Summary: Someone has to keep Joe from tarnishing his halo.
Word count: 2900
Little Joe Cartwright was an honest lad. Anyone in Virginia City who knew Ben Cartwright and his sons would vouch for that. Ben had raised all of his boys to never lie or cheat, and as a rule Little Joe stayed true to his rearing, but as has been said many times before there are exceptions to every rule. For Little Joe that exception was checkers. Little Joe cheated at checkers. It would never have crossed his mind to cheat at cards or chess or any form of competition, but he cheated at checkers regularly, often, and well. Of course, he seldom played checkers with anyone outside of his family, and his family knew, even accepted, that when it came to checkers Little Joe was a cheater.
His father and brothers, if asked, would have accepted part of the blame for that fact. When Little Joe first began playing checkers, he had been so little and so much younger that a little cheating had been overlooked; seen as nothing more than an equalizer for the little boy. Not that Joe had been allowed to cheat blatantly has he grew older. Each time that he had actually been caught in the act there had been a comeuppance. Those comeuppances were the reason that Little Joe had become increasingly skillful at the practice of cheating at checkers until at thirteen he was quite adapt and half the fun of playing checkers was found in the challenge of cheating without getting caught. Cheating at checkers never bothered the boy’s conscience because he knew that his family was aware that he cheated and did not hold it against him. He also knew that his elder brothers even had a grudging admiration for his ability to cheat without getting caught. In fact, for Adam trying to catch Little Joe cheating was the main challenge of playing checkers with the boy. It had been almost a year since even Adam had managed to catch his little brother in the act when Alfred Bandburg moved to Virginia City.
Alfred Bandburg could be described with one word. Alfred was pompous. A pompous thirteen-year-old is seldom the most popular of students, and Alfred was soon disliked by all the other pupils in the one-room schoolhouse. However, he also quickly became the teacher’s pet. Another word that described Alfred, especially in relation to adults in authority, was fawning. Alfred fawned, Mr. Haversty preened, and Little Joe and friends became filled with the desire to see Alfred Bandburg receive a comeuppance, the more public a one the better.
When Mitch Devlin overheard Alfred declare that he was a master checkers player, Mitch rolled his eyes and reported the declaration to his friends.
“I would have thought he’d look down that long nose of his at checkers and declare himself a chess master at the least,” Tuck Johnson observed.
“Yeah,” Mike Percy said in agreement and his twin, Ike, echoed, “Yeah.”
Little Joe leaned back against the tree that shaded the boys. “I wonder if he’s as good as he thinks?” Alfred was pompous, but he was also bright with a good measure of cunning. “Bet I could beat him though.”
“Bet ya could,” Mitch declared fully confident that his friend was capable of besting their haughty classmate.
“Yeah, bet ya could!”
“Of course ya could, Joe!”
“Yeah, I could.” Little Joe had a good measure of self-confidence himself. “I’d like to see his face when I did.”
There was another round of affirming exclamations which ended with Tuck’s “Why don’t you!”
By the time the school bell rang to end lunch, the boys had decided that Little Joe would not only challenge Alfred to a checkers match but that an interesting side bet could be placed that would result in the public comeuppance of one Alfred Bandburg, teacher’s pet.
Getting Alfred to accept the challenge was effortless; goading him into the bet took only minutes more. Little Joe and Alfred would meet Sunday after church at the Percy’s feed store to play a three-game match. The winner would have bragging rights for the rest of the school year, and the loser would perform whatever act the winner requested. Each of Little Joe’s friends had offered imaginative suggestions as to what he should ask of Alfred when he won, but Little Joe had yet to decide the best means of popping Alfred’s swollen head.
Word of the challenge spread through the school population of Virginia City and from the children to their families. Adam and Hoss Cartwright heard of it on Thursday, and Ben Cartwright that night. Luckily, Joe’s family heard only about the checkers match and not about the side bet.
Little Joe studied his father’s face through his lowered lashes. “You’re not gonna say I can’t play Alfred, are ya, Pa? It’s just a few games of checkers. We just want to show that Alfred he ain’t the best at everything.”
“I don’t know, son.”
“Please, Pa. It will look like I’m chickening out if I don’t play.” Little Joe fixed his most pleading gaze upon his father.
“Perhaps you should have asked my permission before you committed yourself, Joseph.”
Little Joe could not keep his lower lip from slipping out. “I didn’t think I had to ask permission just to play checkers.”
“Joseph!” The admonishing edge to Ben’s voice caused the immediate withdrawal of Joe’s lower lip.
“Please, Pa, please.”
Ben looked at his youngest son. Not being able to voice a clear reason why Joe should not indulge in a boyish challenge that presented no risk to himself or others, Ben relented.
“Very well. A few friendly games of checkers shouldn’t cause any problems. You may play after we have lunch at the International House. I might just challenge Paul to a few games of chess while I wait for you.”
