Word Count 3300
“Two shiners. One fat lip. Three sets of bruised knuckles.” Ponderosa owner Ben Cartwright was taking inventory of all the injuries sustained by him and his three sons, twenty-three-year-old Adam, seventeen-year-old Eric better known as Hoss and twelve-year-old Joseph. “And one sore behind which I guarantee will be sorer come tomorrow morning. And all because of one little white lie about a blasted pie,” he growled at his youngest son Joseph and plunged his injured left hand into a basinful of warm salt water.
Joe smiled weakly back at his father, pressed the icepack against his “fat lip” to reduce the swelling and squirmed on the pillow from the settee. It wasn’t a very plump pillow but given the fact that he was allowed to use even that to cushion his tender tail end after what had happened at the church social was a minor miracle.
Joe casually glanced over at Adam and Hoss who were sitting on the settee and were both holding a big piece of raw beef steak to their right eyes. They both were looking forward to attending the dance later that evening with their current girls but…after the fight and all, the reverend told the combatants to leave. Up to this point in his life, Joe had thought that nothing could be worse than getting dirty looks from your older brothers but he was wrong. One eyed dirty looks from your older brothers were far worse.
Joe sighed. How could one church social turn out so terribly wrong? He then began thinking back on how this whole thing started a little over a week ago at recess.
“Do you really think it’s good?” spoiled but beautiful Kathleen Marie O’Shaunessey batted her big green eyes at Joe who was sitting next to her in the schoolyard.
Joe gulped turning things over in his head while at the same time hoping that he wouldn’t be struck by a lightning bolt from above for lying. Here he was… right next to the prettiest and tallest girl in his school… a girl he had been trying to get to notice him, the shortest guy for his age, for weeks. And here she was….seated right next to him … asking what he thought of the worst strawberry rhubarb pie he ever tasted in his entire twelve years of being alive.
He managed to choke down what was in his mouth and — in doing so — any intention of telling her the truth. “Sure, Kathleen,” he grinned and put the rest of the pie on the log beside him. “I told you it’s the best I’ve ever had.”
“Oh, Joe, you’re exaggerating,” she giggled twirling one of her strawberry blonde locks around her finger and smiling at him coyly. “It’s not that good,” she moved a little closer to him so that their thighs touched each other.
The lemon verbena fragrance she wore along with her closeness was causing his stomach to flutter or was it her pie? Whatever it was, he didn’t care…it was a dream come true. “It is so, Kathleen. In fact,” he re-swallowed a piece that seemed to have reappeared in his throat, “It’s so good, I bet it’ll win first prize in the girls’ pie contest next week,” he smiled broadly.
“So should I enter it then?” she asked batting her eyes again and placed her hand on his.
Now his heart joined his stomach in fluttering. Again, was it her or her pastry? He took another whiff of her perfume. “Sure you should…,” he nodded slowly but then he brightened remembering that, “… you have to be thirteen to enter the contest so I guess…”
“That’s no problem,” Kathleen interrupted him. “I’ll be thirteen the day of the contest…”
Joe panicked. He thought the age thing would be a loophole to save him.
“…And I know that since your father’s one of the judges…”
Oh, no! That’s right. He was in full scale panic right now but tried to keep it to himself.
“…I’ll really have a good chance to win,” she shook her curls and giggled as little Sarah Lynne James began to ring the school bell announcing that recess was over and saving Joe from further discussion about the pie contest.
“Sure,” Joe gulped as she took his hand and pulled him to his feet. “It’s time to go…”
“And, Joe, don’t forget my pie,” she reminded him sharply and skipped off.
Joe rolled his eyes and looked at the pie with disdain. How could he now? He reached down, picked it up and somehow tossed what was left of it into the waste can where it belonged on his way through the schoolhouse door.
The next week began as close to heaven on earth as he could possibly imagine, Joe remembered, shifting positions on the less than plump pillow as he sat in the blue velvet chair. Kathleen and he were inseparable at school. On Monday morning, she made a point of asking Miss Jones if she could sit up front beside him because “her eyes were bothering her.” God wasn’t listening to her at the time either because no lightning bolt hit her for her little white lie.
