hands covering his face.

*****

Hoss and Adam joined them at the round table, having said goodbye to the mining engineer they had been meeting with for the previous hour.  To Little Joe’s relief, Hoss sat next to him.  Adam sat between Mrs. Larkworthy and Pa.  More coffee was ordered.  Joe was used to Pa being the center of attention, but even he realized that Mrs. Larkworthy was in charge. She devoted herself to talking to Adam about college, which seemed to suit everyone.  Pa was apparently studying the tablecloth.

Finally, a glass of warm milk and the largest slice of cake Little Joe had ever seen were placed before him next to a folded, white napkin.  Little Joe suddenly recalled Adam once using a quick flick of the wrist to open a similar, starched linen napkin; it was at a hotel in Sacramento.  Little Joe thought he’d try the trick. It was so simple.  He pinched the corner of the napkin and whipped it back smartly, just as Adam had done. Unfortunately, Joe released it at a critical moment and the napkin slowly, silently sailed across the table and landed in Pa’s face.

Pa’s eyes looked like they were going to explode from their sockets. His hands gripped the side of the table and were bloodless and white.

“J O S E P H !” Pa spitted the name.

Joe felt his face burning red.  He now knew how he was going to die: at his father’s hands in the dinning room of the Belmont Hotel.  He felt childish and foolish and wanted to disappear under the table. Hoss reached out a muscular arm and steadied Little Joe with a touch.

Mrs. Larkworthy leaned across Adam and grabbed the renegade napkin. “It’s quite all right, Joseph.  Accidents happen.”

After a pause, she added, “Benjamin, you look deranged. It’s just a napkin.  It’s not like the boy intentionally lied to a grieving widow, is it?”

Joe thought this was a strange thing to say but he now associated Mrs. Larkworthy with strange occurrences.  He reckoned the safest thing was to eat his cake and keep hushed.

Adam broke the silence by saying, “Mrs. Larkworthy, please tell me, what is your favorite novel?”

“Oh, Adam” she replied, obviously flattered at being asked.  “Well, of course, I am no intellectual, not like you college boys. But I believe my favorite book must be Tom Jones.  What’s yours?”

Adam used his most charming smile. “Oh, Mrs. Larkworthy, Tom Jones has been my favorite book since the first time I read it.”

Joe’s fork hovered half way to his mouth. From the top of his eyes he looked at Pa, then over to Adam, then back to Pa, who seemed to be about to speak.

But it was Hoss whose voice broke through: “Adam, you told Pa the other week you didn’t like Tom Jones.  You said your favorite book was Pilgrim’s Progress. I heard you.”

Pa’s expression was the one he often had when examining Joe’s report cards: disbelief mixed with anger and frustration.  Adam pressed the fingers of his right hand into his temple, as though he had a headache.

Mrs. Larkworthy spoke, “Ben, your oldest son has either just lied to me or he has previously lied to you.  Does your family suffer from an inherent lack of veracity?”

Pa did not reply.

Little Joe, eyes locked firmly on his plate, was now almost shoveling forkfuls of cake into his mouth.  Adam might have been lying, but Little Joe was the one who was going to catch it for the napkin.

No one said any thing for such a long while. Then Mrs. Larkworthy said rather loudly, “Do you ever tell lies, Joseph?”

Little Joe swallowed a large lump of cake and said, “Well, no, ma’am, not now.  ‘Cause I know it robs people of their rights.”

Mrs. Larkworthy nodded, “I think ‘rights’ is a good way of putting it.  We need a Bill of Rights about being told the truth all the time – .”

“Oh, no, ma’am,” interrupted Little Joe.  He put down his fork and tried to look grown up. “I used to think that it was only right to lie to mad men waving axes wantin’ to kill my brother, but now I know it’s more complicated…”

He didn’t know why Mrs. Larkworthy laughed.

“Some times people lie for bad reasons,” Little Joe explained his theory.  “Like when I was a little kid, to cover up for being naughty, or to pretend I was something better than I was. But lots of lies are meant to make people feel better…”

The lady was looking at him, but Little Joe couldn’t tell if she was listening.

“…well, if someone means to be kind, that’s something, ain’t it?  It means they care about your feelings.”

He gasped as he saw a tear fall from Mrs. Larkworthy’s large grey eyes.  She pulled out a lacy, lilac handkerchief about began to dab at her face.

“Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am,” said Little Joe. “I didn’t mean….”

She stood up and all four Cartwrights shot up; even Little Joe remembered.

“Joseph, you are a good boy and I’m sure you make your father very proud.”

Joe thought that, right at this moment, Pa would gladly trade him in for a three-legged mule, but he replied, “Thank you, ma’am.”

*****

At about 8pm that evening Joe was sitting sideways in an armchair, watching the fire while Adam read out loud from the Pickwick Papers. The brothers had returned home, leaving Pa to Mrs. Larkworthy. Hoss was half listening to Adam read and half looking at a seed magazine.  Joe wasn’t listening at all.  He was too worried. As if things weren’t bad enough yesterday, he had to go and try that dumb trick with the napkin. Pa was going to get him good.

Adam’s theatrical voice halted when they heard Pa’s horse outside.

Pa came through the door a minute or so later.  He pulled off his coat and hat and hung them up.  He didn’t say ‘hello’, he just sort of nodded.  The only noise in the room was the fire spitting. Pa walked over to his favorite red, leather chair where he sat down and pulled his pipe from his pocket and began to light it.  Joe was sitting a good eight feet away from Pa, on the far side of the fireplace.