“Thanks, Pa!” Joe jumped up and enveloped his father in an exuberant hug. “Come on, Adam; you can help me practice for the match.”
Adam agreed, and it was not until he set the last checker on the board that the thought of his little brother’s penchant for cheating began to nibble at Adam’s mind.
The Percy twins had set up a table, two chairs, and the checkerboard before leaving for church. By the time Little Joe and Alfred took the two seats, a couple of dozen on-lookers had stationed themselves in various places around the feed store. Mitch Devlin laid out the rules of the match in an overly officious tone, and play began. Little Joe’s overconfidence lead to his downfall in the first game. Alfred’s smirk goaded Joe to more concentrated effort, and the second game went to the youngest Cartwright amid a chorus of cheers. Both boys then settled into the most focused checkers game of their young lives. Small beads of sweat dotted both brows before many minutes had passed. The intervals of concentration between moves lengthened, and the onlookers began to fidget. Little Joe looked at the faces of his friends and noted that concern had crept into their eyes. The sight brought the unthinkable to mind. When he realized he could cheat and assure himself the win, he at first pushed down the thought. Then Alfred made a masterful move, and Little Joe countered with the only skill that could bring success. He cheated. He cheated smoothly, skillfully, and with success. When he was declared the winner, everyone present under sixteen cheered. As their audience dispersed, Alfred gritted his teeth and forced his words through clenched jaws. “Our bet?”
Joe felt a wave of guilt and mumbled, “Tomorrow. I’ve. . . there’s my brother. See you all at school.” Little Joe had spotted Adam and hurried toward his elder brother. His friends exchanged wondering looks, shrugged, and told themselves tomorrow would be a fine day.
Adam walked beside Joe toward Paul Martin’s home. In response to Adam’s questions, Little Joe had stated that he had won and that, yes, it had been a hard match. Adam had been reading his brother since the day Joe had been born. As they entered the gate to Paul’s yard, Adam caught Joe’s arm and turned the boy to face him.
“You cheated, didn’t you, Joseph.”
“There were a couple dozen people watching, Adam. How could I?” Little Joe jerked away from his brother and darted to the Martin house.
Adam stood and watched his brother’s retreating back and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Joe’s statement was perfectly true, and his question asked with indignation, but it did not pass Adam’s notice that Joe had not actually denied cheating. Adam sighed. Little Joe had not lied to him, but he had cheated. A flame fueled by anger and disappointment flared deep within Ben Cartwright’s eldest son. Adam turned on his heel and headed to where Sport was tied. He rode back to the ranch ahead of his family.
Throughout the night, Little Joe slid furtive looks at Adam chewing his lower lip and shifting nervously each time. His older brother had barely spoken to him and seemed loathed to even cast eyes upon him. Both Ben and Hoss wondered about the obvious tension between Adam and Little Joe but neither pressed for information. They had found that sometimes it was best to leave a no-man’s-land between the two empty.
It was over two hours after Little Joe had been sent to bed that the door to Adam’s bedroom opened. Little Joe slipped into the room and quickly closed the door behind him.
Adam did not even lower the book he had been reading.
“You belong in bed.”
“Can I talk to you?”
Adam slowly lowered his book. “Not if you’ve come to offer excuses.”
“But you don’t understand, Adam.”
“I understand that you cheated. There’s no way that was anything but wrong, but then you know that, Joseph. Pa taught you right from wrong the same as he taught me.”
“Are you going to talk to Pa?”
“He’s the one who should hear your confession, little brother, not me.” The book smacked into the bed. The sound was muffled, but it still caused Little Joe to jerk.
“I can’t, Adam; I can’t.”
Adam simply raised his right eyebrow.
“It’s not that he’ll punish me.” Little Joe fidgeted and dropped his chin to his chest. “You can tan me ‘cause I know I deserve it, but I can’t tell Pa. He’d make me admit it to everybody and then Alfred, well, he’d win.”
Adam shook his head. “Tell Pa or live with the guilt, Little Joe. I’ve done too much to turn you into a cheat as it is.” Adam plucked his book from the bedclothes, opened it, and raised it in front of his face.
Little Joe gasped, turned, and ran to his room. Throwing himself down on his bed, he buried his head in a pillow and sobbed. There had never been a single time before in his life that his brother had been so unforgiving.
Little Joe arrived at school with dark circles under his eyes. He had avoided questioning by both Hoss and his Pa by dashing down the stairs extremely late, grabbing a biscuit, and darting out the door, but he knew there would be questions when he returned home from the both of them and that Adam’s eyes would still be filled with dark judgment.
“Hey, Joe!” Mitch and Tuck both rushed to greet the hero of the hour.
Mitch could not wait to know. “What did you decide to make ol’ Alfred do?” Mitch’s most preposterous suggestion had been for Joe to demand that Alfred walk naked into the classroom after lunch. No one, of course, expected Alfred would actually do anything nearly that outrageous, but the suggestion had been greeted with howls of childish approval.