Joe and Kathleen spent each and every recess and lunch together. He even carried her books and walked her home when the day was finished before he headed home himself. And each and every day, Kathleen, without fail, brought him a piece of her latest attempt at a strawberry rhubarb pie. By the end of the week, he was absolutely sick of strawberry rhubarb pie and, he hated to admit it, was not too fond of a certain almost thirteen-year-old strawberry blonde who seemed now to be slumping to be the same size as he was. Adam once told him that familiarity breeds contempt. Well, he knew what his oldest brother meant by that now…especially since each and every day in addition to that awful pie, she reminded him of the contest and how much she really wanted to win.
“It would be such a great birthday present if I won, Joe,” she fairly bubbled as they stopped beside the huge oak tree at the front of her house. “And the blue ribbon would look oh so good on my new blue dress. Oh, please do remember to talk to your father. I’ll see you tomorrow, sweetheart,” she leaned over, gave him a quick peck on his cheek and ran up the path and into her house.
Joe was stunned. The kiss was totally unexpected but the “sweetheart” really knocked him for a loop. Up to that point, he had made up his mind that “for love or money”, he wasn’t going to talk to his father about Kathleen and the contest. Now he wasn’t too sure about the “love” part. What harm would it do to mention her birthday wish to Pa any way? He would surely understand how important it was to her…and to him. Of course, he stopped in his tracks, there was her pie…he grimaced as his stomach reminded him about her indigestible culinary efforts. He clutched his middle and ruled out talking to his father deciding then and there he would just have to come up with another plan to make sure that she would still be calling him “sweetheart” on Monday morning. After all, Ben would never be swayed by Joe’s pleas or Kathleen’s…er… baking…unless everyone else’s…” Joe snapped his fingers as the “plan” materialized in his head. “Hmmm….it might just work,” he giggled and began to whistle heading back to the schoolyard where someone from the ranch would be waiting to take him home.
“Hmmmmm…don’t they all look so good,” Hoss was drooling over the fifteen contest entries baked by the teenage girls of the congregation that were lined up on the long red checkered table cloth covered table. “Ya sure you can handle this all, Pa? I’d be happy to take your place, ya know,” he poked Ben in the ribs with his elbow.
Before Ben could respond to his second oldest son, his oldest son spoke up, “You don’t actually eat the pie when you judge it, Hoss,” Adam grabbed Hoss’ shoulder and moved him back from the temptation of the table.
“Ya don’t?” Hoss was confused. “Well, what do ya do, then? Admire it from afar?” he chuckled at Adam.
“You take a small bite and consider the pie’s components… the color, flakiness and tenderness of the crust…whether it’s soggy…the firmness and texture of the filling… the seasoning, subtle, pungent or overwhelming…its aroma…” he leaned over a fairly nice lattice topped apple creation and took a deep whiff.
“All that just to pick the best pie?” Hoss looked at Adam incredulously.
Adam nodded smugly, crossing his arms over his chest. “If you want to appreciate it, you do.”
“Well, sir,” Hoss laughed, “I appreciate it but I’d like to starve if I had to do all that before I ate anything, that’s for sure. How about you, Joe?” he looked at his baby brother who was at the other end of the table and seemed to be inspecting each of the entries very closely.
“What? I wasn’t doing anything…” Joe immediately jumped back from whatever pie he was leaning over.
“No one said you were doing anything, Joseph,” Ben slapped his youngest on the back, “But now that you mention it, what are you doing?” He leaned over to look closely at the pie Joe was scrutinizing.
Joe held his breath hoping that Ben would not detect what it was that he was “doing,” that is, sprinkling some of Hop Sing’s special hot white pepper on each of Kathleen’s competitor’s entries. He didn’t lucky for Joe but there was one pie that Joe didn’t get to…um…fix before everyone had to sit down for the judging to commence.