Joe wanted Adam to go back to reading, but he didn’t.  After a minute or so, Pa said, “Mrs. Larkworthy has decided to go back to Ohio on Monday.”

Adam said something polite in response, but Little Joe wasn’t paying attention; he was thinking about what Pa was going to do to him.  The crash of a fiery log breaking in two filled the room.

Adam said, “Sorry, Pa, about lying about the book. It was silly.”

Pa nodded, “Wasn’t it just?”

Pa doesn’t sound too mad; may be it’ll be okay.

“Joseph?” Pa said.

Joe looked up, cautiously. “Sir?”

“She appreciated what you said about lying. It made her feel better.”

“Oh, it was nothing.” Joe swung his legs over and sat up straight; would he ever understand grown ups? “I have a knack for that kind of thing. Making ladies feel better.”

“I’m glad someone in the family has,” said Adam.

Joe reckoned that must be a joke.

Pa said, “Joseph, you and I need to have a talk about your table manners.”

Little Joe felt his stomach fall.

Hoss stood up and said, “I’ll put your horse away, Pa.”

“Oh, thank you, son. I appreciate it.”

“I’ll help,” said Adam.

Since when does it take two Cartwrights to look after one horse, Little Joe wondered? A cold wind rushed into the big room when the brothers opened the door to leave.

“Can you come closer, please?” Pa asked.

Joe moved to from the chair to the far end of the sofa, still some six feet away from his father.  He didn’t want Pa taking him by surprise.

“Joseph, come here. I won’t swat you tonight.”

“Promise?” Joe asked.

“Promise.”

An unhappy Joe scooted over and sat on the edge of the sofa. Pa reached over and patted Joe’s leg. “What I am going to do with you, Joseph?”

*****

Much later that evening, after Little Joe had been sent to bed and Hoss decided to go, Ben poured a shot from his most expensive bottle of highland scotch, the one he usually saved for guests, into a heavy, crystal glass and handed it to Adam.  They were sitting in front of the dying fire.

As a smiling Adam sipped it, Ben said, “You need to know that I have confined Little Joe to his room for the next 24 hours.”

Adam nearly spit out the drink.  “That means he can’t help me clear the trail! We’ve only got tomorrow to do it – .”

“Well, that’s part of the punishment. He loses his chance to earn that outrageous wage you promised him.”

“Pa! It means I’ll have to spend the whole day cleaning the trail myself.”

“Oh, that’s coincidental.  I did warn you about leaving the job to the last minute, but you thought it was worth the gamble.  I have always thought gambling a game for softheads, which is why I forbade you boys from betting when you were young.”

“What are you trying to say?”

Ben shrugged. “You gambled and you lost.  Now you pay.”

“You’re doing this on purpose.”

“I’m punishing Joseph on purpose.  So he’ll think twice before trying to execute his old man with a napkin again.”

“No. You’re getting at me. I’m ending up with six hours work on a Saturday.”  Then, as though it was just dawning upon him, Adam said, “My hat!  The little scoundrel wins the damned bet!”

“Yes, the bet.  I don’t appreciate your encouraging my 12 year old son to disobey me.”

“Aw, Pa, it’s an expensive hat.  I couldn’t just give it away.”

“Certainly. So expensive, perhaps a 12 year old can’t afford it?”

Adam put down the drink and said slowly, “I take your point and admit the bet was a mistake.”

Ben just waited.

Adam finally spoke, “I am sorry for betting with Joe and encouraging him, even slightly, to disobey you.  Please accept this apology.  I can see why you’re unhappy and I’ll gladly apologize to Little Joe.  Please can he help me tomorrow?”

“No.”

“For heaven’s sakes, why not?”

“Because I’m the stubbornest man in Nevada.”

*****

Sunday

Little Joe was standing next to Pa’s desk listening to another endless lecture when his old friend the spider boldly crept out and headed towards Pa’s boot.  Like Little Joe, it had survived the week.

“YOU’RE NOT EVEN LISTENING,” Pa bawled.

“I am, sir!” Little Joe protested, instantly focusing on Pa. “I didn’t steal it. I borrowed it.”

“If you took it without permission, you stole it.  Do I need to teach you what stealing is?” Pa was very annoyed.

“Oh, no sir.  I just forgot for a moment.  I know what stealing is, all right.”

Pa shook his head with disapproval. “I can’t believe you’d go into Adam’s bedroom and a take a copy of Tom Jones – a book I don’t personally approve of – and spend a whole day reading it.”

*****

So how did our characters end up?

Mrs. Larkworthy went back to Cincinnati and a year later married a prosperous brewer.  Six months after that, at age 42, she gave birth to a son.  She didn’t name him Benjamin or, even, Joseph.  She named him Tom.

Gerald Snowball won the horseshoe contest, narrowly beating a myopic, uncoordinated nine year old.  Winning changed Gerald.  He became less peculiar and more likeable.  He eventually became a banker, married well and later enjoyed a successful political career rising to state senator.  Until his dying day he remained grateful to Joe Cartwright for being so badly behaved one day in 1854 that his father kept him in and allowed Gerald a chance to shine.

Finally, Little Joe. He now knew Pa wasn’t all that stubborn, except perhaps when protecting his own children. It should be no surprise to readers of these chronicles to learn that Little Joe didn’t get his hair cut on Monday.  Our young hero omitted to tell his family that the note on the barber shop door said more than that the shop was shut on one day.  It added that Tonstrina was taking a three-week holiday to San Francisco starting the next Monday morning.

Well, Little Joe didn’t lie.

*****End****

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