“Yeah, Joe, what’s he gonna have to do?” Tuck’s question was delivered just as eagerly. His suggestion had been slightly milder. In his mind Alfred should have to moon Mister Haversty thereby giving up his status as teacher’s pet forever.
Little Joe swallowed, “I. . .I ain’t decided.”
“Ain’t decided!” Mitch was indignant.
“Why are you in such an all fired hurry to know? I said I ain’t decided, and I ain’t.” Little Joe shoved Mitch and stalked off to the classroom leaving Mitch and Tuck staring at each other with mouths agape.
Mr. Haversty corrected Little Joe Cartwright no less than five times for inattention before lunch. The fifth time the teacher stated that Joe would have to remain inside during the luncheon recess. Little Joe managed to keep his sigh of relief inaudible from the other students. Joe’s effort and attention did not improve after lunch, so he remained inside for the afternoon recess also listening to Mr. Haversty’s pen scratch across the paper upon which he was writing a note to Joe’s pa.
Joe lingered in the classroom when school was dismissed, but his friends and Alfred Bandburg had lingered outside. The walk toward them was one of the longest in Little Joe’s life.
“Well,” Alfred growled, “What is it you would have me do!” The boy’s tone was arrogant, but Little Joe saw the flicker of fear in Alfred’s eyes. Alfred was pompous, but he had enough pride to abhor the thought of being considered a welcher. He would have to do whatever Joe Cartwright ordered.
Little Joe had to cough and clear his throat before he could manage the word, “Nothing.”
“Nothing.” It was repeated by no less than five different voices.
“Nothing. See, you didn’t lose.” Another cough preceded Joe’s next announcement, “I cheated.”
A chorus of gasps was followed by stunned silence. Then Alfred spoke, “You couldn’t have! “
Little Joe blinked and stared as Alfred repeated his exclamation. “But I did,” Joe reiterated.
Alfred snorted. “I was there. No one could fool me that way.”
Little Joe slowly focused on the fact that Alfred would rather accept the fact that he had lost than that he had been fooled.
“What is my forfeit, Cartwright?” Alfred demanded.
Little Joe shook his head.
Alfred turned to the other four boys and challenged, “Name a forfeit.”
His friends all turned questioning stares on Little Joe. Joe shrugged; he was at a total loss with not a thought in his head beyond a grudging admiration for Alfred’s desire to pay what he believed was his debt.
Alfred turned his burning face back to Little Joe convinced that the other boy was purposely denying him the chance to prove himself honorable in the eyes of his peers. “Why won’t you name it?”
Little Joe spoke softly, “We pushed you into the bet, and it was wrong. We wanted to shame you, and that was wrong. It’s just that sometimes you’re a prig, Alfred, not today but sometimes. I’m the one ducking out on our bet not you, so just go on home. I am.”
Little Joe walked away, and not one of his friends called to him or followed. He mounted his horse and rode slowly home.
After stabling his mount and doing his chores, Joe waited in the barn for Adam.
When Adam led Sport into the barn, he found Joe sitting in a hay pile staring at the floor. Adam did not speak to his brother but began unsaddling Sport. When Adam had begun running the currycomb through the horse’s coat, Joe spoke.
“There was a bet on the match. Alfred’s a pompous prig, and we wanted to make him embarrass himself or something.”
“And did he?”
“I told them I cheated.”
Adam’s hand stilled, and he turned his eyes toward Little Joe. “You did?”
Little Joe nodded. “Him and Mitch and Tuck and the twins. He wouldn’t believe me though.”
“Didn’t like the thought of being fooled, I guess. I don’t know if anybody else believed me, but I told.”
Adam walked over to stand in front of his brother. He placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders. “That was the right thing to do, Little Buddy. Now the only one you need to tell is Pa.”
“After supper. The chairs at the table are awful hard.”
Adam dropped to heels to look directly into his brother’s eyes. “I know. Joe, I’m proud you told. Don’t worry, it’s always better with Pa if you go to him and confess. Then he knows that the lessons he taught you are still inside.” Adam tapped Joe’s shirt over his heart.
“You were ashamed of me, Adam. I couldn’t stand it.”
“I expect a lot of you, Joe. I just. . .” Adam’s lips slowly curled into a smile, “have to rub real hard sometimes to keep the tarnish off your halo.” As Little Joe’s lips slipped upwards, Adam’s dimples deepened. “It’s shinning right nicely now.”
“It is.” Then Adam failed to resist the opportunity to tease his baby brother. “Almost as bright as Pa’s going to have your bottom shining tonight.”
Little Joe winced. “He will, won’t he?”
“Afraid so, little boy.”
“Better an aching backside than an aching conscience, right?”
Adam nodded, reached out, and pulled Joe into a hug. “Cool compresses don’t help an aching conscience,” Adam whispered into his brother’s ear, “but they do a lot for burning backsides.”
Little Joe giggled at the image that came to his mind and wished he could remember when Adam was only thirteen.