“Two out of fifteen,” Joe crossed his arms over his chest and sank back on the bench between his older brothers. He smiled to himself. The one that he hadn’t peppered looked as miserable as Kathleen’s and for his sake he hoped it already tasted just as miserable.
“What did you say?” Adam looked at his baby brother suspiciously, deducing that he must have done something since his father and the other two judges had already gone through three pitchers of water and they were only a little over half way through the pies.
Joe didn’t respond. He took a deep breath and tried to remain focused as the judges finished six more entries and another pitcher of water and now had reached the strawberry blonde’s strawberry rhubarb pie at the end of the table.
Ben guzzled another glass of water, cleared his throat and spoke. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, last but not least we have a very special pie made by Kathleen O’Shaunessey who, by coincidence, is having her thirteen birthday today so she just barely qualified for this contest based on her age…”
“.. And based on the pie too,” Joe thought holding his breath as the prettiest girl in his class proudly walked up to the table to stand in front of her pastry creation.
Ben as chief judge got the first bite. Now his mouth was already a bit sensitive from all the white pepper courtesy of his youngest’s sabotage attempts but there wasn’t enough white pepper in the world to disguise the horrific flavor of Kathleen’s strawberry rhubarb pie!
Joe almost laughed at the face his father made and knew, based on his experience with the girl’s baking ability, that he probably couldn’t help himself.
“Um…,” Ben finally recovered enough to speak. “Thank you, Kathleen and Happy Birthday. Better luck next year.”
Kathleen was flabbergasted. She fully expected to leave the table with the blue ribbon to match her blue dress and here she was being dismissed with a “better luck next year.”
“Uh oh…I’m really in for it this time…I shouldn’t have told that little white lie,” the twelve year old thought to himself as Kathleen scowled directly at him. She then stomped back to her seat beside her very surprised family members who were sitting right behind the Cartwrights.
Ben was taken aback by the girl’s extremely rude behavior but he had a job to finish. In spite of Joe’s efforts, his father and the other judges picked the other “two out of fifteen” pies – 16 year old Cora Mae Johnson’s effort at an apple crumb — as the winner. Cora who was sitting next to Hoss on the end of the bench was so shocked that her pie which “wasn’t really that good” won that Hoss had to help her to her feet and push her toward the front to accept her award.
“Was this a fix, Cartwright?” Kathleen’s older brother James growled and delivered a hard jab to Hoss’ kidneys from behind. “Your little gal friend won, ya know.”
“I don’t know what ya mean,” Hoss twisted around and glared at the nineteen year old who was almost as big as he was. He then twisted back in time to see his father pin the blue ribbon on tall lanky pigtailed Cora’s bright yellow dress. “Good job, Cora!” Hoss rose to his feet and joined in with the applause.
“Ya know what I mean, Cartwright,” James also was standing now and poked Hoss in the ribs again. Or did ya tell all the gals they were gonna win so ya could make some points with ‘em?”
“Ignore him,” Adam advised watching the excited Cora kiss Ben’s cheek and scamper back to where her grandmother was sitting to show her her prize.
“See there? Even your Pa’s corrupt…” James poked Adam in the ribs this time.
At the same time, Kathleen’s twenty year old brother Kevin grabbed Joe by his vest and hauled him backwards over the bench…
“Let me go!!!” Joe struggled to free himself.
…and on to his feet in front of him. “Yeah, and then this little squirt… he goes and tells Kathleen she was gonna win so she’d kiss him!!!”
“Who ya callin’ a little squirt, ya big moron…?” Joe fumed up at him and sent a wicked kick to his right leg while Adam who knew Hoss would take care of James put his fist in Kevin’s face.
Kevin had no choice then but to release Joe, who promptly grabbed Kathleen by the hand and dragged her out of range just in time or she would have been clobbered by Kevin’s left to Adam’s right eye.
Hoss and James, not wanting to be left out of the fray, grabbed each other by the shirt front and simultaneously hit each other in the right eye with a right cross. Dazed, they released each other and stumbled back to shake their heads to regain their senses. Obviously they didn’t regain them because they snarled and attacked each other with renewed gusto once more.
As the older Cartwright brothers and the O’Shaunessey boys continued to exchange blows, Ben and Ira O’Shaunessey ran forward…
“BREAK IT UP!!!!!”
“STOP IT NOW!!!!”
…and tried to separate them while Mrs. Peg O’Shaunessey and Hop Sing stood on the sidelines yelling at the young men and each other, her in Gaelic and him in Cantonese. It was then in the process of pulling their sons apart that the fathers became part of the brawl, connecting a few left hooks and some right crosses of their own to each other’s jaws.
Meanwhile Joe and Kathleen were engaged in their own battle. “I didn’t win!” Kathleen, hands on her hips, bellowed at Joe. “You promised me and I kissed you and I didn’t win! It’s my birthday and you ruined it and I didn’t win!!!” she screeched in his ear and stomped her feet.
Joe had had enough. “You didn’t deserve to win!” he yelled right back at her. “You make the goll-durned awfulest pie I’ve ever had! In fact, what you make doesn’t even deserve to be called a pie!” It was clear that he was his father’s son because at that moment, Joe broke all of his father’s records for loud.
Kathleen was stunned but recovered quickly. She took a deep breath, clenched her hands into fists and drew herself up so that she towered over Joe. “Why you little runt!!!!!!!” she roared — breaking Joe’s new record for loud — drew her right hand back and delivered a punch to Joe’s mouth that knocked him off his feet and landed him hard on his backside on top of a pile of jagged coal that sat in the corner of the meeting room. She then grabbed what was left of her pie and stormed off, wailing at the top of her lungs toward the barn door soon to be followed by the rest of her family.
When the dust had settled, the score for the Cartwrights was as Ben had said…
“…Two shiners. One fat lip. Three sets of bruised knuckles and one sore behind.” His father sharply clearing his throat brought Joe out of his flashback and back to the present in the great room of the ranch house surrounded by injured and very grumpy relatives who were all bigger than he was. “Well, young man, did you learn anything from this experience? Like honesty is the best policy?” Ben frowned at him rising out of his chair and moving to stand in front of him.
Joe looked around at everyone, put his icepack down on the pier table and sighed. “Well, sir, I ain’t never going to tell another gal that her cooking is so good she’d win a prize for it, especially if it was as plumb awful as that pie.”
Ben chuckled and nodded his head. Having experienced her baking, he could wholeheartedly agree with Joe. In fact, adding the white pepper to it probably would have improved its taste. “Anything else?”
Joe thought for a minute then his face lit up with a grin. “I have proof that the truth hurts, Pa,” he stated matter-of-factly and shifted in his seat again.
“I think we all do, son,” Ben laughed and displayed his scuffed up knuckles.
“Amen,” Adam agreed while Hoss groaned his concurrence. “Come on, Hoss. Let’s go to bed,” he pulled his middle brother to his feet, mumbled “good night” and steered him to and up the steps leaving Joe and Ben alone.
“So, Pa,” Joe thought he saw a little softening taking place in his father’s tone and mood over the last few minutes, “Maybe we could forget about any additional punishment? After all, I’ve been eating that pie for over a week now and you know what that’s like.”
“We’ll see,” Ben stretched, yawned and headed for the staircase himself. “Time for bed, though, for us too. We’ve still got an early appointment tomorrow morning, remember, Joseph.”
“But, Pa,” Joe looked at him in dismay. “What about all the pie I had to eat being my punishment? You just said ‘we’ll see.’”
“Oh, that’ll suffice for the white lie, but what about all the pie I had to eat after you doctored it, Joseph? I’ll be paying the price for that little stunt of yours all night, I assure you,” he burped, excused himself and started up the steps.
“But, Pa, I won’t be able to sleep…”
“Neither will I,” Ben smiled smugly. “Don’t stay up too late. See you in the morning…early.”
Joseph sank back in the chair dejectedly. “Whoever said ‘simple as pie’ wasn’t thinking of Kathleen’s, for darn sure.”